Last week we talked about backstory, how much is too much and nifty ways to use it. What about a prologue? Should you have one? Is it a great way to lay down a lot of background up front? Or will readers just buzz past it to get to Chapter One? Does all that backstory make my butt look big? No. Don’t answer that one.
However, there is no right or wrong answer about prologues. There is only Elmore Leonard and he is to blame. Well, not really. But that’s what happens when a popular author does something relatively bold – starts in the meat of the action and is successful at it – that gets writers thinking they have to do the same thing and readers thinking that most stories should start in the middle of a hostage situation.
Basically, prologues work when they work and don’t work when they don’t work.
Yeah, I hate that answer, too. I really wish I could be more definitive. It’s a problem I have. But I can tell you about an instance where a prologue worked, and worked so beautifully, that I don’t think the book would have been as good without it.
It was from The Lions of al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. This epic historical fantasy, set on the Iberian peninsula in a fictionalized empire resembling medieval Spain, was told mainly from the perspectives of three main characters: a Christian soldier, a Muslim nobleman, and female Jewish doctor. The fictionalized sects they represent exist side by side until a series of events begins a violent upheaval that tears the empire, and the lives of the three now-entwined main characters, apart.
The prologue Kay includes is short – not even two pages – but in a few exquisite paragraphs, he describes the act of treachery that would become the catalyst of destruction.
Here’s the opening sentence:
“It was just past midday, not long before the third summons to prayer, that Ammar ibn Khairan passed through the Gate of the Bells and entered the palace of Al-Fontina in Silvenes to kill the last of the khalifs of Al-Rassan.”
Not only does Kay spin out a clear, tense scene with his prologue, leading up to the murder, he gives the background needed to better understand the fabric of the story, which starts years later.
Some might say to ditch a prologue like this. Start in the middle of things, where we meet the Jewish doctor and begin to tell the main tale. Okay, Ammar ibn Khairan killed someone. So why not tell it at some slow moment later on? Reveal his motives for the assassination, building him up as an empathetic character? But it just wouldn’t work the same way. Not only does the scene lay the groundwork for the major conflict, the reader needs to know Ammar committed the murder because the other characters only suspect him of some earlier misdeeds. Cue the reader in on the action, and let him or her feel in some way smarter than the characters, and you’ve got a pretty good hook.
Plus, there’s much more information to absorb later on. Which is why prologues often work better in sweeping, complex epics than in, say, romantic comedies where the stories tend to be more linear. Sometimes you can’t tell if a prologue works until you get input from your beta readers. If you’re not sure, try taking it off before you ask a reader for feedback.
What do you think? Do you like reading prologues, or do you skip ahead? If you write books with prologues, when do you find they work best? Have you ever removed or added one, and found your story “read” better?
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Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. Her first novel, The Joke’s on Me, was published through small press 4RV Publishing, LLC in 2011. Her second, Drawing Breath, is now available. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley with her very patient husband, Paul Blumstein, a commercial illustrator. Learn more about Laurie at http://laurieboris.com and her Amazon author page.
20 thoughts on “Are You Pro Prologues? (Baby Got Backstory, Part II)”
i'm totally fine with prologues, though the common wisdom (read: thoughtless stupidity) is so strongly against them that I just title mine "Chapter One." I figure people who aren't smart enough to question pointless rules aren't smart enough to know the difference. 😉
Very clever, Ed. A fabulous way to bypass "common wisdom."
I've really only ever seen one prologue done well. I think they work for memoirs, but not so much in fiction. That could just be a personal preference.
It's tough to pull them off. I've done a couple that needed to be yanked because they weren't working. Kay's is one of the few that I thought were just spot-on perfect. And that could also be personal preference!
I usually read prologues. Of course, as with any beginning, they have to be interesting. For my book Sweet Potato Suppers I used a prologue (I called it a foreword) to give the reader information about the politics surrounding intentional communities in the 1970s. Whether you are writing fiction of non-fiction, you have to have a good hook. My first sentence is, "In the last 1970s I was declared a terrorist by the government of the United States."
Nice hook, Trish!
I think prologues are fine as long as they aren't over done. In other words, short, sweet and to the point. If they go on and on, then they should be part of the book itself. I have read a lot of books with prologues and most of the time they help the story in my opinion. I have not written a complete book yet with a prologue but have started a few historical romances where I have put in a prologue. If and when I get them finished, I would do as you suggest and see what the beta readers think before publication. Good post, Laurie.
Thanks, Jacqueline! Like you said, a taste is perfect.
