Monday, August 11, 2008


Prologues.  A lot of people don't read them.  Why not?  Because they're done so badly so often.

My preferences for prologues won't guarantee that a particular prologue done in that style is necessarily going to work, nor are my pet peeves going to set down some magic rule that guarantees all prologues written that way are bad.  I do feel that people who are so dead set against reading them won't be able to provide writers with useful information.  There are good prologues, I've read them, enjoyed them, and the book would be poorer without them.  Unfortunately there are far more prologues that are done really badly and they've poisoned the prologue well.  

So here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

Action blood sweat panic attack!  The issue with this sort of prologue is that 99% of the time the reader doesn't know the characters enough to care about whether they live or die.  Second, they have no idea what the fighting is about, so they don't care who wins or loses.  Also, this kind of prologue screams "everyone is going to die and in chapter one we're going to go visit the real pov character who will be eating breakfast or trimming his/her fingernails."  That's what happens so often that it becomes a cliche' and the readers are so disgusted by it that they never want to read this kind of prologue again.  Even if everyone doesn't die and the next chapter does in fact start with one of the combatants, the reader may not get that far to find out.  They'll have put the book down within two pages because they can't see the story.  There's too much blood in their eyes.  These kinds of openings are often written with the conscious or unconscious reason that the first chapter has nothing exciting going on.  It's a transparent hook, aimed as much or more toward editors than readers to rope them in to buying the book.  Yuck.

Way Back in the Neolithic Period  This is one style of prologue that can work if done right.  This drops the reader into a point in the pov character's past where s/he experiences something life-altering.  Now, if this can be done in the space of backstory peppered through the first part of the book (or even better, throughout the book where we don't see the whole scope of the experience until the emotional climax--rah! Right on!) then don't bother writing this kind of prologue.  However, if there are visual, sensory, cultural, emotional and other experiences that form a kind of self-contained short story in and of itself then you're not going to want to break up that party.  A major clue to whether you need to pepper backstory or write a prologue is if the context of the prologue is immediately necessary--the reader won't know what they're looking at in Chapter One without the prologue and will be utterly confused--you need the prologue.  If the info can wait, pepper that baby.  Finally, if you go back too far--the character is born and egad, it's supposed to be a girl not a boy--you're in danger of boring your reader (because there's absolutely nothing at stake that the reader will care about and also, who is the reader supposed to sympathize with?  Drooly child?)  The reader may dread that you're going to describe every blessed living daily detail.  Also, if you start too far back it's more difficult to connect the young person to the much older person and the reader may not trust you to do that well.  You have to earn the reader's trust and with an iffy prologue you're not off to a good start.  

Concerning Hobbits  This kind of prologue is all setting.  Invariably they are so boring that even faithful prologue readers immediately start skimming.  The big question is the same as in the battle openings.  Who cares?  Where's the story?  What's at stake?  Why am I staring at a tree, or an encyclopedia entry, or the little town of Gerspotten?  It's debatable whether Tolkien got away with it.  If you're a novice writer or even merely unpublished, do yourself a favor and assume you won't get away with it.

Twenty four hours after the book starts...  This one drives me the most dingbats.  This style of prologue isn't introduced this way (or very rarely.)  Chapter One defines this style of prologue retroactively.  We get through the prologue and everything is going swimmingly but then in Chapter One we're hit with (usually in italics) Twenty four hours earlier ...  (Or two weeks earlier, or two years ago, whatever!)  My immediate reaction is to fling the book across the room.  No joke.  Even if I'm wrong I don't care; my expectation is this:  I now know what the climax looks like.  I don't care how we get there.  I don't worry about who is going to make it there or why.  The tension has left the building.  The reader has been cheated because s/he's coming in at the end of the story and many, many of us readers want to wait until the end to find out what happens.  And don't even get me started about the authors who use just the beginning of the end for a prologue and then we have to reread that beginning at the end before we can find out what happens.  Bleh!  It also doesn't help that these sorts of prologues are often another thinly disguised hook written to get the reader hooked enough to get through a boring chapter one that's all set up or a normal boring day or involves a situation so mundane that your reader is wondering when we're going to get to the juicy parts.  On tv shows this is done all the time.  A book is not a tv show.  Besides, I hate those tv series episodes too.  I'm watching X-Files season 2 right now and if I never see another episode start with Mulder or Scully dying of something and then skipping back to two weeks earlier I'll be so happy!  What's really bad about the X-Files episodes that start that way is that if they began without the prologue, I'd still be intrigued by what's going on when the story really begins.  The difference is that I wouldn't be annoyed.

Here's What the Bad Guy is Up To  This is another type of prologue that can work if done well.  The key is to be short and sweet and crystal clear that this is the antagonist while making him/her a believable, fascinating character.  The reason this kind of prologue doesn't work as often as it should is that the bad guy is usually more interesting than the good guy is in chapter one.  Unless your good guy really, really shines in chapter one, don't make him/her pale by comparison to your bad guy by writing a stunning antagonist prologue and then sit your good guy down at breakfast.  K?  Glad we're clear on that.  A major pitfall of this style of opening (and any prologue that doesn't feature the pov or main character) is if your antagonist is sympathetic and fun to read about and suddenly the reader discovers we don't get to read about him/her, we're stuck with this other guy and the reader/author trust has to be rebuilt all over again.  Why do I say trust instead of interest?  Because readers tend to attach to the first characters they read about.  The expectation is that the characters first mentioned are going to be the most important in the book.  If that expectation is broken, then the reader loses a little trust in the author and the author will spend the whole first part of the book showing the reader that s/he will not be jerked around.  Much better to, again, make it crystal clear that we're dealing with the antagonist in the opening so that the reader doesn't get attached in the first place and is looking forward to what the protagonist will be like.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!?!  These kind of prologues shouldn't even exist, but they do.  I can't even theorize about what was going through the author's head, or why the editor allowed such a prologue to come to term and rampage around in bookstores everywhere.  They are pure hooks that appear to have absolutely nothing to do with the beginning of the book.  I don't care if they come into the book later.  Don't.  Care!  Weird stuff is going or people we don't know are doing mysterious things or there are voices without any setting talking about the state of the universe or how evil is running rampant or how Thug the Invincible was the last great hero or whatever.  When I read this kind of prologue (assuming I even get through it) and Chapter One has absolutely no connecting element to the prologue--no characters, no setting similarities, nothing to go on at all--I don't even have the energy to throw the book across the room.  I just set it down and if possible never pick it up again until it's time to dust.

So those are my thoughts on prologues.  I'm sure there are other kinds, and subtypes.  I may write about those in the future if I think about them.  But mainly, I hope that by presenting this information someone out there writing a prologue will think hard before they finish it.  Or, if they finish it, will reconsider before including it in the text.  So often prologues are just scaffolding anyway.  Tear it away and let the story stand on its own in all its architectural marvelousness.  You'll know it belongs if you tear it away and oops, you just stripped off the entryway and there's insulation fluttering in the wind ...


Things that puzzle this other goddess.... said...

I'm one of those people who skips prologues 9 out of 10 times...yet I will read forwards? Have no clue why.

Kami said...

Probably because you've learned that forwards have interesting, pertinent (and often scholarly) information while prologues are a waste of space 99% of the time. Works for me! I just wish that fewer people would write prologues and more people would read them.