Thursday, December 17, 2009

To prologue or not to prologue?

I have heard that prologues are out of vogue these days.  Apparently they have been used so much that agents and editors are shying away from books that contain them.

I have read some rather scathing comments by authors on writing blogs about the laziness of readers who dislike prologues.  Authors seem to feel that if they think the prologue is necessary, then the reader should dutifully agree.

As a reader, I dislike prologues.  As a writer, I dislike them as well, although I can understand why they are sometimes desirable.  They can be used to frame the story and provide background that is often difficult to include in a fast-paced, third-person limited point-of-view which is practically a requirement for publication nowadays.  A well-written prologue can draw readers in.

However, in general, I think prologues are a tease.  It's like the author is saying "Here's my story.  No, wait!  Here it is."  As a reader I tend to skim them quickly in order to get to the "real" story.  Most of the time, you can read the whole story without the prologue and fill in the one or two missing pieces of info by yourself, or just flip back later and find out (if it's really bugging you) whom the Queen's mother's uncle's sister was having the affair with.

What also bugs me is that the main character in the prologue is rarely the main character in the story.  You start to care for someone, and then find out that they were introduced just for the purpose of exposition.  I think that as authors we have to make some tough decisions about what and who our story is about.

This is something with which I'm currently struggling.  I have two point-of-view characters, one of whom starts the book and one of whom is the focus of much of the main conflict.  While I do go back and forth beween the two, they tend to dominate in different sections.  So I'm really telling two stories.  And my question is:  Should it be just one?  If so, which?  And if not, how do I effectively balance them both?    And then there is the ultimate, persistent dilemma:  Do I want to go omniscient?

This brings me back to the prologue question.  My first chapter was initially a prologue.  It explains some history between the two main characters that is essential to understanding their relationship.  Originally that history was just hinted at, but my readers were confused, so I decided to "show, not tell" by writing the prologue.  I mean, first chapter.  "Showing" has effectively ratcheted up the interest and tension at the start of the book, but it has also introduced a whole other dynamic with the additional POV character, as well as a time gap of a few months between chapters.  I decided to leave it as is, and just let the story flow from what I now realize is the natural starting point.

So my question for you, particularly if your book opens with a prologue, is: 

Where does your story really start? 

If you want to fully engage your readers from the first page, do you truly want to have a prologue? Can you include the essential details somewhere else in the story?  Does the prologue flow well with the rest of the book, or feel detached from it?

If you were a reader... would you read your own prologue? Or would you skip to the "real" beginning?  Or even worse, put the book down?  Be tough.  You can bet your readers will be.


Bane of Anubis said...

I like short prologues that either provide brief foreshadowing or let us see from a different POV. I tend to skip overly long prologues (um, hello, Robert Jordan) b/c I've found they tend to be a bit too distant from the main story.

Richard Havers said...

Like most things to do with writing the first rule is, there are no rules. It's what works in the circumstances. Personally I like a prologue, but not always! :)