Friday, April 19, 2013

THE MUCH MALIGNED PROLOGUE

AAAGGHH!!! THE GREMLIN OF THE PROLOGUE!


 Ah, where to begin? 

Every writer has to answer this question when faced with the blinking cursor or the blank, white page. There are a thousand ways to answer it.  Most “experts” will give you some version of the moment-when-everything-changed response.  That is, start your story with the instant in time when things changed for your protagonist, when her life suddenly took a turn and she began her “heroine’s journey”.

But, stylistically, you should be free to put your hero or heroine on the road to their new lives any way you want, right?  

Well, yes, as long as you engage your readers and don’t confuse, frustrate, anger or bore them instead.  That’s why many books on writing advise against starting out with a dream sequence or a flashback, with a secondary character’s point of view or a long, descriptive passage in which the POV is not clear at all.  And, the danger of losing the reader is the primary reason many agents and editors hate, I repeat, HATE, the poor little misunderstood prologue.

Personally, I’m quite fond of prologues.  My own Golden Heart®-nominated SFR novel Unchained Memory includes one, and I’ve used them before in my TREK fan fiction.  But I know of several agents out there who state outright on their websites that they will reject any manuscript that contains one.  I’ve heard the same kind of sentiment expressed on editor panels at conferences.  I find that unfairly prejudicial, not to say heavy-handed.

But as a judge for my local RWA chapter (Virginia Romance Writers) in its annual Fool For Love writers’ contest, I’ve begun to see why some agents and editors might think no one should ever use a prologue again.  Beginning writers do tend to make some mistakes with this tool of the writer’s art, detracting from what might have been a decent manuscript.  It’s as if the writer built a nice little house, then put the front door in the wrong place.  If you can’t get inside, you’ll never know what the rest of the house was like.

Leigh Michaels, in her excellent book On Writing Romance, defines prologues this way:  

A prologue is a very short scene (one to two pages, in most cases) from a time before the present-day story begins.  A good prologue is limited to precisely what the readers need to know to draw them into the story.  Most often, it is a brief, intriguing glimpse of a mysterious aspect of the story of the main characters.  It can also be a snippet from a time long before the beginning of the story, if that event is extraordinarily important to understanding the later action.

A prologue can be longer (mine is), but it should be limited in focus to a specific event that has important consequences for the story.  It might be something that happens to the hero or heroine, but that something should have an ongoing impact on their character that has implications for the story—either in the romantic arc or the external (plot) arc. 

Where too many writers get in trouble with the prologue is in selecting an event from the hero or heroine’s past that is simply backstory.  Say, for example, that you are writing a contemporary romance and your heroine’s former husband died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.  That’s a dramatic moment you might be tempted to use in a prologue.  But if she’s gotten over her husband’s death and is ready to move on to a new relationship (mostly), you can better use the emotional impact of it in later flashbacks, memories, revelatory discussions with her new lover or whatever.  You don’t need a prologue to tell us about that “defining” event.

However, if you’re writing, say, a romantic suspense and it turns out her husband is not really dead, but was with a mistress on 9/11 and now is reappearing to pull a Rebecca on the heroine, then the event is crucial to the plot and could justify a prologue.

Michaels uses the example of hero Anthony Bridgerton in Julia Quinn’s The Viscount Who Loved Me.  In the prologue, the child Bridgerton sees his virile, young father die of a reaction to a bee sting.  He’s convinced he will die at a similarly young age and so refuses to allow himself to love anyone.  It’s crucial to his character and the romantic arc that we know this about him ahead of time, so the prologue is justified.

Prologues are by definition set apart from the main story by time, but you must take care to provide a strong bridge between the setting of the prologue and that of Chapter One to make it work.  It’s best if the POV character is the same, but if that is not possible, then at least the tone, style, setting or other characteristics of Chapter One should echo what the reader encountered in the Prologue.  You don’t want your readers to start out thinking they’re reading an historical romance because the prologue is set in Regency England, when the main story is set in modern-day New York and it’s actually a contemporary. (The same is true if you are attempting any form of genre “mashup”—whatever combination you’re going for in the main story should be apparent in some form in the prologue.)