I love a well-done prologue! If it makes you (as a reader) want more, more, more, a writer would be missing a great opportunity. If it's just window dressing, as they say in New Yawk, "Fagetabawdit!"
Sometimes I use a prologue to give you insight into a killer's mind before the story begins. Sometimes I like to give you the murder via prologue and then move to the hero and how he gets involved and solves it.
A well-done prologue can get a reader hooked right up front!
Great post. I've always struggled with this part. Do or not to do. Sometimes it feels like a cheap way out, other times it adds some tension to the story from the get go.
Like everything else in the book, if the prologue contributes to moving the story forward or develops the character, it can work.
The prologues that don't work are just a back story dump with a fancy name.
Reason to use a prologue:
The triggering event is so far in the past that labeling it as chapter one would be confusing. A good example is any Clive Cussler book.
I don't usually have a problem with prologues in books I'm reading.
I put one in "SwanSong," but I wrestled with it. I wanted it to sort of frame the story, or introduce it, and originally planned an epilogue as well. I finally junked the epilogue and called the prologue "Overture" to fit with the musical theme of the rest of the chapter and section titles. (Which might be twee. But it's too late to change it now, lol.)
If it's interesting, I don't care if page 1 is a prologue or backstory or the middle of the action. I'm in it for the experience.
As a reader I don't care what it's called, if it makes me want to continue reading it has achieved its purpose.
I put a prologue in the current ms. I think it sets up the story, and it is short. One page.
Only one of my books has a prologue. It was pointed out to me by a beta reader that chapter one started a little slowly for gripping a reader, so some action was required. It isn't that the chapter was SLOW, it was that we were meeting an important character in a low-action situation for a few pages.
On the way home from the chat with my beta, this prologue went through my head that was almost pure action and showed a different side of what was happening in chapter one. It even shifts perspective so that you start out seeing what happened to get a man into a situation and then flow into the goblin's point of view as all hell breaks loose.
Years later I read it and feel very pleased with it still. It's only a couple of pages, but it does the job of gripping the reader before meeting the character more gently.
So I'm not pro or anti prologue in general. I think it can be a useful device in SOME stories.
I love prologues, and the jump from (usually) their wide space / wide sweep of time to the more intimate, often moving-with-the-action, often close-in third-person narration of a “chapter 1” of the main tale.
My sci-fi/parody/meta-novel has one, by now shrunken from 4 pages to 1.5 pages, and I love it because it sets up the future-time vocabulary and syntax, the self-referential and in-jokes style, and a sense of the protagonists’ desperate and small society of post-a-zillion-holocausts survivors, all in those 1.5 pages. Then, wham, into scene 1–set in that time–of ch. 1, then the sound-byte (an “oral history recording from the Liesbraries of the Garbage Era”) with its little story from our current days. Then wham, scene 1 of ch. 2, then its parallel sound-bye, and so on. What fun!
John Brunner has a GREAT prologue to his novel (name always escapes me) of the humanoid-plant-insect creatures on a near-galactic-center world, each chapter of which is the pov of one of these at a different point in their civilization as they move from (their) prehistory up through through (their) modern times; it’s a terrific novel, and the prologue pulls you in.
I am generally not a fan of prologues. Too often they are (as PA Wilson says) a backstory dump or (the ultimate cheap trick) a chunk of text from the climax of the book copied and pasted in front and called a prologue. I don't skip them, but the book already has one strike against it, so it has to be pretty darn good if I'm going to keep reading.
When you think about all the things that need to be packed into that first scene, a prologue seems like a detour.
My biggest quandary with my the second book in my trilogy was whether to include the (less than two page) prologue. In the end I left it in because i felt that link was needed to the first book. But I loved the opening line of the first chapter and really wanted to start there. I am still not sure I made the right decision. For the third installment I simply repeated a page from the final chapter of the second book. It works better, I think, as it gets into the immediate action.
I think it really depends on the book, the hook, and the genre.
That could work really well if the prologue is giving an overview of the story as a whole or setting the scene, sort of like the intro to Star Trek. Nice idea.
This is one of those issues that wouldn't even be a concern if it hadn't been labeled and stigmatized.
Writers may or may not like prologues, may or may not pay attention to whether a book has them or doesn't, may or may not obsess over using them.
But readers just don't care. If they're reading the book and enjoying it, that's all that goes on. Of course, they need to be well done. So does everything else in the book. The idea that Edward mentioned, just calling it a prologue instead of Chapter 1 or nothing at all makes a difference in whether it's OK is pretty odd, when you think about it.
But the readership out there is perfectly happy to have the writer think about it instead of them having to.
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