The Prologue Stikes Back

(I think movie puns are becoming my “thing”.)

There are mixed views on the inclusion of a prologue in literature and, after reading Kristin Nelson’s simplistic perspective on the issue (http://pubrants.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/why-prologues-often-dont-work.html), I felt obliged to come to it’s aid (no matter how insubstantial my opinion is on the matter). As an avid advocate of the prologue, I find it almost narrow-minded to dismiss it as just a tool authors use so that the beginning of their novels sound, as Kristin so elequently put it, “cool (or I might reword this to say the writer thinks it sounds cool)”. I’ve never known any writer to write something simply because it “sounds cool” and to even contemplate saying that is insulting in itself.

It is true that prologues are not always necessary, but when we do include one, we do it with the story, or the larger series of books in mind, and not for such simplistic things as aesthetics.

On the forum in which I found the link to Kristin’s article, someone who was asking for advice on her prologue was being told by around four other people (though the vigour of their arguments made it seem more like a small mob) that she shouldn’t have a prologue and that it doesn’t work unless she is very skilled, which they made very clear they doubted (even though none of them had read her work and so could not possibly judge that). In essence, her opinion on the use of the prologue was being choked by everyone elses – something that happens a lot in the world of literature. People are told that they shouldn’t use a prologue, or an epilogue, or first person tense, or present tense (I could go on all day here, but I’m sure you get the gist), when what they should be asked is, “Does the story need to have a prologue, or epilogue, or to be told in first person, or present tense?” These arguments about style are irrelevent, and the ONLY influence into whether a writer should include such things is whether it is RELEVENT.

My novel, The Curse of the Azra (the first in a trilogy) has a prologue, and it doesn’t directly relate to the first book, but more the whole trilogy, and so commits Kristin’s (oh-so-strict) fourth sin; “When the prologue is solely there to provide an action scene to “draw the reader in” but then serves no other purpose or is not connected to the main story arc or is only loosely so.” And yes, when only considering the first in the trilogy, the prologue may seem to have no effect on the novel, but a well placed prologue at the beginning of a series can hint at something that will run beneath the surface of all of the books, and serve to link the series with something other than making them run straight after each other. This works especially well if your books are set in a particular world, or place, but are set many years apart, with the prologue being something that connects all of the books coherently.

Many of the arguments against the prologue, and many of Kristin’s reasons why they “don’t work”, are largely based on the execution and not its importance to the story overall. My advice to any fans of the prologue: if you need it, use it.

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10 thoughts on “The Prologue Stikes Back

  1. Hear, hear! I’m pretty certain I’ve never put down a book because of a prologue, nor have I skipped it. Prologues, if done well, draw you in. I’ve read novels where the connection between the prologue and the plot only became apparent very late in the story but when that link was revealed it was mind-blowing.

    My favourite prologue is from Terry Brooks’s The Druid of Shannara. It was quite long and filled with detailed description and zero dialogue. It gave a chunk of back story regarding one character (who only appears in the very last lines of the prologue) that could easily have been handled in-text and had little to do with the actual plot except for the fact that the character introduced is a key character to the story. So, by the standard of the article you reference that prologue should not have been. But that prologue was so hauntingly beautiful that the rest of the novel was an anticlimax by comparison. For me, at least, the prologue made the story what it is.

    • Exactly. I love when a prologue is used because, in most cases, it hints at something that will kind of hang over the plot, and introduces some key themes before the story begins. And, to be fair to Kristin, she does say that when it is done right, it can add so much to the story, but to have these kind of rules and making first time authors feel they have to stick to a certain way of telling a story is counterproductive.
      Arguably the best thing about writing is the freedom you have over your story and the way you tell it.
      Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad to see you like my rants ;)

  2. Prologues are like any other item in a writer’s tool kit – it should be used when necessary, when it builds to something. Some stories just need that added bit before getting into the main story, to set the tone, the theme, and to entice the reader what is to come.
    In the blogosphere, I think prologues are nearly as maligned as adverbs. Both are perfectly fine to use, if used well.

    • Exactly. If a prologue is relevant, there should be no reason to not use it. It’s like, as you say, the impossible idea of never using prologues. Yes, too many will quickly ruin your writing, but to avoid them all together is counter-productive, and it’s the same with prologues. It’s personal choice as to whether you like them or not, or whether it puts you off, but you need a better reason than they’re “too long” or they’re not “cool”.
      Sorry, I’m carrying my rant on :)
      Thanks for the comment.

  3. I’ve just read the blog post you’ve linked to and I agree with her general thrust but she loses me when she says “almost all the agents I know completely skip the prologue and start with chapter one when reading sample pages”. Some may say that they are just using their experience. I would say they are just reinforcing their own prejudices. If you want to review a submission, review the submission, don’t skip parts because then you won’t be reviewing it in the way the writer wants it presented. Yes, by all means go back to the writer and say “the prologue doesn’t work/is unnecessary/stinks” but at least read it in context.

    • Thanks for the comment. That’s what I mean. I know agents have a lot of experience and can probably tell pretty quickly that something doesn’t work, but to just skip it completely is just wrong. People send queries with the expectation that their work will at least get read and, like you say, if they don’t like what they’ve read that’s fair enough.
      I know people are entitled to their opinions and the advice of people who have been in the industry for years is invaluable, but I sometimes it can feel, like you say in your post, like they’re the gatekeepers and what they say goes. It’s something that can put people off even querying.
      Thanks again for the comment, and I wish you luck with your submissions.

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