Sometimes it’s good to let your readers in on a secret from the beginning, as Quinn does.  Many times it’s deadly, particularly if that secret is key to the suspense that keeps your readers turning pages.  Resist all temptation to give away that ultimate secret in a prologue!  If your story has an intriguing hook—a creature of your devising, a hidden planet, an alternate universe, a weapon of mass destruction, whatever—you may do no more than hint of its nature in a prologue. 

Think of a really good horror movie—do they show you the monster in the first five minutes?  No, they let the suspense build, with glimpses and feints and false alarms.  Sometimes you never get a good look—and that’s just as well.  Your imagination supplies much more than Hollywood’s makeup artists ever could.  A prologue that shows us the monster (or the happy ending, or the reason for anything) allows us to put the book down without even reading the rest of the story.

In my TREK novella The Mindsweeper (1993), the prologue gives us a glimpse of the “monster” that is central to the tale, but only enough to show the creature’s pain and confusion in its first, tragic encounter with humans.  We learn nothing of its origins or backstory.  The scene is brief and to the point, drawing us into the story, but not giving away the story.  That beginning had enough punch to sell the novella to the underground Orion Press and to hundreds of TREK fanzine readers.  It was the start of my fanfic career.

So prologues aren’t the gremlins they are made out to be.  But to keep them from ripping the wings off the airplane of your writing, you have to make certain they are well leashed.  Keep them in line and they can serve you well.

Cheers, Donna



9 comments:

Laurie A. Green said...

I often wrestle with the enigma of the prologue too. I understand why some agents and editors hate them--I've read some dreadfully dull pros before. But I think a prologue done well can be very effective.

Remember Titanic? It's an example of a prologue (and epilogue) done in a film. Maybe one of the elements that made the movie such a monster blockbuster was how it was told--through the eyes of a modern day survivor who'd lived and loved aboard the doomed ship some ninety years before. Without that cinematic prologue introducing the aged Rose, it would have been just another Titanic tale. And there have been many good ones, but this one has become the standout story that everyone thinks of when someone says "Titanic."

The connection the reader develops with the main character comes about via the reveal in the prologue of who she is and what she experienced. Take that prologue (and its equally effective bookend epilogue) away and the story just wouldn't have the same emotional punch.

I think there are times a prologue can work extremely well in a novel. Keeping it short, intriguing and meaningful is key, but engaging the reader emotionally is paramount.

Pippa Jay said...

I frequently see the 'no prologue' instruction on guidelines, or injunctions not to do them on Twitter. One thing I must add is that many eBooks (my own from Lyrical included) have the book blurb AND an excerpt at the start, so a prologue would seem overkill in pushing the start of the actual book further. My view at the moment is I want to throw a reader straight into the action and thread back story throughout. But in the past I've written prologues, and would again if I felt ot was right for the MS. That said, I think Donna's point of keeping it to a couple of paragraphs is a good idea.
I often find prologues are done badly, and often done in omniscent, whereas the book might be third close, which jars. Writers try to write it like a film, with a sneaky preview of the unseen monster/bad guy etc, which works on the screen but not so much in a book.
Again, I think it's something that new writers can't pull off, so the industry makes it a no-no. It needs to be done well to work.

Greta said...

As a general rule I agree with you on prologues - they are often mis-used, especially by beginners. I tend to skip prologues and start at chapter one.

That said, I've written one myself - for a very specific, well thought out purpose, for which I could see no other realistic approach. Jack McDevitt, who writes best-selling hard SF, always has a prologue. In his case, he describes an event in the past, often a calamity of some kind (they are usually long prologues) and the characters in the rest of the book must solve the events. I've also seen an excellent prologue in a book about a guitar, where the reader learns about the guitar's history - but the characters are blissfully unaware. It worked outstandingly well.

