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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bashing the Prologue


Lately, I’ve been reading about prologue hatred.

It seems prologues are the red-headed step-children of publishing (no offense to red-headed step-children out there—I’m sure you are well-loved).  Not so for the prologue.

Why is this?  Looking back at books I’ve read with prologues, I guess I can see the argument against.  Particularly, those openings that are so far removed in time and place from the “live-action” of the story—those can be tedious to read.

I can recall a sense of, “Get on with the story, already!” while I’ve skimmed, or even skipped prologues that were nothing more than an info-dump in disguise.  Often, even after giving those prologues little to no attention, I could follow the story just fine.

And those are the ones that give prologues a bad rap.  Those are the unnecessary prologues.  Why did the author see fit to use one?  Often, they are a means of communicating backstory so the author doesn’t have to worry about weaving it slowly and subtly into the tale.  Sometimes they are a way to start the story off with a bang—an intense action scene.  That’s fine.  Prologues should be exciting and pull the reader in immediately, but they shouldn’t be there for that reason only. If the prologue shows a scene that has little to no bearing on the plot, it is unnecessary.  If it doesn’t show at least one of MCs of the book, you might want to reconsider. This short intro needs to give the reader pertinent information about the main characters.  It doesn’t matter how engaging and well-written it is if it simply doesn’t matter to the story.

And what if you disguise a prologue as a chapter?  It’s certainly been done before (cough, cough).  If the initial chapter takes place prior to the main action, should it always be labeled a prologue?  How about a chapter with a date? Obviously, not all stories take place in one set, small time span.  Characters, like real people, have a history which affects who they are when the real action takes place.

Start as close to the action as possible when telling a story. That’s the rule of thumb, right?  I think it’s a good one. If the action between your MCs (or maybe just one) takes place years prior to your main story, and it has an impact on your characters’ actions going forward, I think it’s okay to start with a prologue.  Just make sure you aren’t going to bore your reader right out of your book!

Many prologue haters argue that anything put in a prologue, can be put in the rest of the book with flashbacks or narration.  Yeah, probably. But where are the flashback haters?  What makes that mode of communicating a historical scene the preferable one?  With flashbacks, there is always the risk of confusing the reader.  Wait.  When is this happening? Where are we?  The odious prologue is often labeled with a date and location, omitting that potential pitfall.  The story happens in sequence (possibly with a big time jump from the prologue to present date, but, again, it’s often clearly marked).

So, what do you think?  It’s pretty clear which way I lean on the subject of prologues.  Do I think they are a necessary piece of every novel?  No.  But my book “Star Catcher” has a time-tagged first chapter that takes place a few years before the meat and potatoes of the book.  It isn’t labeled “Prologue,” but it could easily have been.  It does have an epilogue.  Is that the runner-up for hated parts of a book?  I don’t know, and I don’t care, either.

I’m currently polishing up my M/M contemporary rock star manuscript, and only recently decided to add a prologue.  It’s short, action-packed, and shows the last time my MCs saw one another before a nine year expanse of time.  It allowed me to remove a small info-dump later in the book, and also to show my guys when they were teenagers, which was just plain fun.  At the end of the day, it starts my book with a bigger bang than I originally had, and is the diving board for both MC’s actions for the first half of the tale.  I’m good with it.  Hell, I’m thrilled with it.


Yup. I vote prologue for president.  How about everyone else? Weigh in on prologues!

-Kimber Vale
www.kimbervale.com

5 comments:

Allie Ritch said...

If the story is compelling and well written, the author can get away with just about anything. Things like prologues and flashbacks are only an issue when they bore the reader or jar them out of the plot.

Kimber Vale said...

I agree, Allie!

writery said...

Prologues can foreshadow a danger coming later in the book (Game of Thrones) or in the case of a murder mystery, it's often the murder taking place. I see those a lot. The ones I don't read AT ALL are in italics. I just turn the page :)

Beth Caudill said...

Growing up reading fantasy, prologues were almost always a given. They helped explain the world. Give an initial grounding to the adventure at hand.

Sabrina Garie said...

I think the answer is book-to-book, in the particular delivery if you will. Some of the foreshadowing if done well gives one important piece of information that sets the tone for the book. But I prefer those short (maybe 2 pages at most). My current WIP has the prologue disguised as chapter 1 as it takes one year before the main action. One thing I have been considering, is if those prologue/first chapters that take place long before could in fact be used a a free short story to give away as promo for the main book. Don't put the prologue as part of the story, but as part of the promo.

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