Thursday, September 26, 2013

A sensitive subject

By Gayle Carline
Author of Non-Intellectual Flotsam and Jetsam*

*(I recently received a 3-star review of my mystery FREEZER BURN that described it as a "story told in a non-intellectual style." I'm okay with that.)

Gentle Readers/Writers,

I've just returned from a weekend writer's conference where many ideas were cussed and discussed, from the actual work required of writing to the actual work required of being a published writer. One issue kept coming up in the craft-centric workshops. It is an issue that makes most agents and editors quake with fear, and most writers scratch their heads in confusion.

I'm talking about prologues.

Many writers think nothing of including a prologue, usually to expose a backstory or set up the plot or characters. To a person, every editor and agent blurted, "Don't do it." They would not be moved.

As a reader, I'm okay with a short prologue, and by short I mean no more than a page. I'll take a page and a half, but not two pages. A lot of prologues are in italics and too much italicized text makes me cranky. If you have to tell me that much history, perhaps you're writing the wrong book.

My first mystery (you know, the non-intellectual one?) began life with a prologue. It also had several one-page chapters because I thought if Stephen King could do it, so could I. Maybe when I've got Stephen King's reputation, I can do whatever I want, but my editor thought a debut novel should not be so pretentious. The prologue became the first chapter. The one-pagers were blended in with the longer chapters.

What do you think? To prologue or not to prologue, that IS the question. Do they bug you, or do you sometimes see a need for them?

BTW, here is the prologue/first chapter from FREEZER BURN. Told in a non-intellectual style... (sorry, but that review seems to tickle my sarcasm bone)

* * * * *

Such exquisite hands. What a pity to waste them.

Long, tapered fingers balanced the size of the palms perfectly. Half moons shone in the nails, which were strong and rounded, and extended the line of the hand. The porcelain skin blushed the slightest pink, although it seemed to be fading quickly.

The shadow knelt in the darkness, eyes glowing.

I'd better use the electric knife. No, the hacksaw.

Under the sliver of moonlight, deft hands opened the toolkit and went to work.


  1. I have written prologues, but I labeled them Chapter 1 and didn't use italic.

    Perhaps your reviewer missed all the cues that labeled your book a humorous mystery. An intellectual wouldn't have made that mistake. :)

    Did you see the one I received recently? Talk about non-intellectual. "Gave I ft three out of five L.J. is good but her opinion is not who Jackson is. Let h I become who he is."

    1. I'm not sure what I would have thought of that review, LJ. "Her opinion is not who Jackson is"? WTH? Every time I see the long, drawn out, italicized prologue, I think of the golf announcer whispering, "We're on the ninth hole, there's a slight wind from the southwest this morning..."

  2. I included a prologue in one of my books. Different character, five years before the 'real' book began, and it did set things up. I wrote them for other books, but either ditched them or turned them into Chapter 1. The one I ditched, I included in a collection of "extra stuff" related to the book and put it up as an e-book. But definitely, no italics.

    Terry's Place

    1. Like I said, Terry, I'm okay with them. Even more okay if they're not italicized, like they kind of belong in the book but not really. It was just funny to be at the conference and listen to the editors/agents, who wouldn't even let the person finish the word "prologue" before they'd shout, "NOOOOO!"

  3. I'm constantly amazed at the number of readers who skip prologues. I could never!

    And that would be why they're highly discouraged. There is usually a way of getting the information in the story another way, or simply call it Chapter 1. I do remember though, getting a critique by a multi-pubbed author who saw through my Chapter 1 ruse and insisted on calling it a prologue. That particular mansucript was subsequently rewritten and ultimately became THE MISSINGS, which doesn't have a prologue. ;-)

    1. I try not to skip prologues, too, but if I skim the pages and find out the prologue is REALLY long, then I get discouraged about the whole book.

      THE MISSINGS is on my Kindle, in the queue. Soon... soon...

  4. I do prefer to start with chapter one, though I just read a prologue by Sidney Sheldon - just over a page and excellent. It made me want to read the story. I agree that if they are kept very short, they are okay and can actually encourage a reader to turn the pages.

  5. A long prologue is definitely a turn-off for me. I want to get into the actual story right away, not have to read a preamble first. My advice to my novelist clients is if you must use one, keep it very short and in an actual scene, not as an explanation to the readers! And no italics.

  6. I always read prologues, but do wonder why they aren't just labeled "Chapter One".

  7. It seems as though this debate never dies. I hate when people do an across the board "no" on things like this. It makes me crazy. Prologues only don't work if you use them improperly. They should be there when it doesn't make sense to have them as a first chapter. For example, a different time or a different but relevant background concept that moves the reader smoothly into the first chapter. I use them sometimes, and sometimes I don't--it just depends on whether they're necessary. I think it's just as jarring for the reader to have a first chapter that should be a prologue as one that shouldn't. But I agree with you, Gayle, keep them as short as possible, because those italics can drive people nutty, as can long and rambling prose that isn't part of the main story.

  8. I agree with Drew. I have two books with prologues (no italics), and they are short. But I don't understand the attitude about, "no, no, no." You need one, you use it. Easy enough.

    What reasons did they offer for not having a prologue?

    1. Actually, I never heard them give a reason. I suppose it's because the book should grab you from the get-go and many prologues are of the rambling backstory or omniscient explanation variety.

      It all reminded me of the Joan Crawford-Mommy Dearest scene about "No more wire hangers!" ("No! No prologues! Just no!")

  9. I agree with Drew and Teresa. If the prologue works, use it. If you have to ask, it doesn't work. (You, not the editor - unless the editor's really editing.)


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