So... a prologue is a literary device, but (as with ellipses) it should be used with care.

Rinelle Grey said...

Ahh the poor prologue! I can understand the issues though, when misused, they're either confusing or pointless, but when done well, I think they have the potential to add a lot to a story.

I started with a prologue for my current story, a look back in time at how my characters ended up stranded on a lost planet, but cut it out in the edit. I still like that little story (included it on my webpage as a deleted scene), but it wasn't the right place to start the story.

Donna S. Frelick said...

Well, you ladies, being the writers you are, have all just proven my points about prologues, haven't you? :) In the case of TITANIC, the prologue introduces the main character and narrator in the present day, who tells this tale in her unique voice starting with "chapter one". In Greta's examples, the prologue introduces a key element of the plot, which is vital to the main story. In Pippa and Rinelle's cases, you found you could incorporate that backstory into the main body of the work without the prologue. (Which is obviously what those authors whose prologues you skipped SHOULD have done, Greta! If you didn't have to go back and read it to figure out what was going on, then the prologue wasn't necessary.)

And, as you said, Laurie, emotion is the key to doing this well. The scene has to affect the reader viscerally so they are eager to keep reading.

Book Swagger said...

To be frank I don't know what reader is not used to prologues by now it is a part of reading sometimes. It is just like any other part of a book when it's good we love it when it's bad we hate it. I have read prologues that have made me giddy with excitement for the rest of the book. Some have even made me cry and you know I had to keep reading to make sure all my people were okay. So my 2 cents which its probably worth even less. I love when authors do them and do what is best for the story they are writing.

Sharon Lynn Fisher said...

Donna, just curious - did you include your prologue in your Golden Heart entry?

I remember the Twilight books did something I hadn't seen before: a prologue that was actually a scene from the climax of the book. It wasn't included like marketing copy, as a front-pages teaser. It was formatted like a prologue. I remember finding it a little annoying, but it occurred to me that it was maybe a publisher addition, because the first book in the series has a pretty slow start (by YA/vampire/paranormal standards).

Donna S. Frelick said...

Oh, yeah, I included the prologue for UNCHAINED MEMORY--all three times I entered. For those of you who don't know, that's the one in which I kill off three kids (off-page, but still . . .)! It's a rather dramatic beginning, but necessary to everything that follows. Not something you could skip and get the rest of the book, Greta :). But also separate in time and tone from Chapter One.

Two GH "panels" rejected the ms., one loved it enough to give it a nomination. Strangely enough, though I've had LOTS of rejections from both agents and editors, very few have mentioned the prologue. In fact, I can't remember one who did.

Julie Sondra Decker said...

This is really interesting. I've known for a long time that prologues can be an instant turn-off, and in my opinion that's because they're so frequently misused. I write in the fantasy genre and BELIEVE ME, it's way overdone over here. Fantasy writers tend to obnoxiously fill prologues with worldbuilding rules and family trees or whatever, and it's no wonder that we've more or less trained our publishing professionals to roll their eyes when they see "PROLOGUE" at the top of Page 1.

Oddly enough, my (agented) book has a prologue, but I didn't call it that. My chapters are numbered, so I simply called it "0." Maybe that helped in stopping it from feeling like a prologue.

But it definitely was a prologue. In my case it was for the character to establish voice. It's a bit of a peculiar storytelling style--a first-person deal with the protagonist writing her autobiography--so she decides to start the book by telling you who she is, why she's significant, and why she's really pissed off. (And she also confesses immediately that she isn't sure she's made the right choice in how to start the story, which may draw readers in a little.) The book has a prologue because my character is the kind of person who would write one. None of my other books have prologues.

Oddly enough, I've had no complaints about my prologue. Except for the fact that it's entirely in italics (as are all the spots in the book where the character is talking to the reader, as she tends to do). I'm open to suggestions on how to avoid prejudice against both long italics paragraphs and prologues, but I figure my publisher will make that final decision. ^__^