Friday, February 20, 2009

To Prologue or Not to Prologue

“What is past is prologue.” – William Shakespeare

According to Dictionary. com, the first definition of prologue is: a preliminary discourse; a preface or introductory part of a discourse, poem, or novel.

In my next novel, still a work in progress, I begin with a prologue. The prologue reveals a major event in which the two main characters first meet. They do not meet again until eighteen months later, which is Chapter One. However, after hearing much prologue bashing, I did away with it when I started my second edit, working most of the material into the first chapter.

Soon, I hope to go through the manuscript for the third time. I’m thinking about bringing the prologue back. However, the more I read on prologues, the more confused I become. In The Problem with Prologues by Rankin, he mentions that the use of a prologue is lazy writing.

Marg McAlister’s, The Prologue – When to Use One, How to Write One states, “…The prologue is a better option than a first chapter bogged down in detail.”

Says Lital Talmor in Where to Begin? When, Where and How to Write a Prologue, “The prologue is much like an outworker, a wildcard that gives you the chance to begin your story twice, at two different points.” She also says, “Unnecessary prologues are a dangerous lot: at best they are ignored, at worst they turn the reader off.”

I’m wondering, as a reader do you read or skip the prologues? As a writer, do you make use of prologues or avoid them at all costs?

Hopefully your thoughts will help me make a final decision on whether to prologue or not.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tags: Shakespeare, prologues,


Morgan Mandel said...

That's a hard choice. Readers don't always like prologues because for some reason they tend to be boring. Now, if you can make yours exciting, that would be the difference.

Morgan Mandel

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jane- for me it depends on the story. My book, Dream Man, opens with a prologue-which really happened 30 years earlier-but the hero experiences as a dream. So, action filled prologue...chapter one opens with hero bursting awake in cold sweat... the reader "knows" what he dreamt and as the book moves on learns it was a real event.

Editor never had a problem with it.

Good luck with yours!

Helen Ginger said...

I read prologues, but would prefer most of them to be woven into the story. Doesn't have to be crammed into the first chapter. There are published books with prologues that should have been interspersed, IMO. Most of the time, if it's a mystery or suspense, it's the bad guy killing someone. The author doesn't tell you who the bad guy is, but you can tell he's a bad guy and he's doing really bad stuff. Is that the only time we'll be in his POV? If we'll go back into his POV later, then why wasn't that opening scene Chapter 1? Why is it a prologue?

For the most part, you want your readers to identify and root for a particular character, so you put that character right up front. A subtle way of saying, this is the main character, the one you should identify with. Sometimes what a prologue says is my main character isn't interesting enough to be a hook to grab the reader, so I'm going to put in a scene with the bad guy doing bad stuff to get your attention.

And, on the other hand, sometimes a prologue works.

Anonymous said...

Prologues can be effective if they do NOT read like an intro chapter. If it is mysterious, haunting, foreshadowing in ways that cause wonder I like a good prologue. But it better be darn good or I'll yawn and skip it or even put the book down.

Bob Sanchez said...

Of course I read prologues. They are part of the story. I have experimented with them, but none of mine have survived close scrutiny. But to dismiss them as lazy writing is just lazy criticism. We need reasons to use them or not, and "lazy" says nothing.

I don't know of any good guidelines for using prologues; if you come up with any, let me know. I've seen some good ones. An example might be where the main story is from a cop's pov about finding a serial killer, and the prologue shows the killer stalking his prey. It doesn't follow the plot line but does serve as a setup.

Best I can do...

Bob Sanchez

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Thank you Morgan, Nancy, Helen, Marvin and Bob for your thoughts and ideas - still not sure which way I'm going but you've all mentioned some interesting things for me to think about.

Tim J said...

I'm an impatient reader when I first start a book. And I largely read non-fiction, where a prologue is a nice surprise...

I think I want it to be short. Because it's keeping me from getting on with reading the rest of the book. And it probably needs to be the best-written part of the book: something which will be at the back of my mind when I'm reading the rest ...

Tim J said...

... And for me, it mustn't be something that seems unrelated to the rest of the book. I think everything in it must have some connection.
Incidentally I really hate it when films begin with 5 minutes of story which turn out to be a kind of prologue and are then followed by interminable credits before the proper film starts. I wish they wouldn't do that. Not even with spooky background music.

Tim J said...

PS Please feel free to edit those together into one comment - I'm posting from my phone and limited to 450-char blocks of text.

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world