Monday, November 8, 2010

Prologues in general, let's debate!

That last post about prologues in queries brought up something interesting, that editors and agents generally tend not to like them, and many, many writers love them.

Now of course, there's no right or wrong here. Whether a prologue improves a story or not is dependent on the story. And we can't generalize, except to say that some types of books (suspense, maybe) often have prologues, but others (like romances) seldom, and that probably has something to do about the major motivation or conflict being past (in prologuey books) or present (in non-pro books). However, let's consider why one group (the publishing pros) tend to group over there with "no prologue" mindsets, and the other (authors) often are pretty adamant about writing and keeping the prologue.

I don't have any real bias against prologues, but I agree with Theresa: We've read many really bad and/or unnecessary prologues. This doesn't mean that your prologue is bad or unnecessary, but all those authors we're thinking of also thought their prologue was just great and absolutely essential. (There's nothing like being an editor to make you question everything.)

So I'm going to give the arguments against the use of prologues, and if you like prologues (as a reader or writer), maybe you can give the arguments for using them. But of necessity my points are going to be why prologues are often not good openers for their books, and the pro-prologue argument might be more individual-- that THIS prologue served this good purpose, that it was right in this case. That is, I can generalize, but you probably can't. (If you can, go for it. I just mean you don't have to argue that prologues are always appropriate. :)

Easy Answer Time
There are the bad prologues, but in some way, those aren't much of a problem, because usually they lead into bad books. So it's not like the prologues ruin the book. They just preview the book-- bad prologue-> bad book.

That makes it an easy decision for the editor or agent or reader. "Not worth the time to read"-- and the prologue isn't the problem. The first chapter would create the same verdict.

But we don't have to waste a lot of time on bad books, right? That's not what you're aiming for. :)

A Tougher Dilemma-- Good prologue, just not maybe for this book
However, occasionally there will be a prologue that isn't so simple. Like it's not a bad prologue-- well-written, tautly paced-- but it opens into a different sort of book. It doesn't seem to match the book or connect with the story in either event or tone. You know, there's a prologue about a child huddling in a closet in Manhattan, terrified, and she's discovered by a murderer and killed. Then Chapter One starts in Minnesota, where parents are dropping off a young man for his second year at the state university. Hmm. Was he the murderer? Was his father? Was the victim his sister? Am I supposed to be happy he's greeting all his old buddies and bumping fists with his roommate, or still traumatized at that child killing? I don't know. But the disconnect might raise questions you don't want me to voice, like "Did the author have two different openings to two different stories and just smush them together so as not to waste any words?"

Or it's perfectly good, well-written, all that, but is only there to set up the backstory of a character. Sometimes when I've questioned authors, why the prologue? they have reasons, like "I need to show why even when she's in the big city, she worries about gossip. So I start with a prologue when she's growing up a small-town and her grandmother tells her that everything she does is grist for the gossip mill." There are always reasons, I understand. You can justify everything. But is that the best way to get this across? Isn't it possible just to show the character in the big city, in a restaurant, acting surreptitious and confessing that she's sure the gossip columnists will have a field day with her sending back her undercooked salmon? Action that happens in the story is likely to be more vivid and plot-changing that something that happened years ago.

Maybe-- and this is quite important in some genres, particularly romance-- the prologue focuses the reader on the past, when the present is what ought to be most important. After all, if you have a prologue, you are starting off with the assumption that the event in the prologue is really important, and that event and that mood will preoccupy the reader as she goes on and reads about this couple meeting in the present. The reader might experience the emotional residue from the prologue and have trouble getting in the right mood for a romance, or be too preoccupied with the past ("Isn't anyone going to solve that kid's murder? It's been ten years!") to concentrate on the present day of the book.

The Tradeoffs
For me, the most important question is-- What are you giving up to have this prologue? a lot of authors just put them in there without thinking of possible tradeoffs. Are they diminishing the suspense by telling about some important event that should be discovered in the book? Are they losing the reader by starting too far back in time, or by launching into an event so grim that the reader puts the book down without buying it ("too depressing")? Maybe the prologue anticipates something the character must find out, and so deprives the reader of the enjoyment of discovering it along with the character.

The Questions
Or maybe it's perfect. Maybe it's right for the book, right for the genre, right for the characters, right for the readers. But how do you know? Maybe you needed to write that prologue in order to write the book, but should you keep it?

A few questions, just to get us thinking:
1) Is the prologue an event or what? If it's not an actual event that took place in the past (like it's a slice of small-town life), could it be Chapter 1?

2) Is this an important event? Why? What do you want the reader to be thinking or speculating about the prologue event as the book-proper opens in Chapter 1?

3) Does the event or whatever have to be in the past? Can it be incorporated into Chapter 1 (like a big fight with her mom-- could it happen on the phone in the chapter)?

4) What is the effect you mean to create for the reader? If you want the reader to ask a question, what is the question? If you mean to set a mood, what is the mood? And of course-- what is the effect of having that question or mood as she starts reading Chapter 1?

5) If there is a question in the prologue (an unsolved mystery, a secret), is it somehow resolved in the book? When? How?

