Monday, May 7, 2012

The Great Prologue Debate

A brief comment on The Writer's Voice Twitter hashtag sparked a tremendous debate about prologues and books that open with characters other than the MC.  Never one to abandon a controversy, I realized I had plenty to say -- enough, in fact, to write a whole blog post. 

So, alright.  Prologues.  People hate them.  Why?  Because they're often boring exercises in authorial masturbation.  Not arguing that point.  I've read (and skipped over) a lot of terrible prologues.  So why did I jump in to debate their virtues in Twitter rather than agreeing with the sensible advice of judges and agents throughout the web? 

Because sometimes prologues are necessary.  In my opinion, the primary role of a prologue should be to establish dramatic irony: the reader knows something on page one that the main character won't know right away.  When used correctly, this increases tension, clarifies the situation and introduces readers to a world that they may not have seen for several more chapters. 

For example:  The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.  While not called "prologue," I think it qualifies.  It happens many years before the main action of the story, follows characters who are not the MC and introduces us to a world that the MC himself won't see for several chapters.  It's also told in a somewhat different voice/tone from the rest of the book. 

But I think the "prologue" here is necessary.  Would we read the next few chapters the same way if we didn't already know the story of Harry's extraordinary birth?  Do we gain something from knowing about the wizarding world before we glimpse it from Harry's eyes? 

Another example: The first chapter of Game of Thrones.  I can't remember if it's called "Prologue" or not, but it also follows the same formula.  Here we see a character who has no major bearing on the story (and who in fact is dead within a few pages) and events that do not directly impact the "inciting incident" of the story. 

But we need that information.  We need to see White Walkers so that we recognize them later when they become a major plot point.  This chapter also serves to prove something:  Winter *is* coming, and we as readers know it even though not everyone in the story seems to understand what that means.  The chapter gives a sense of urgency and stakes that would be missing if we didn't have that dramatic irony. 

There's just two (extremely popular) examples.  There's more, I'm sure, but those are the first two that came into mind.  Could you have chopped those chapters off and the books still make sense?  Sure.  But it would've been a different reading experience. 

Anyway.  I have one book with a prologue (it establishes information about a character that would otherwise go unknown because the only person who knows the truth took their secret to the grave; it also sets up world information that you otherwise won't see for several pages) and it feels "right" for that book. Then again, considering that particular book is about talking rats, a prologue is the least of its worries when getting published. *grin*

Here's a few "take with a grain of salt" tips for writing prologues, if you feel you have to include them: 

-- Keep it short
-- Use it to create dramatic irony, not an infodump
-- Ask yourself what you gain by having the reader know something the characters don't
-- Ask yourself if you'd gain more by portraying that info any other way

Of course, you may view all of that and decide to include your prologue and just call it "Chapter One."  That might squeeze you past agents who have a knee-jerk reaction of hatred toward prologues, but everyone will recognize it right away for what it is, anyway.

If you want to "save the prologues," the only way to do it is by writing really good prologues. 


  1. Thanks for your thoughts. I'm the gal who keeps mentioning doing fine with getting my manuscript-with-prologue past the slush pile, and I think the reasons you mention here are part of the reason why my prologue works.

    My prologue is, oddly enough, currently labeled "Chapter 0." It establishes tone. It's a first-person voice prologue from the point of view of a character who's currently living the end of her story, about to start at the beginning, telling you why she's bothering to tell her story. I think my manuscript gains strength by having the protagonist declare her identity at the beginning. As an epistolary-style novel, her identity is important for context regarding the later happenings. But I think most prologues get crushed under their own weight, because we have to care about people before we give a crap about their world.

    This is moot for me for the purposes of the contest, though, 'cause the one with the prologue isn't the one I entered. ^___^ (Seemed stupid to enter a project that's already being considered. So I entered the one that I've had trouble getting nibbles on.)

    1. Makes perfect sense to me. That's interesting that you've got an epostolary novel garnering so much attention -- it's one of those "dead genres" people are always bemoaning. Is it historical or contemporary? I've always been a bit sad that there aren't as many epistolary novels around. I read one once, as a kid, called "Letters From the Inside" and it was one of the most haunting, beautiful books I read. I can't imagine it working any other way.

      But, anyway, that was quite a tangent. Thanks for stopping in with your 2 cents! And best of luck to you on both your entry and your future submissions.

    2. It's not actually epistolary so much as it reads like it is; it's the main character writing her own autobiography, and some of the it is written in a normal narrative voice while parts of it involve the narrator breaking into the telling to ramble about things and put them in perspective given what the readers already know about her life. 'Cause she's a fairy tale villain and stuff. It's fantasy.

      I'm sure the main reason it gets a lot of attention is that it's a fairy tale retelling and that's popular. My entry that's in the contest is wedged in some uncomfortable corner that might be young adult crossover. But it also reads like a romantic fantasy for the first three quarters, and then starts Fight Clubbing people in the head. So it kind of has an identity disorder about how the heck it should be marketed. I've had a lot of trouble because of that, and sometimes it's hard to tell whether my issues are due to genre cusp straddling or whether some or most of it is the fault of my actual writing quality. But we're all in the same boat there, right?

    3. Ahh, even better! Now I am intrigued :D

      And, yeah, novel identity disorder is the worst. At least our boat has plenty of cookies. And beer. We'll need a lot of beer.

    4. BEER! (Seriously I don't drink it, but am on board with the sentiment. Can I substitute coffee? The protagonist of my WIP--which I was working on last night--likes beer AND coffee!)

      When it comes to the novel with the prologue, I seem to get in the door but the fact that it's, um, a trilogy tends to bother some people. But I make sure that when I unveil that piece of information, I also mention that the stories are somewhat self-contained so nobody thinks I'm trying to pull a Dark Tower right out of the gate. When the agent who is currently considering this manuscript asked for my book's synopsis, I cringed when I saw an almost immediate response in my e-mail, because I thought I'd made it past the dreaded Prologue Disease only to get shot down over "yeah I'm not interested in a trilogy." But her mail was requesting synopses of my next two books, and since she now has those and the full manuscript, I just get to play the waiting game.

      In the meantime I feel a little weird shopping a different manuscript, but I guess I'm allowed. ::shrug:: This one may have genre identity disorder, but it doesn't have a prologue or subsequent volumes!

    5. Hey, that sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. For my money, I think you're handling it exactly right. Fingers crossed for you!