|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.