Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Prologue Conundrum

I've been reading Michelle Fayard's excerpt of her Young Adult novel The Underground Gift (go over to her blog and look at it; it's wonderfully written and engaging) and in one of her posts some of the commentators talked about how much they hated prologues.

Wait, what?

In the defense of the prologue, I must ask, what's so bad about it?  Why do you hate it so?  All the prologue wants is some love.  Yes, it knows that it's a little blurb, not even big enough to call a chapter, and yes, sometimes it just hangs on to the beginning of the book with one little hand, wanting desperately to feel like part of the family, but really?  Really?  You're going to hate on the poor, defenseless prologue?  Look, you've hurt its feelings.  Poor little prologue.

In the novel that I'm working on at the moment, I have a tiny little prologue.  It's a mere little baby.  Are you going to hate on it too?  Hmmm?

I was surprised by how many people said they skipped over prologues.  Granted, as readers, we all skip over things sometimes.  I skip over author's notes and dedications for the most part.  But I've never skipped a prologue.  They can give you some good insight into a book or introduce in a roundabout way a character who will be integral to the story later on.  They can give you a hint to the mystery before you even know the mystery has begun, a clue for you to hold onto as you read.

This is an example of a good prologue.

I suppose that if you're not writing a mystery, a prologue might seem out of place.  You could see it as a cheap way to garner interest in your book by writing a short blip from the middle of the book and then pasting it to the beginning of it in the hopes that someone will read it and stick with the book long enough to figure out why your middle is in your beginning.

That is an example of a bad prologue.

I guess it can go either way.  If your prologue seems more like an excerpt you would use on your back cover to generate conversation, then maybe your prologue should disappear into the night.  If your prologue helps deepen the mystery of your book and provides essential information in a way that becomes clear later on but isn't obvious on the first read, then go for it.  I think it really depends on your genre and what you're trying to do with your book.  Mysteries and thrillers seem to work better with prologues.  Other genres can survive without it, but could benefit from one if you want to challenge your readers and their perceptions of your book.

If you really want to generate interest in your first few pages of your book, then do so with a powerful first sentence and chapter.  A prologue might strike the wrong chord if you're doing it to hook readers.  We can tell when you're doing that.  And we don't like it.  We will retaliate.

Oh yes, we will.  We are a scary folk.

UPDATE: Sharon Bayliss of The Blue Word wrote an awesome post about prologues that contains really helpful links to agents and their opinions on prologues.  Go check it out!

19 comments:

  1. Oh my goodness, Marlena, I stopped by to say hello and let you know I've left a response to your comment on Bird's-eye View (http://michellefayard.blogspot.com/2011/07/getting-blog-comments-to-work-for-you.html) and found my name at the top of your post. Thank you! I truly value your feedback on The Underground Gift.

    You've said everything so beautifully and perfectly about the role of a good prologue, that the only thing I can add is this: "Amen!" I also was surprised so many people don't love prologues, but a good one is a gift to the reading experience.

    Wishing you a great day,

    Michelle

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  2. Michelle, I love what I've read so far, so the least I can do is get your name out there as much as I can! And thank you for your kind comment.

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  3. I'm with you Marlena! I've decided to tell people who don't believe in prologues: then don't write 'em but I WILL! They have their place. After all, what would Romeo and Juliet be without its prologue? If they're good enough for Shakespeare, they're good enough for me!

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  4. I forgot that Romeo and Juliet had a prologue! It's like a Greek chorus when done right.

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  5. I had no idea prologues were so unpopular! I love a good prologue, especially when they give me a hint of what's to come without me even realising it yet. Having said that, I usually go for crime/thriller/suspense type novels, where as you say they work really well, but I can't imagine they'd have the same effect in something of a very different genre. It all depends on the tone the writer is trying to set for the book as to whether it will work or not :)

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  6. I had no idea either until I was reading through the comments and saw that people seriously did not like them! The prologue is a tricky thing. (:

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  7. I've started out using them and then incorporated them in the story afterward. Guess those wouldn't have worked left on their own hanging in front.

    I've also used them otherwise, but made sure I knew what I was doing by including them. Wouldn't want to be crucified for a useless prologue. :)

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  8. I'm starting to rethink my own prologue now! But I do like your method. (:

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  9. I had a prologue to my memoir. But when the publisher said it "gives away" too much, I saw that was true. Sometimes they work well, sometimes not. From what I've read lately, usually not.
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror, A Memoir of Shattered Secrets

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  10. I think with prologues, having a lot of opinions on how it works helps. You might think it works, but other eyes might see something different.

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  11. Hi Marlena,

    To me prologue is notice of better things to come. Or if the Prologue is in the future then it's like a teaser that I'm reading towards this certain something. If the prologue has hero changing to a vampre, yet from the beginning of the stroy there is no mention of vampires, I will be on the edge of my seat expecting vampires to start swooping down!

    Prologues either give background story which helps build the character in our minds or gives insight into the middle section to increase our expectation! I may skip uninteresting story bits but I would never skip reading prologues as this is the most tantalizing bit!

    And Michelle's prologue builds on the story and characters and it is good.

    Maybe Ann's prologue was giving away essential part of her memoir that's why it was taken out.

    Every story is different and all author's styles are different!

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  12. Hi Nas!

    I agree. Michelle's prologue is very good and helps contextualize what's going on her novel. You can sort of figure where things are heading by using clues from the prologue while you're reading.

    I personally like them and never really had a problem with them starting out a book. I generally look at them as a sneak preview into the story.

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  13. I'll have to add if you don't write prologues you don't understand them, but I am making a point that I write a prologue and it seem to improve my view of the novel....

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  14. Also true, Rebecca! Like I said, I like them a lot. I think they can really enhance novel and the reading experience.

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  15. I have a prologue in my first book! I am totally fine with them. Yes, gimmicky ones are annoying. But bad writing is annoying period, so the fact that it's simply a prologue shouldn't be the reason it's despised.

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  16. I agree. That's why I was so surprised people didn't like them. I figure as long as the writing is good, the prologue will be too.

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  17. I'm with you. Why do some people act like prologues killed their family? :) What's the big deal? I linked to your post in my prologue post - http://sharonbayliss.blogspot.com/2011/08/trends-for-untrendy-prologue-to.html

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  18. Thank you Sharon! I'll update this with a link to yours. And I know, right? Apparently prologues are the new evil. (:

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  19. Yes. My prologue did reveal too much of future events. For my next one, I intend to start at one point in my life and move forward. It's the way the brain wants to move--chronologically. That doesn't mean other ways don't work, including using a prologue, but I prefer this.
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror, A Memoir of Shattered Secrets

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