6) What are the connectors from the prologue to Chapter 1 that let the reader know he's in the right book? That is, are there any commonalities (of setting, of character) that you can use to assure the reader (if you want to) that the prologue does connect to this opening? If you don't want the reader to know that the child who is threatened in the prologue is the bride in Chapter 1, how can you create some subtle connection so the reader doesn't wonder if the publisher bound the prologue of a suspense novel to the opening of a romantic comedy?

7) What are the tradeoffs? What are you giving up by previewing or postviewing something from the past in the prologue? Be honest here and not defensive. There are always tradeoffs! That doesn't mean you're wrong to want a prologue, only that you should be able to know what you're losing by gaining what you gain.

8) And with every opening, the question is, is this the best place to open the book? What issues, conflicts, situations does the prologue set up that will be developed by the book?

What are questions do you think would be helpful in evaluating the usefulness of a prologue?

Also, if you've written or read a prologue that works for the book, can you analyze why this one works? Also the tradeoffs the author had to deal with?



Caroline said...

Excellent article! Thank is always a difficult decision to write a prologue or not..I agree many times can distract reader..

Leona said...

I've written a thriller that probably should have a prologue. However, with the current bias against them, I ended up writing the information in from three POVs in the second chapter as each character relived the moment.

It is vital information that will span two books so I considered writing a prologue that would introduce both of them. I don't know. It's pretty powerful and we need all three POV's to get the scene and the information in it.

I don't know if the scene is better because I kept having to relate it to the present and each persons take on it, or if I'd been better off with a prologue. I don't know.

I do know that not writing the prologue forced me to view each part of the event from the past that was still affecting them and only include the necessary details. Seriously important past. Lead to loss of baby--not known by hero, part of personal conflict--for the heroine and leads her to ditching him at the altar in order to exact revenge, which of course sets up some beautiful current personal conflict, sets up the political intrigue, and shows the characters to be more than kick-ass military support. (My two female character's are described as female James Bonds :)

I think it's important information. Should it be a prologue? I'm sure someone will eventually tell me because I believe it is a very marketable book.

In the meantime, Harlequin has said, in chat room last week, that they do not have any prejudice against the prologue. I think it relates how you said here. If it's good, it's good. If they don't like your writing, then it doesn't matter if it's a prologue or first chapter!

Edittorrent said...

Leona, I don't know, but I do know that "other books recently published in the genre" are probably the best guide. Genre really matters. An audience used to prologues probably won't object to another. :)

Robin Lemke said...

I'm writing (revising) a YA steampunk book right now and my chapter one could easily be a prologue. But, it's an actual event in the MC's life, just when he's much younger, so I couldn't think of a good reason to call it "prologue" instead of "chapter one". Throughout the rest of the book the story is in limited third person from the MC's perspective, and this chapter isn't (he's too young). I considered just leaving it out, but I do think it adds to the flavor of the book and sets things up well - so, I suppose I'm arguing for the possibility of a chapter one that's of a different sort than the rest of the book. ;)

C.L. Gray said...

My genre is alternate history, and I had a prologue in my first novel. It was the event that changed history. In this case, Stonewall Jackson survives his encounter with the 18th North Carolina and is not wounded.

I wanted to use a prologue so I could skip the Battle of Chancellorsville and advance the story.

But then I read about bad prologues, so I just switched the prologue to Chapter 1. I don't think my novel would have been hurt if I kept the prologue.

I must be an unsophisticated reader. I read prologues and never think whether it should be there or not. I'm quite content to read what the author gives me. LOL!

Edittorrent said...

CL, yes, we should all wish for readers like that!


green_knight said...

The only time I wrote a prologue I was absolutely certain it had to be there. Three months later it had become just as obsolete as every other prologue.

If there is a temporal disjoint between, I would much rather have smooth transitions. A prologue means thst I invest in characters and a storyline - only to find that they've been dead twenty years when the book starts, so I start out being less interested in the characters.

I would make an exception for genre mystery where you often want that detachment - you're telling the reader, 'something weird is happening. Watch closely, this will be important' while at the same time signalling that these are not the protagonists of the story you will tell.

Edittorrent said...

GK, some horror/thriller writers start out with a prologue that seems to have no relationship to the story that starts in Chapter one. Long about Chapter Ten, something happens that makes it clear that the prologue is related (like the murderer in the prologue appears as the heroine's new boyfriend). Of course, me being me, I've forgotten all about the murder and have to remember what happened in the prologue.

Anyway, I never know how to react. Is it annoying that the book for 10 chapters and the prologue are disconnected? Is it more evidence that I have a terrible memory? Is it cool because of the shock of realization when the murderer walks in and kisses the heroine? I don't know. But that's another common model for the prologue-- the mystery that doesn't become relevant till the middle of the book. What do you think about that kind?


Unknown said...

Thanks for a great article! I think the Prologue should be treated like the novel itself. Does it have a place in the story? Is it well-written? Does it enhance or detract from the overall story?

There are too many hard and fast do's and don't's in writing that dahave become rules. Even though Prologues are looked down upon the past few years, I went through my library and looked at my favorite SF novels. Many of them were award winners and most of them had a well-written prologue.

Things always change, but good writing will always remain.