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Prologues and why I hate them.

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My friend Matthew Quinn got on my case about having not updated in nearly three weeks. I didn’t feel I had much to say lately, so I didn’t feel like padding things out just for the sake of it. Luckily, a recent conversation with some friends of mine gave me a good topic.

Prologues.

My current stance on Prologues is that if they are that important, just make it Chapter One. I don’t particularly see the different between naming something a Prologue and Chapter One.

During the discussion with my friends I mentioned that I’ve known people to skip Prologues. They were all appalled by this. Even claiming that they’ve never met anyone who has. But I think that’s more of an indication of the types of readers we associate ourselves with, as well as the types of books we read.

It has been my experience that Epic Fantasy and SciFi novels, on the whole, use the Prologue often. While more literary works stick to just chapters. But, I may be wrong about that.

So, why use one?

I did a little research and found these answers on Foremost Press.

1. To outline the backstory quickly and economically, saving the author from having to resort to flashbacks or ruses such as conversations or memories to explain the background to the reader. This is commonly done in science fiction and fantasy to show why a certain quest is being undertaken or what will happen in the future. The prologue is a better option than a first chapter bogged down in detail.

2. To hook the reader and provide the story question right up front, giving them a reason to keep turning the pages to find out the answer. Quite often the prologue relates to a scene near the end of the story, and the story itself then shows what has led up to this moment. When is this justified? Perhaps when you want to introduce your characters in a more leisurely fashion, and your reader’s experience with ‘meeting’ them will be enhanced by some sort of foreshadowing of what is to come.

And the first point kind of rankles me. It smells of info dumping which is something I try to avoid. I would urge anyone to find a way to sprinkle that information throughout the book in a natural way. Remember, you’re writing a work of fiction, not a history book.

The second point isn’t much further from the first. If you’re first chapter can’t provide a reasonable hook, then I would venture to say that you’re story is lacking to begin with.

Personally, if I were to ever use a Prologue, it would be to show a scene that is removed from the actual novel. Either by time or distance. Where the information provided is fun and supports the book, but isn’t necessary to know. I feel you should be able to skip it and still know what is going on in the book.

But, maybe I’m in the minority there. Maybe people love Prologues. They can’t get enough of them! And I’m some crotchety young man who wants to deny the reader the satisfaction of reading the first chapter titled Prologue.

/shrug

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4 Comments

  1. You’re not the only person who thinks prologues should be used to handle things separated from the main body of the story by time and space. I’ve heard other writers say that, either in Writing Excuses or in books.

    Personally the only times I can recall using prologues were in scenes taking place a long time before the main story, either months or close to two decades.

    • In Brandon Sanderson’s “Warbreaker,” his Prologue is something like a week or month before the main body of the book. And the character whose perspective it is in has other chapters in the book. Felt like it should have just been Chapter 1.

  2. In Sanderson’s Way of Kings, he has two prologues. He was talking about that in the most recent episode of Writing Excuses.

    Personally, I read every word of a book. Every. Single. Word. If the author thought it was important enough to put it in the book, I feel it’s my duty as a reader to read it.

    Of course, I also feel that it’s my prerogative to decide that the book is “meh” and put it down and not finish it. To each his own. I’ve done this a lot, actually, for reasons ranging from “it lost me” to “it disgusted me” to “oh, look, another 18-syllable alien name.”

    That said, I like prologues if they’re done properly. For an example of an improper prologue, read any of the Pern novels. McCaffrey puts this info-dumpy bit at the beginning of them all, explaining how Rukhbat is a star in the Saggitarian sector and the humans who discovered it blah blah yadda yadda yawn boring boring. You don’t have to know one single syllable of any of that to enjoy the novels.

    I personally plan to use the heck out of prologues.

  3. I tend to read prologues, but I’m the type to want to read everything I can to make sure I don’t miss anything. They could put “Don’t Read This” as the heading instead of “Prologue” and I’d still read it anyway.

    By the way, I just tagged you in a list of authors for a post I just did – http://ryanmurphypa.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/lucky-7-meme-7-paragraphs-from-a-wip/

    I know from your recent post how you feel about putting unedited words from a WIP online, so please don’t feel like you have to post anything from your WIP because of the tag. 🙂

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