Saturday, February 23, 2013

To Prologue or Not To Prologue? Yes, it's a Question!

A few years after Wifey agreed to be "my" wife, she also agreed to go see the movie Dune with me. It wasn't until a year or so after we were married that she discovered that I was a fan of science fiction. Her oldest brother was also a sci-fi buff but was even more of a Frank Herbert fanatic. So he encouraged her to go as well. After buying our tickets, as we were going inside the theater, ushers were distributing programs that gave background information about the movie's characters, settings and conflicts that happened before the events in the movie. This was quite unusual. So there we were, reading something about the novel that we assumed the theater management threw together to help us better appreciate, or to at least understand the movie. After reading this little "prologue," I felt as though I was prepared to enjoy the movie. But after she read the handout, Wifey said that she was totally confused and once the movie was over, she said that she hated it.

As I worked on Betrovia, the first book of The Land of Betrovia trilogy, I excitedly included large "chunks" of background information: the culture, religion(s) of the different people groups, economic stuff, etc. And I thought it all was relevant as well as did not take away from the flow of the plot. But more than a few of the novel's early readers did not agree.

So, a few weeks ago I took a short break from hammering away Ahnak: Edelin's Revelation, the final book of the trilogy, to glean a few of those chunks out of the body of the novel. I then allocated them to the appendix (along with a few other things). I thought about putting this information into a prologue, but the novel already has a "main character introduction" page that comes right after the table of contents.

And this brings me to the main point of this Land of Betrovia blogpost:

To prologue or not to prologue? 
What are Writers Cafe authors thinking about this topic? 

"I like my opening, but I'm not sure if it's more prologue like.  It's an intro to the book, kind of like a welcome to my story kinda thing."

"If it's critical information the story can't do without, but preceeds the story by a long time or is unrelated/different in some way to the main text. I have a 3rd person prologue and epilogue framing a 1st person story. That's why I did mine. In my historic WIP, I've got an event that happens 2 years prior to the start of the story, and I'm still debating whether it's a great enough time removal to warrant calling it a prologue, because the assumption is that people will skip it."

"I have a lot of things that are prologues or prologue-like, but I always call them chapter one. They are generally setups of the main plot, and often feature characters who don't survive the first chapter or aren't my main POV. The key to a successful prologue, IMO, is to make it a self-contained story with its own plot arc that can quickly suck in the reader. It's a fine line though and tough to get right. I'm not sure I always manage."

"For whatever its worth, I try to use the prologue for slow setup/description/background for the rest of the book. My books are action/suspense oriented so I try to keep the chapters crisp/fast and engaging. I don't want to get bogged down with a lot of background stuff as it would slow the action down. I'm not sure I'm always successful, but that's the theory."

"My two published books both have prologues.  The first one has a prologue because the first scene happens sixty years before the current day story, which features the descendents of the people in the prologue. So as the previous posters said, it's as prologue because the time period and the characters are different. The second book has a prologue for a different reason, which is what I am trying in my longwinded way to add to this thread. The premise of the book is to tell the same story three different ways followed by a fourth very short book in which no one was killed in the accident, so in a sense it ends with 'none of this ever happened.' It needed a 'frame' to give it a sense that we are finished at the end. So I wrote a prologue that describes the life history, so to speak, of the rock that causes all the trouble. Then when we return to the rock at the end,  you know we are done. It sounds weird, but most people have told me they love that part. I am finally writing something without a prologue this time.  That's actually new for me."

"I had some advice about having a prologue recently. My novel was written without a prologue. When it was edited it was suggested I move a segment from a chapter in the middle of the book to the start and call it a prologue. Just a few paragraphs, that's all. What it did was a) provide the hook and b) give the reader a glimpse of something which happens later on but still has that how did he get there question. I think if used imaginatively, prologues can be more than just a reference point or an additional few pages at the start."

"I'm surprised by the assumption that some readers skip a prologue. I always read a prologue, if there is one, because I consider it an integral part of the book.  It wouldn't be there if it didn't contribute in some way to the story. If I'm not interested in reading and understanding the whole story, then why am I reading any of the book?"

"Have a prologue if it advances the narrative. If it doesn't, throw it out. Stories should hit the ground running, with all engines firing. My 2-cents worth!"

"There's going to be some exposition at the beginning of a book, so I find a prologue is the time to slap the reader with a dead fish and stir up some sort of emotion then you can afford a bit of a slowdown in the physical action. I find this is easier to do with something detached from the initial plot, something that becomes relevant later on. That way you have some guaranteed unanswered questions for the first half of the book at least."

"Now in defense of the prologue, when it’s done well, it’s truly an amazing tool. The number of times I’ve seen a prologue done extraordinarily well in requested submissions? Well, I can count that total on two hands. Remember that a prolog and an epilog are just a method of framing a work. The only thing in a prolog should be something that absolutely sets the tone, mood, theme, etc, of a work, and therefore changes how the reader will experience the first scene or chapter. If it doesn't change the meaning of the first chapter, then save it and put it in a flashback - once you've earned the right to a flashback. If it doesn't affect the story at all, then sprinkle it through - or drop it in an appendix. On the other hand, if it's the same characters, the same subject, and so on - or if your book already jumps time zones and places between chapters - then call it 'Chapter One' and get on with it."

"When I wrote my first book, it was as a novella. The true beginning of the story--how the main character became infected--was told in flashback, because it worked better that way. Eventually I realized the whole story was too rushed and rewrote it as a novel, but when I did that, I realized the opening scene was no longer working as a flashback; it worked much better as a prologue. There are enough other flashbacks anyway that it made more sense for this most significant event to stand out. The prologue is written as if it's being told early in the story, so that at one point it switches to present tense; it made sense to me at the time, so I stuck with it. Prologue when it works, avoid when it doesn't. Avoid infodumps. That seems to be the gist of it."

"When? When it adds to the interest of the story. Sometimes a prologue sets the tone, then the story starts several years earlier. Just don't use the prologue to retell everything you are going show anyway. It should grab the reader, make them curious and start immersing them into the story. It should make them ask 'What in the world happened?'"

"I feel the best prologues are teasers or pertinent pieces that are relevant yet outside of the main story. My prologue to my first novel takes place after the main story and the epilogue picks up where the prologue leaves off. It's part 1 of the epilogue actually, serving as a frame. The best prologues I've seen that do both of these things are in Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr and The Vistitation by Frank Perretti. They are short and intriguing. They do their job of pulling you into the story and leave you wondering what they have to do with or how they will affect the main story. The worst prologues are info dumps that go on and on for pages. If you really need an info dumpy prologue, keep it as short as possible. If you need a setup to a historical novel or an epic fantasy, the readers of these genres are more used to prologues, but still I would make it as interesting and tidy as possible. If it's all telling, you're really taking a crap shoot and it will probably not land in your favor."

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