By Andrew E. Kaufman, author of Psychological Thrillers
I like prologues—actually, I love them. As a writer, I use them to set a mood or tone—a layer of emotional subtext, if you will—before the actual story begins, which I don’t feel I could have otherwise achieved.
In my upcoming release, Darkness & Shadows, the prologue is steeped in surrealism and tragedy. Patrick, my protagonist, is having an imaginary conversation with the only woman he's ever loved as she burns to death inside a building. The fire and death have actually happened, but the prologue is a product of his subconscious desire to find answers he can’t find in the tangible world. I felt there was no better way to portray this than through the use of a prologue. Sure, I could have allowed his internal dialogue throughout the book to convey his thoughts and feelings—and to a large
My last book, The Lion, the Lamb, the Hunted, didn’t have a prologue. As much as I love them, and as much as I wanted to have one, I found it just didn’t work for the story, so I left it out. I’ve often read books with prologues and found myself wondering why the authors bothered, because they didn’t add anything to the story that wasn’t already there. They made the mistake of slapping the word “Prologue” across the top of the page for what is essentially just a first chapter.
Some people, authors and writers alike, don’t like prologues. I’ve even heard a few say they dislike them so much that they won’t even read them and often skip to the first chapter of a book. So as an author, for all the reasons above, and probably many more, it’s an important decision whether to include one, and even more, how to write it. I know that if not done right, it can make or break the rest of my book. I can’t control whether my readers will look at it, but I can make sure it’s as relevant and effective as possible just in case they do.
What’s your take on prologues? Do you like writing them? Do you like reading them?
I like them if they serve a purpose. Your example from Darkness and Shadows is an excellent one and I completely get what you mean when you say that a prologue was the best way to portray your character's inner thoughts and feelings.ReplyDelete
For me, a prologue serves one of two functions:
1. It can provide a brief historical background and an insight into the story that is relevant to the plot line.
2. It's a hook to grab the reader.
For Book #1 of my supernatural thriller series Seventeen, my prologue was three sentences:
'My name is Lucas Soul.
Today, I died again.
This is my fifteenth death in the last four hundred and fifty years.'
One could argue that could have featured as a subsection of the first chapter. For me, it was the hook.
For Book #2, the prologue is four pages long and gives an insight into two of the main protagonists in the story 300 years before the plot begins in 2010. For me, that was part of the historical background. Again, could this have been fed somewhere else in the book? Yes, possibly, but it would have been a bit of an artificial 'info dump' in my eyes. By having it as an 'organic' part of the story, it felt more 'alive'.
...The prologue for Book #3 is, er, a bit longer than four pages...damn...
You've hit on another good point, AD. Among many things, a Prologue should hook the reader as well as provide a bit of history relevant to the plot. For me, I try to do both but in a way that puts that history into a deeper emotional context. Everything else, I prefer to include in the chapters that follow.Delete
What a coincidence! I've got an article half-written on the topic of prologues, with this exact same title! Great minds think alike! LOL.ReplyDelete
I've been part of some heated discussions on prologues on Facebook and elsewhere, with people jumping in on both sides of the fence.
In my editing, I usually discourage prologues, although I can see their usefulness in fantasies, sci-fi or historical fiction.
The main reason I advise most of my clients to leave out the prologue and start right out in Chapter 1 is that a lot of readers skip prologues. I myself feel mildly irritated that I'm expected to read something else, especially if it's just description or explaining, before I can jump into the actual story and start immersing myself in the story world.
If you do write a prologue, I think it should be short, like a page and a half maximum, and compelling, a scene in real time, with tension, conflict, action and dialogue. Grab the readers there like you would/do in Chapter 1.
I have a lot more to say on the topic but I'll leave that for my own article on this, to appear here sometime soon! :)
I agree with you, Jodie, about the length of a prologue. The example I've shown from my book is actually just the first few paragraphs, but the prologue itself is about a page in length. I think you run the risk of losing readers if it goes on for too long. Like you've mentioned, it should be compelling and grab the reader. In thrillers, pace is everything.Delete
I rarely use prologues, but when I do, I label them Chapter One. :)ReplyDelete
I love prologues that are both integral and something I need to know before Chapter One. Often, they're neither.ReplyDelete
Many writers use a prologue to write their first draft for them to get into the story. Afterward, it's often the first scene of the first chapter, or even a later chapter… or it's completely cut.
I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who skip prologues. Maybe they've read one to many that fall into the non-integral, who cares category.
I think you've hit on a key point, Peg: A prologue should in fact contain information the reader needs to know before the story begins. It should not BE the beginning of a story. And like you also said, sometimes, they end up being neither.Delete
One of the problems is there are a lot of lengthy, boring prologues out there, where the author uses it as an easy way to set the scene for their novel and introduce the story world, but in an explaining, telling way that is not compelling.ReplyDelete
So after reading a number of those and getting impatient with the length and info dump when they just want to get into a good story, readers tend to just want to skip them. So then how do I know if the next one I see will be worthwhile and engaging? If it's short and obviously contains dialogue and action, that helps a lot. Otherwise, I just skip it and may even skip the whole book if it starts with a long "telling" prologue, basically the author addressing the readers, which is not compelling fiction!
