Saturday, February 20, 2010

Let's Chat: Prologues

I am currently writing the prologue of my WIP.  I think.  I started with a later chapter, a scene that just burned in my mind as clear as day and had to be written down at that moment.  Then I wrote the end of the prologue and I have been sort of working backward to the beginning.  It's a weird way to write but seeing as I have no method, I'm going with it.

I was rolling merrily along, perusing too many blogs, when I came across one that was discussing prologues and made an offhand comment about a specific agent who dislikes prologues, because if you can't tell your whole story within your story, something is wrong.  (Of course I don't remember where in the interwebs the conversation was, which  is, I know, very helpful).

Hmm.  That stopped me.  Briefly.  I thought, well, plenty of other agents must be ok with prologues because there are a lot of books out there with them.  And I thought, like all first time writers probably do with our naivete` and bravado, I'm not going to let an agent dictate what I write.  (At least until it's done and I'm querying, lol.)  Then I looked over at my bookshelf and grabbed a few random books, all very successful, to see if they had prologues.  The Hunger Games does not.  Wake begins at the beginning but then Chapter 2 really goes back and acts as a prologue to tell what happened "before".  The 39 Clues does, but calls it Chapter 1.  The Book Thief does.  A Curse Dark as Gold does not.  When You Reach Me  does not.  Marcelo in the Real World  does not.  Going Bovine sort of does, but again, calls it Chapter 1.  Madapple does, but doesn't call it a prologue or chapter one, the chapters just have titles and years, since the book skips from the present to the past with each new chapter.

So all in all, a decent mix.  But then it lead to my next question.  Is the issue with a prologue just the fact that they call it a prologue?  Going Bovine  opens with the main character describing something that happened when he was five.  The next chapter bounces to high school.  I guess it's not really a prologue since the character is in the present, telling a memory from when he was younger.

So I guess my question is - Do any of you think that a prologue is a bad thing just because it's there?  Do you not like when a story doesn't jump right in?  (I never knew there was an anti-prologue movement, lol).  The blog I was reading was sort of secondhand info, and since writing tastes are so subjective, I wouldn't worry too much about one completely anti-prologue opinion.  But it did make me think.  Seeing as I am writing one.

There are definitely times when I think that a prologue does not work well - if it is super long (that sort of says to me that there is so much backstory that maybe there should actually be a prequel), or if I don't understand what is going on.  I don't mind a little mystery in a prologue, it's supposed to plant questions in your mind and make you want to find out what happens, but I do dislike prologues that are so confusing that I really have no idea what they mean until I read so far into the novel.

I did a little searching on the topic and found this article by Marg McAlister, where she states:

"A prologue is used mainly for two reasons.
1. To outline the backstory quickly and economically, saving the author from having to resort to flashbacks or ruses such as conversations or memories to explain the background to the reader. This is commonly done in science fiction and fantasy to show why a certain quest is being undertaken or what will happen in the future. The prologue is a better option than a first chapter bogged down in detail.

2. To hook the reader and provide the story question right up front, giving them a reason to keep turning the pages to find out the answer. Quite often the prologue relates to a scene near the end of the story, and the story itself then shows what has led up to this moment. When is this justified? Perhaps when you want to introduce your characters in a more leisurely fashion, and your reader's experience with 'meeting' them will be enhanced by some sort of foreshadowing of what is to come.

Apart from these two reasons, a prologue can be used to introduce a certain character's viewpoint on one occasion only. The rest of the book may be told from just one other viewpoint, or from several different viewpoint characters that are in some way removed from the one you've used in the prologue. The prologue can bypass the danger of viewpoint violation."

That last paragraph let me breathe a sigh of relief because that's the case in my WIP.  The novel is being told in first person, but the prologue is in third person and the MC is not yet born.

She goes on to analyze when to call a prologue a prologue and when to just make it Chapter 1 (again, it's just the title 'prologue' that is a problem in some instances?  Maybe it breaks the flow?  If the backstory info can weave seamlessly into the present scene for Chapter 2, I guess it's distracting to make it a prologue?)

She also mentions a serious dislike for prologues that end up being exact duplicates of a later scene or chapter.  I can honestly say that I don't ever remember reading a prologue like that until the very last book that I read, Madapple by Christina Meldrum.  In that instance, as a reader, I thought it worked well at the beginning of the story and wondered why the info was repeated, pages worth, in italics near the end of the story.  That struck me a little odd, although I liked the book overall.

What do you think about prologues?  Books where they worked well?  Books where they didn't?  Does your WIP have one?


MeganRebekah said...

I've read many, many agent blogs and interviews and almost all of them are anti-prologue. If they ask you to send them the first 5-10 pages with a query they specifically don't want the prologue.

I'm not against them personally, but I have to agree that there's usually not a good reason to have one in a book.

If you need to write it for your own sake, as an author, that works. But when you finish the entire book, stop and ask yourself if it's truly necessary. Or could the book be just as good (maybe even stronger) without it? Ask your beta readers the same question. If everyone truly feels its necessary, than go with it. If readers point out that they could take it or leave it, it might be worth getting rid of.

Dangerous With a Pen said...

It's interesting that you said that about querying - I have been thinking about that. I have not queried before (this whole thing is a wonderful learning experience for me) and it did occur to me that the first 5 - 10 pgs would not really represent the story if it's a prologue. That completely makes sense.

I am still in the beginning stages, so I can see that I may do exactly what you said and find later on that the prologue is not necessary. Right now, I'm not really sure how I'd weave the info in otherwise, but that may well work itself out as I get further into the MS.

I appreciate your thoughts!

Jon Paul said...

