Monday, March 19, 2012

Pro(logue) or Con

by Jemi Fraser

Lately I've heard a lot of authors talking about prologues. While a lot of authors enjoy writing them, the majority of agents and editors seem to be against them. Why? Here are my thoughts ...

Con #1 The voice doesn't match the rest of the novel.

Con #2 The prologue goes on. And on. And on.

Con #3 It's an infodump (sometimes ancient history or world building the author doesn't want to weave into the story)—nothing really happens.

Con #4 Agents expect the first few pages of the ms to match the query. If your prologue is about a different POV character or in a different time frame, you may have a problem.

So, you can see the dangers of the prologue—and why agents and editors probably shudder when they see the word typed in bold at the top of the ms. But can a prologue ever work? I think so.

I've read a few authors who do the prologue very well. How do they do it?

Pro #1 Keep it short. I think a good prologue reads like a short story in many ways—except for the ending. A short story wraps up the ending (mostly). A prologue entices you to read the book and find the resolution to the prologue within the story.

Pro #2 Focus on an event, conversation or thought sequence that is VITAL to the plot—often something that triggers the story itself.

Pro #3 The time frame or the POV character (or both) is different from the rest of the book—necessitating this being a prologue and not Chapter 1. For this to work, Pro #2 must still be in effect and you've got to be aware of Con #4.

Pro #4 Um ... I'm stuck. Any other pros you can think of?

In a story I wrote a few years ago (before I'd even thought of attempting to get published), I wrote a 'wonderful' story with a 'vital' prologue. The story was a contemporary romantic suspense and the prologue flashed back to the death of the main character's father. It was an important part of her family's past, it shaped her life and directly impacted the plot of the story. Many of her adult personality quirks depended on that event. But did I need to include the prologue? Nope. Absolutely not. Once I figured out I needed to weave those details into the actual story itself, my writing made a huge jump forward.

So, have a good look at that prologue. You might decide you really need it, you might decide to dump it, or you might be able to call it Chapter 1 and get on with the story!

What do you think? Are there more pros or cons to a prologue? Any authors you know who do them really well?

Jemi Fraser is an aspiring author of YA steampunk and adult romantic mysteries. She blogs at Just Jemi and tweets @jemifraser.

48 comments:

DeniseCovey_L_Aussie said...

I understand the cons, but I'm a great fan of a good prologue as I find myself anticipating this section of the novel. Works best for an epic, rather than chick lit or something not so intense. IMHO.

Denise

Kela McClelland said...

I don't write them, but I don't mind reading them. I'm sure there have been some that I thought, WTH, but I still read the story. A prologue won't move me into the story nor will it move me away from it. They're just there.

Varsha Dinesh said...

I LOVE prologues- or at least I like writing them. But I have to agree that doing an infodump prologue is the biggest cop out a writer can make, especially when writing fantasy. Still, prologues are so cool sometimes- I've seen some really great prologues that are, although not directly entwined with the story, set the mood for the entire book. My biggest issue with a prologue is when it seems to go on forever in no direction, that will put me off the book.

Jarmara Falconer said...

I think it all depends on what sort of novel you are writing. I can understand if it's a family saga, historical or Scifi. Something which needs a lot of explaining maybe, or background information. Not all book need a prolgue. Maybe instead of having a prolgue, work what you need to say into the first chapter.

Great posting!

Theresa Milstein said...

Jemi, your cons are spot on. And so is your advice. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. Sometimes I put them in my manuscripts and sometimes I don't. It depends. I know when I had one in a particular manuscript, agents seemed to like it. Didn't take the whole thing though. Maybe I should ONLY write prologues...

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree with Theresa. You nailed the cons. I do think they can work for some stories but like you said, often the info can be weaved into the story.

Seems like as an aspiring author it may not be such a good idea to use a prologue unless it's absolutely necessary since so many agents are against them.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

It really depends on the book, the author, and the prologue itself. The book I have coming out in 2013 has a prologue. Neither my agent nor my editor had a problem with it.

I think the "anti-prologue" movement is another over-reaction writers have made to comments they've received in rejections -- kind of like the "no adverbs" rule. Nobody objects to prologues and adverbs done well ... but do them poorly and they will get stomped on.

Laura Pauling said...

I think a writer includes a prologue at her own risk. Some readers might not read past. If they are done well, then great. I don't mind them if the writing and voice is just as good as the rest.

Jemi Fraser said...

