Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Ups and Downs of Prologues

While reading through submissions the last few weeks, I’ve noticed an upsurge in the use of prologues. I’d say roughly 20-30% of the partials we get have that little extra something at the beginning, and more often than not, the first line on my notepad is: remove prologue, or something to that effect.

As a writer myself, I can understand the lure of including a prologue in your manuscript. It’s an easy way to offer the reader some backstory, to explain something that just doesn’t fit well within the novel itself, or to hint at what’s to come. An enticement, or sorts. And really, that’s what a prologue should be. It needs to grab your reader’s attention right off the bat, and make them want to continue on to chapter one.

That being said, prologues are usually completely unnecessary. You want your story to begin in medias res (“in the middle of affairs”), so pouring information into a prologue or the opening chapters ultimately does your novel a disservice. There is always a place within the story that you could place the same information, and it would allow for a slower progression of facts, which is much easier on the reader. Think of your favorite book. I can pretty much guarantee that the first chapter or two aren’t information dumps. A family’s sordid history is usually explained throughout the course of the book, not front-loaded. It’s easy to forget while you’re writing, but I think sometimes we all need a little reminder.

With prologues, you can’t give away too much. This is one of the biggest problems I’ve come across lately. I recently took a trip to Barnes & Noble to pick up some YA titles I was interested in. One book in particular really struck a chord with me, in that the prologue basically gave away the entire plot. The opening pages did what many prologues do in that it explained the history between two characters. And while that can sometimes work, this one didn’t. Within the first three pages, I knew exactly what was going to happen between the main characters, and how the story would end. Talk about feeling cheated. While the book itself was pretty good, I was still frustrated that nothing came as a surprise. I like having to work to figure things out, and the prologue for this story spelled everything out. You don’t want your prologue to be too obvious. Leave some room for guessing!

One book that I think has an excellent prologue is Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush. It’s a great example of how these monsters should be tackled. It explains some of the history of the story, while leaving plenty to the imagination. The tension is palpable within those opening pages, and carries on throughout the entire novel. You get to meet certain characters, but you don’t find out who until later on. It’s vague, but at the same time, it’s not. By the end of the book, you can really appreciate the information given in those few opening pages. That is how a prologue should work.

Now, don’t take this post to mean that if you’ve written a prologue, you should immediately go and delete it. Don’t! But really consider its function in your story. Are you dumping too much information on your reader? Would you notice its absence if you deleted it? Is it an integral part of your novel, or just something you wanted to include for fun? If it really is important, by all means, keep it. But if you find that your book would be exactly the same, or better, if you took it out, do the right thing. You’ll be happier for it, your manuscript will appreciate it, and the first line on my notepad can instead be: I’m hooked.



Jessie Mac said...

Thanks for such a detailed post Sammy. I didn't realize prologues were that prevalent.

Good to know to really think about it first.

Ben Spendlove said...

Sooo, what about epilogues?

Rehman Pakistani said...

Ah! What a prophetic suggestion. Thank you very much for this fantastic post.

Anna Banks said...

Great post! Oftentimes, prologues are used as a crutch, a cop-out to better writing when really, they could have dispersed back-story like buckshot throughout the manuscript through action, dialogue, etc. Still, some prologues are effective when they only hint at what COULD happen..or not...but maybe it will...or it might not...THOSE are the ones that give me papercuts as I scramble to get to Chapter One.

Christina Farley said...

Great post. I like how you gave specific examples of what works and what doesn't.

Kimberly Sabatini said...

Great post-you really painted a clear picture in my mind for the effective use of prologues. Just sent a link to my friend who is trying to hash out the whole prologue issue...thanks!

Megan Frances Abrahams said...

Great explanation, thank you. It's that essential mantra of good writing - you can break all the rules as long as you do it brilliantly.