I'm new at this so take my comments with a grain of salt. I've observed the recent buzz over prologues, and as near as I can tell the reason why agents don't tend to like them is because they are so often resorted to in submissions, and are so often done poorly.

IMHO, the way you've identified the possible functions of a prologue is important. Use a prologue only if serves a critical function, if it's absolutely necessary. You wouldn't add a chapter in the middle of your WIP--just cuz--so why put one at the beginning? If the same material can be covered another way--and the requirements of a catchy start are still met, then I say dispense with it and start from Chapter 1.

Just my two cents. Nice post, BTW.

Jemi Fraser said...

Good post! I also remember reading a few agent blogs that showed they were clearly anti-prologue. Don't remember who though :)

I don't mind a prologue when I'm reading - as long as it's interesting. If it's all telling, I don't enjoy it.

Dangerous With a Pen said...

Interesting. I guess it's good that I'm finding these things out as I begin. :) Thanks!

Piedmont Writer said...

Lindsey, having queried and been agent hopping blogs, I have found the consensus is not to have a prologue. Personally, I like them, and I write them for my books but when I finish it, I take it off to query. If I ever get so far as to actually acquire an agent I will ask if they would like to see the prologue with the ms. I think it adds that little bit of something-something that wouldn't necessarily be seen if it were just in chapter one.

storyqueen said...

I like them. I blogged about it recently, having taken off my prologue, then 5 months later adding it back.

I think it depends on the story.


Shelley Sly said...

Nice post. Prologues are tricky.

Yes, they can work well, but they can also work against your book. The reasons listed in your post are valid -- for back story or to legitimately hook the reader. By "legitimately," I mean that the prologue should raise questions in the reader's mind that are gradually explored in the book, preferably starting early on. Nothing misleading.

I'm not a fan of prologues just for the sake of having a "mysterious" beginning... only to find out that the questions raised in the prologue are completely ignored until the very end of the book, when the reader is bombarded with new information. If the author can't intrigue me with a regular opening chapter, maybe their story isn't so hot. (I'm mostly thinking of YA books I read in these examples.)

Sorry for rambling, but I hope this helps put it into perspective.

Dangerous With a Pen said...

I love all of this input. It's really helpful.

My prologue is not overly mysterious (hopefully that doesn't mean it's not interesting, lol). It is backstory that explains what something is doing in a place where it otherwise does not belong (sorry, I know that's vague). It is told in third person through a scene involving the MC's parents and it occurs before she's born. I'm not sure how else to explain this misplaced thing, since it can't be through a flashback. It also helps, in 3rd person, to get a glimpse into her parents' perspectives on the thing itself.

Lol that was probably very annoying to read. Sorry. :)

I definitely need to work through the rest of the MS before I figure out whether or not it is necessary, but it's good to find out early that there are such strong opinions about prologues out there. I had no idea!

Alleged Author said...

I actually quite like a good prologue. If you can do it well, why not do it? Many agents claim they skip the prologue anyway! :)
Though I think they do not...I think they SAY that so people will not continue to write absurd prologues. *cough* Twilight *cough*

Dangerous With a Pen said...

LOL... that made me laugh. :) I have actually not read Twilight or seen the movies. I read a few excerpts and it wasn't really my style.

Tiffany Neal said...

Yeah. Prologues. I had one. It is now sitting in a folder, waiting for the day that I can maybe add it back on. I really do love my prologue too, but I also know that if I only have so much time to get an agent interested in my story, I better do it right away. (Not that I think my prologue is boring either - just not a lot of action.)

roxy said...

What is wrong with the world today that you can't have a prologue? I read the same post that you mentioned reading and I put in my two, little cents there as well. If a prologue intrigues the reader and enhances the story.... why not? I mean what is the deal with these fads which dictate what is accepted and what isn't? Let's not assume the consumer is dumb, shall we? If they open a book at the store and see a prologue, they aren't automatically going to flip it shut and say, "Uh-uh. Not buying it. There's a prologue in there." I am one of those consumers and I spend a huge amount of money on books. Some of them I like and others I don't, but I guarantee, if I dislike my purchase, it is never because it has a prologue. Thank you for the excellent questions, Dangerous. I will now stop drinking diet cola for the night and take some deep, yoga breaths.

Dangerous With a Pen said...

And, you see, folks, this is why I heart Roxy. :) You ALWAYS make me smile!!!

I have to agree with you, anyway. I mean - look at Lisa McCann's Wake trilogy. They're short. And the style is very different. Does that mean they're not good books? Because they don't fit the norm?

Deep thoughts, kids. Stay tuned.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Palindrome said...

I think prologues depend on the book. If your book needs a prologue, put in a prologue. Agents be damned!! Unless, they're going to publish all of us and then I take back the damning. :)

Your Friendly Neighborhood Palindrome said...

Great post!!

I left something for you on my blog.

Dangerous With a Pen said...

Thank you, Hannah! :D

Meg said...

Your blog is super cute! Thanks for stopping by mine! I look forward to reading yours.


Abby Annis said...

I don't have a prologue, though I considered doing one at one point. I think if you can weave the info into the main story, it's generally more interesting and less confusing that way, but there's always the exception. :)

Love your blog! Thanks for stopping by mine and for following.

Glynis said...

I admit to not always reading the prologue...first. I tend to read the book, get to a part that doesn't make sense, and then it dawns on me, the prologue will explain it all!
It frustrates me to read a prologue, then read it as a chapter further along. I am a quirky Brit though, so that may explain it. ;0

The Rejection Queen said...

My novel actually starts off with a prologue because it sets the tone going into the first chapter. Actually the last chapter of my book and prologue of my novel all come to together at the end,