Absolutely correct, Jodie. Showing and not telling is crucial in fiction, but in a prologue, perhaps even more so. Keeping it brief, I think, could help to prevent skipping to the first chapter, which is the readers' way of telling the author, "Shut up, already!" :)Delete
So true,Drew. If I can visually see that the prologue is short and has lots of white space, indicating dialogue and action, I'm much more likely to read it.Delete
Another point that was brought up on Facebook on this topic just last night was that lengthy passages in italics can be tiring for the eyes, so could subliminally irritate some readers.ReplyDelete
For my novel in progress "Seed", the prologue runs on a bit. Maybe too long, but I think it's necessary to get in some critical background. "Seed" is an epic historical thriller with a large cast of characters, and I think the prologue works well within the whole. And it's not an "info-dump", but contains actual scenes and situations of its own that, later, a reader will see relates to the big picture.ReplyDelete
I prefer to use prologues. They can be a great way to set the framework for a story, or set the tone for a story, or even provide something to tease the reader with that the story addresses later. I think the main thing is to understand specifically what you are using your prologue to do in a given novel, and then consciously use it to do exactly that.ReplyDelete
I agree, D. Nathan, wholeheartedly. I think it's so important to have a very clear idea of why you are using a prologue, or for that matter any device. Personally, try to stick with the rule that if I can't define my intent, I probably should not proceed with it.Delete
I would also like to add that in an age where Amazon offers an early portion of your novel to read for free, a well crafted prologue can be your best friend.ReplyDelete
With all due respect to all of you authors, I think the most important thing is to find out how readers feel about prologues and whether they skip them or not, whether they feel they add to the quality and enjoyment of the read, or whether they're like an impediment they have to get through before they can start enjoying the story. It would be a really good thing to ask your beta readers that specific question - would they like your story better with or without the prologue? And could most of that info be imparted within the story in a more dynamic, compelling, organic way?ReplyDelete
I agree, Jodie--I think beta input is always valuable as well as useful. Personally, my sense is that the problem often lies not in the fact that you actually have a prologue, but more that it's a prologue which is either improperly executed, not well written, or defeats the purpose of one. I suspect one of the reasons some readers may not like them is because they come across too many of these.ReplyDelete
As they say, it's all about execution--and with the right execution, you can make almost anything work.
I absolutely agree with you, Drew. You've hit the nail on the head! And so well said!ReplyDelete
I really like prologues. I don't get the prologue hate.ReplyDelete
You're my new friend :)
I like prologues too. I like to read them and I like to write them. But I agree with you, Andrew, they need to be more than the First Chapter. Two of my four books have prologues and so does the one I'm writing now, book #5. The other two didn't need them or warrant them. Mine seem to serve as a hook and with one of them, there is a time difference. It happens several months before the story begins.ReplyDelete
Interesting blog and comments.
As a writer, sometimes I feel like it's the only way I can deliver a key piece of information.ReplyDelete
As a reader, I usually like it. It's almost like the author has taken me aside and said "OK, I'm gonna tell you a cool story, but before I do, there's something you need to know..."
However, "Prologue as info-dump" is annoying as hell to me.
I love your description, Shawn, and think you describe it perfectly. A prologue is very much like a whisper--not too heavy handed and just enough info to leave the reader wanting more.Delete
Yep, a great way to put it Shawn! ;)Delete
I like prologues in most cases, Drew. Especially in mysteries, thrillers, and crime novels. There is one from years back that has always stuck with me. It was written by Dorothy Uhnak in her novel, "False Witness." Have you read it?ReplyDelete
No, Linda, but I may have to now--especially with the way you describe it. How can I resist? ;)Delete
Drew's prologue for Darkness and Shadows is definitely one I would read! Looks intriguing and essential for the story!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Jodie :)Delete
Drew, I like your prologue.ReplyDelete
Now, if it was an amateur-log, not so much. Perhaps if you like prologues, you need readers who are lumberjacks. And they're ok.
(Pun quota filled)
Seriously, it's not the label, it's the craft. Consider chapters: Number them, give them names, play games with them? (Asimov did that in one of his novels.) I suppose there are readers who won't read a novel with a prologue, and readers who won't read a novel without one. (Take a prologue to lunch.) The craft question should be paramount - which also addresses Jodie's concern about readers' response. How does it contribute to the story? Is this the best way to tell the story?
I view this issue as agent-manufactured. Before I became interested in writing, it never would have occurred to me that the inclusion of a prologue would be problematic. Neither, by the way, would I have cared if a book began with the protagonist waking up. Since I've become interested in writing, however, I've been warned relentlessly that including either of these things in a manuscript is the kiss of death. I'm left wondering how, as a reader, I could have been so blind. And yet, Game of Thrones begins with a prologue...apparently readers didn't mind it there. The Da Vinci code not only begins with a prologue, the first chapter has the temerity to begin with the protagonist waking up: "Robert Langdon awoke slowly." While the literary merit of these works may be open to debate, the commercial success is certainly not. Clearly, unlike agents, tremendous numbers of readers just don't mind. Perhaps readers are rescued from sensitization to these horrors through the due diligence of agents weeding out the most heinous examples. If readers were exposed to slush-quality manuscripts on a regular basis, perhaps they'd feel the same way--but they aren't. I think the message is clear; if you are aiming to get an agent, it's best to avoid these things. If you already have an agent or an audience, trust your instincts and do what in your judgment is best to create a compelling story.ReplyDelete