On Writing: The Primrose Path to Prologue
The Prologue Question: To P or not to P?
Should one choose to tread the primrose path to prologue, ’tis a dalliance I wish not to rede.*
As a judge for the San Diego Book Awards, I recently read about a dozen novels, some as published books, some as unpublished manuscripts. Most of them had prologues—and in every case of a book with a prologue I lowered the author’s score.
These so-called prologues either were not prologues, or they were unnecessary, or they could (should) have been Chapter 1, or they contained background information that could (should) have been disclosed later, in a context within the story that would have been more meaningful to the reader.
In one case, Chapter 1 opened with: Three years earlier. Huh? How can the prologue be a prologue if it occurs three years after the beginning of the story? Open with Three years later maybe, but even then that’s risky. What if the reader didn’t bother with reading the prologue, as is often the case (especially if the book happens to be Russo’s Empire Falls). The reader wonders: Three years later than what?
My comments on the score sheets include:
- Prologue pointless—not a true prologue.
- Why have a “prologue” (it’s not) if you repeat it word-for-word in the story on page 4?
- The prologue is unnecessary; the story would be better were it to begin with Chapter 3.
- The suspense would have been greater without the prologue, letting the readers learn the background of the sanatorium along with the characters.
- What you have written is not a prologue. It is an excerpt from the story, well into the plot. Also, it sends the wrong signal to the reader, as if [John Doe] is the central character, but he is not.
- Reconsider the so-called prologue. Technically speaking, this is not a prologue. Walter Mosley would call this an “Afterward” (yes, spelled correctly)—think Ptolemy Grey. Your “prologue” languishes in needless description. Reduce it to a few poignant words, as noted. Maybe it doesn’t need to be called anything.
Wearing My Editor Hat
As an editor, I periodically see prologues, but at that point I can intervene and the prologues can be rewritten or, more appropriately, deleted, before the book is published.
In one case, the prologue merely pulled material from Chapter 81. Again, huh? How is that a prologue? That’s a marketing tool to entice the reader with a particularly dramatic scene, but it more appropriately belongs on the back cover or the flap of the dust jacket, not in a prologue.
Another author had material labeled prologue, but it waddled and quacked like Chapter 1. All that author needed to do was change the heading. Problem solved.
So what? What difference does it make whether it’s called “prologue” or “chapter 1”?
READERS, by and large, DON’T READ PROLOGUES.
They start with—here’s a concept—Chapter 1.
It occurs to me that newbie writers believe that a prologue is mandatory, but they can’t figure out what to put in it. How about nothing?
Yet, why would they believe this? I wondered: Is there no guidance available to writers with regard to prologues? Turns out, there is plenty of information and advice, in print and online—some of it better than others. So, I will mention a few of these and include links to what I consider to be the more authoritative ones.
Even so, I find much of that guidance limited, and in a number of cases the adviser often draws on her or his own writing, which at times is not the most exemplary representation.
A Prologue By Any Other Name
A prologue, by definition, means “before” or “preceding” the “words.” It details events that occurred before the story begins, ofttimes decades, centuries, or even millennia earlier.
Greek playwrights incorporated looooong prologues in their theatrical works, setting the stage, as it were, for the drama to follow. William Shakespeare followed suit, but he trimmed his prologues to a few minutes, and today’s directors may cut them, or eliminate them entirely. The prologue to Romeo and Juliet, for example (should I dare criticize the master), not only explains what the cautionary tale is about (an “ancient grudge” and “star-cross’d lovers”) IT GIVES AWAY THE ENDING.
Some writers include a prologue in books within a series to provide background information regarding the preceding book or books. That orients the reader and may serve a useful purpose. But, even then, are they wasting paper and ink? Are they wasting the reader’s time?
Jane Austen didn’t need no stinkin’ prologues—although William Dean Howells saw fit to pen a 19-page introduction to the tome in a 1918 reprint of Pride and Prejudice (maybe he saw it as an antidote to insomnia).
Others assert that a prologue can establish the mood of the story. Yawn. A well-written story will establish the mood.
The prologue in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities has been ballyhooed as a shining example. In case you don’t recall the opening line, it goes like this:
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
It then meanders on for a dozen or so more lines of similar nonsense. Setting aside the “wuzzies” of passive voice: It was telling. It was not showing. It was soooooo 19th century. (Maybe Chuck never bothered reading Jane.)
At least it’s short, and a few lit students might actually read beyond the first line. By comparison, the prologue in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls drones on for thirteen and half pages of soporific pablum. Not only that, it’s in italics, making it even more challenging to read. Sheesh. Enough already. No wonder prologues get a bad rap.
As the saying goes, “Kill your darlings.”
Anyone Doing It Well?
James Rollins, author of a series of historical novels, has been singled out as having effective prologues. In The Devil Colony, for example, he has a three-and-a-half page prologue (although he does not label it as such) that depicts a scene from “Autumn 1779, Kentucky Territory.” Chapter 1 begins with “Present Day,” more than 200 years later.
Scott Turlow, in the legal thriller Presumed Innocent, incorporates a one-and-a-half page “Opening Statement,” which serves as a prologue. But he does not use the device in all of his books.
Joseph Wambaugh, in Floaters, has a three-page prologue comprising a scene that lays the foundation for the story to come, similar to what Rollins does. But, like Turlow, he does not use this device in all of his books.
As noted earlier, Walter Mosley, in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, turns the prologue concept on its head, beginning the book with what he calls the “Afterward” (not “Afterword,” which comes at the end of a book). It’s a letter written by the central character after the story ends. Risky? Yes, but Mosley is a brilliant enough writer to pull it off. The letter raises a number of questions, which are answered by the words that follow.
Include a prologue only if there is a story reason for it.
Elmore Leonard, an author I respect more than most, famously offered up his 10 Rules of Writing. Rule #2 is:
Avoid prologues: they can be annoying. . . . A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about.
Brian A. Klems, the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine, responded to a writer who asked: When should a prologue be used?
A prologue is used when material that you want to include in the opening is out of time sequence with the rest of the story. . . . It’s used only to explain key information that doesn’t follow the time flow of the rest of your book. So if your “prologue” doesn’t fit this criterion, either cut it or change it to Chapter 1.
The folks at Scribendi say:
Prologues can be boring. Also, people admit to regularly skipping the prologue. . . . However, the main reason for not writing a prologue is that, in most cases, it simply isn’t necessary.
Lital Talmor says:
Unnecessary prologues are a dangerous lot: at best they are ignored, at worst they turn the reader off.
If there is no story reason for a prologue, leave it out.
If You Do, Make It Meaningful
Soooo . . . if, after serious mulling and thoughtful consideration, you conclude that your book needs a prologue, then make it meaningful to the reader so you’re not wasting his or her time with needless self-indulgence.
What does a meaningful prologue look like? I cite the Rollins and Turlow examples, and there are others. Are they necessary? Can those stories stand alone, without the prologue? You’ll have to judge that for yourself. However, note that neither Rollins nor Turlow actually labeled those sections as prologues.
And keep it short. Please.
- Ten Rules for Writing Fiction — inspired by and including Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing
- When to Use a Prologue
- 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues
- Pros and Cons of Prologue
- Why Shouldn’t I Write a Prologue?
- To Prologue or Not to Prologue
- Resources for Writers, Editors, and Indie Publishers
* rede, verb: to give counsel to : advise—as in Ophelia’s “primrose path” speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
This blog originally appeared in The Kinder Muse Newsletter, September 2017, and is posted here with the author's permission.