Denise - good point! There are several authors I enjoy who use prologues regularly - and I like them too :)

Kela - it's usually the same for me - although there are a few authors where I do skip their prologues and a few where I love them! :)

Varsha - me too. I think it all depends on how well the prologue is written and if it's really important for the book!

Jarmara - thanks! I should definitely have mentioned the genre, as prologues are much more common in some genres!

Theresa - that cracked me up! I do think it depends on the story - and of course on the writing - which apparently you have down pat! :)

Natalie - good point! I think as an aspiring author I'll try to avoid them for now! :)

Dianne - excellent point! I do enjoy prologues with some authors - they can be quite entertaining!

Laura - it all comes down to voice, doesn't it. I've read a few where I didn't bother with the rest of the book - and a few where I was dragged right in! :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Either works for me. My first book didn't have one, but my publisher actually requested a prologue. It was very short and focused on an event that set the rest of the story in motion.

Jemi Fraser said...

Alex - that's really interesting! It blended in so well with the story - one of those prologues that definitely work! :)

JeffO said...

I have no strong feelings one way or the other. I agree with Dianne on this one, most of the prologue-bashing I've seen is on sites like Absolute Write. Some agents and editors have complained about prologues, but they're complaining about *bad* prologues. Many writers have applied that to *all* prologues. I'm amazed when I read things like "If I see a book has a prologue, I put it back down."

Journaling Woman said...

I love prologues. Often, it's a glimpse into the meat and potatoes of the story.

Teresa

A said...

When it's done right and works, it's great.

A said...

When it's done right and works, it's great.

A said...

p/s: Sorry about the double comment I swear I only sent it once.

Stephen Tremp said...

Prologues better be kept short. Otherwise, make it a new book. A prequel.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Sometimes a prologue is needed to set up the whole story. We see this often in movies. I've never used one though.

Talli Roland said...

I quite like a good prologue because it really whets my appetite for me. What I don't like it when it seems completely disconnected from the story and you need to read about 100 pages until you even figure out why it's there!

Jean Oram said...

I think you are absolutely correct in that when you weave that 'vital' info in later on in the story it makes things so much stronger. Love the title of your post, Jemi.

Hilary Wagner said...

I have a one page prologue in my first novel, Nightshade City. Basically it was the last page of the novel, missing the last two paragraphs, so a different type of prologue, but something I specifically wrote as a first glimpse, hoping to raise excitement and get the reader to want more!

All and all, I don't have a problem with prologues, as long as they are short. When I see pages and pages, I get a little turned off, but that's just me.

Great discussion! :)

Hilary

Jemi Fraser said...

Jeff - I agree - some prologues are really well done and enhance the whole story. I would imagine agents & editors would love to get those ones! :)

Teresa - there are some authors I enjoy where I look forward to the prologue because I know I'm going to like it! :)

Agnes - I believe you! I've had some strange things happen to my comments sometimes too! It all comes down to whether it works or not!

Stephen - that's great advice! If it is involved, it can be a whole story unto itself!

Diane - I haven't either - at least since I learned something about writing! But I can see how they're needed in some cases.

Talli - that kind of drives me nuts too. I like them when they intrigue me - not when they frustrate me!

Jean - thanks! (Now I just need a title for my ms) Some authors connect those tidbits in the prologue so well - it's great when it all pulls together :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Hilary - (oops - we cross posted!). I loved the prologue for Nightshade City - it's one of those well done ones that really pulls me into the story! :)

R.C. Lewis said...

I understand where agents/editors are coming from when they make blanket statements like, "If you have a prologue, you probably shouldn't." I'm willing to bet the vast majority of prologues in their slushpiles are of the done-badly and/or unnecessary variety. It's easy for me to believe after reading the openings of about 400 unpublished mss on a particular website. :-X

Same goes for most of the overgeneralized "rules." "Kill all the adverbs" comes from the majority of the slush using too many (and often awkwardly).

If you're confident your prologue fits the bill for both necessity and execution, go for it. Just remember the danger of assuming you're an exception ... you might be wrong. ;)

Jemi Fraser said...

RC - great points! I think there are a lot of 'rules' agents, editors and readers are more than willing to overlook if the story is enticing! It's all about the execution :)

laughingwolf said...

depends on the tale...

a good prolog is like the setup for ...a joke

Leslie Rose said...

I like to read prologues, but I only hear a big "no, no" whenever they're discussed at writer's conferences. I did find weaving mine into the story did work out.

Jemi Fraser said...

Laughing Wolf - love it! That's exactly what it's like - perfect! :)

Leslie - weaving it in worked for me too. But I have read several prologues I like - and some I've just hated! :)

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

As a reader, I love prologues. Most fantasy books, at least the ones I read, have them. I hear agents speak against them all the time but it's difficult not to write in the way I like to read.

Lisa Gail Green said...

awesome post, Jemi!! I agree. Mostly they aren't necessary at all, but on occasion they are great additions. My thought is if you can do it any other way, you should! :D

Jemi Fraser said...

Susan - there are some really good prologues out there - I've read a lot of great fantasy ones. I really think it all boils down to the quality of the writing! :)

Lisa - thanks! I think you're right. I'm glad I learned to weave in backstory details - it definitely made my writing stronger. But there are cases where the prologues work!

Julie Dao said...

Ooh great summary! I'm neither for nor against prologues. I think they can be wonderful beginnings to a book if they are done well. I agree that they are often an excuse for a backstory dump (flashbacks are also guilty of this) but when done well and in a consistent voice, I think they're great. It all really depends on the skill of the author and how well he or she handles it.

R.C. Lewis said...

A tweet this morning from agent Jessica Sinsheimer confirms my suspicions: "90 percent of the prologues I see in manuscripts are either far weaker than chapter one or entirely unnecessary. Cut! Cut, I say!"

So if you're going to insist on a prologue, you'd better make it super-awesome. ;-)

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Great list of cons and pros!

I agree that they can be done well, but that possible shudder you mentioned from the prospective agent or editor has always been enough to keep me from writing one...and advise others not to when critting...no sense turning someone off with your first word: Prologue, well done or not.

Rosalind Adam said...

I'm not keen on a prologue and have never written one into any of my manuscripts. I often find myself skim-reading a prologue as I feel that it's stopping me from getting on with my reading proper.

Jemi Fraser said...

Julie - I agree. It's one of those things that when it's well done, you can't imagine the book without it! But when it's bad... whole 'nother story!

RC - that's awesome timing! Great to hear from an agent on this :) So make sure those prologues sparkle or get rid of them!

Jennifer - I'm with you! Why take a chance on making someone think of your work with a negative connotation from the first word? I'd rather not!

Rosalind - agreed. I do know some authors who do them really well, but there are more I've read that don't work well at all. :)

R.C. Lewis said...

A-ha! Rosalind reminded me of the biggest "tell" for a prologue not working for me--when I can't read it without feeling that I'm being delayed from the start of the "real" story.

That's a tricky thing to gauge, though.

Jemi Fraser said...

RC - that 'get on with it feeling' can make me put the whole book down! It's really hard to judge our own work for that though. Thank goodness for crit buddies & betas!

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

For Fantasy novels, I like prologues, but in my own I've taken them out in the hopes that I'll land an agent. It's sad though, because I do love a good prologue lol

Jemi Fraser said...

Elisabeth - there are some really good prologues out there! Once you snag that agent, maybe you can put a prologue back in! :)

Arlee Bird said...

Your points are excellent. I'm not a fan of prologues unless they're are so engaging that they totally draw me in and add something to the story to come. Long prologues? --not a fan.
Can't think of an author who does prologues well, but if the prologue is done well it should seamlessly integrate into the context of the book and not particularly stand out.


Lee
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Jemi Fraser said...

Lee - Excellent point. I really dislike prologues that drag on and don't do much. I prefer some action! :)

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

great post! I haven't written anything with a prologue. I've read some and I've skimmed some because they were starting to bore me. I think they have to be vital and in the same tone as the rest of the book or they just lose readers.

Jemi Fraser said...

Sharon - thanks! There are a few prologues like that out there - I know I've skimmed a few in my time. It's important to do it well! :)

Medeia Sharif said...

I can't think of anything from the top of my head, but I appreciate a strong, short prologue. I've read the ones that go on and on--that's definitely something that doesn't whet my appetite for the rest of the book, even if the rest of the book is good.

Jemi Fraser said...

Medeia - agreed. Short and strong and I'm all in! Long and dull - and I'll probably dump the book... :)

Anita Chapman said...

Hi Jemi, I once had to write a prologue in a writing class using a black and white photograph of a man in a rural setting. I came up with a grandfather for my heroine and eventually converted it from a prologue to a subplot which runs through the novel. Usually when I see a prologue in a novel, I feel like skipping over it to Chapter 1 as I like to get stuck straight into the story. Interesting post-thanks!

Jemi Fraser said...

Anita - that's very cool! I love that you wove the prologue in and made it a strong part of the plot! I have skipped or skimmed several prologues for the very same reason :)