Monday, March 21, 2011

My Prologue Predicament

I like prologues.

There, I said it.  I feel like I just confessed a decade long drug addiction, and I know many will view my proclamation in the same light.  But I'm being honest. 

I'm not saying every book needs one, nor do I feel they should be wedged inside the spine for the sake of being included.  Yet where not having a prologue is acceptable and never disputed, many criticize their inclusion, categorizing them as a major faux pas. 

I had written about five first chapters before uncovering where my W.I.P. began.  When it finally revealed itself, I found it perfect.  From there, I progressed at a consistent pace.  The foundation had settled and I could begin building the subsequent levels of my project.  But the further I got in the story, the more I sensed something was missing.  Something critical; one tiny piece that needed to be revealed earlier. 

So, I wrote a prologue.

At the time, I thought nothing of it.  The majority of the books on my shelf have a prologue.  As a reader, I appreciate prologues that leave me feeling teased by the author.  As a teacher, I relied on prologues to help me 'sell' a book to students.  Imagine my surprise when, months after beginning a novel of my own, I learned prologues are a highly debated topic in contemporary literature.

I have since spent a lot of time - too much, in my opinion - reading the arguments for and against prologues.  I can tell you mine is less than 350 words.  I can also tell you I believe the last line is flawless.  That sentence motivated the entire piece; I started there and worked my way backwards.

I want the reader to have that statement before beginning the story.  I feel it is the perfect hook to segue into the novel.  Yes, I have tried moving the hook to the opening of chapter one, but it doesn't fit correctly.  I've spent days playing with the wording to make it fit, but my efforts continue to fail.  The bottom line is, without the proper progression, the pizazz disappears.  And I want readers to feel the same pizazz I felt when I read it for the first time.

My prologue has been shared with a handful of people.  I ask each reader to comment on whether or not the writing builds suspense, whether the facts are intriguing, and most importantly, whether the prologue motivates them to dive into this story at full speed.  The responses have been unanimously favorable, and the feedback convinces me my purpose has been accomplished.

I want to keep it.  At the same time, I'm not comfortable keeping something so controversial, especially if it could turn people away from ever reading the first chapter.  The easiest thing would be to chuck it - I can't worry about something that doesn't exist, right?


I feel it.  I feel the significance of those words and recognize the purpose they have in the overall book.  If it is removed, I will miss it.  I'll have no choice but to throw on black and mourn it's loss for days months years the remainder of my life.  That's how important it is to me.

Of course, if it causes others to detest my writing - or blog about how they refused to give the book a chance because they despise prologues more than chronic illness and acts of terrorism - I still lose.

Sigh.  What's a brother to do?


  1. I had a prologue. I used the prologue format because it's set half a year before the rest of the story. It's also intentionally ambiguous about a few things, but there's immediate feedback in what was previously ch.1.

    I say previously because what was ch.1 is now ch.2, and the prologue is ch.1. I changed it for a few reasons, including a meta structure to the whole novel (and series),but part of that decision tree involved reading that sample pages should not be from prologues, and that partials shouldn't include them either.

    Poor prologues - the red-headed stepchild of the manuscript.

    But you know what? If the prologue works, then run with it. All my favorite 'How to Get Published" stories are the ones where people break the rules and get away with it because their shit is just that good. I'm shooting for that.

    Why would anyone want to shoot for less? :)

  2. I believe this falls under the category of it just has to work. Based on what you've said, your prologue works, and so you should probably just keep it in there. It's the things which don't work which should be removed.

  3. I don't mind a prologue as long as it serves a purpose. If, like the commented before me, it serves to impart some information that the reader needs before the story starts, then that's okay. If it's just a snippet of action from the middle if the book? Chuck it. If it's just an intro? Chuck it. If it's the scene of the crime that fuels a who-dun-it, then ok, keep it.

    As a freelance editor, I don't tell my clients to get rid of them, but I do ask them to seriously consider if they need to be there.

  4. I love prologues... and if you love it, then you should keep it.

    I don't believe a prologue keeps people from reading the first chapter (or is a turn off in any form) because if somebody doesn't like a prologue, they just skip it.

  5. I think you should share that awesome last line :)

    Truly, if you feel your prologue is important to the plot, then you should keep it! What I dislike is prologues that are just a big infodump, or prologues that introduce characters who aren't anywhere in the rest of the book.

    And epilogues - don't get me started :)

  6. Question: Whose book is it?

    Question: Who was that wanted a prologue?

    Question: Same guy, right?

    Any questions?

  7. I agree with some of the others. A prologue has to be essential, have a point. I had a 1st chapter a month ago. And it had been read and liked by all but they, like me, knew something was amiss with it. Until someone (an admitted prologue hater, actually) mentioned that it just didn't fit as chapter 1. And it was information that a reader needed, but it didn't go well with the rest of the chapters. So prologue hater told me to either cut it and fill in the info all around the rest of the novel some way, or make it the prol! I'm terrified of it, because of all the reasons you have given. But I can't help but know she is right. So, I say, you know it's needed, you know it's got to be the prologue, let the agent or publisher deal with how they think best to handle it, and you sit back and just love your work!

  8. My whole thing about so called "rules" is that they're basically BS. I understand why they're there, but I don't really care. I would argue that you just need to learn the rules, so that you know you're breaking them when you do. Just make sure it's done on purpose, and for a good reason.

    Also: I friggin love prologues. So go on with your bad self, brother.

  9. If it fits, keep it. My book didn't originally have one, but my publisher asked for a prologue, as much for starting the story out with a bang as for a little backstory.

  10. I've used a prologue, I've used epilogues, I've used chapters pulled from late in the book to open a novel and I've written novels without any of these. What's needed is what makes the story work best.

  11. I like Prologues and Teasers. EFF convention!

    Breakfast Every Hour

  12. You obviously have something to share, so keep the prologue. It will all work out at the end.
    BTW, help me understand what "W.I.P" means. Thanks, Celia.

  13. There is a theory: no-one knows the book better than the author of said book. Obviously you feel the prologue works. Sometimes you just have to trust your gut.

    The only time I tend to despise prologues is when they end up being a character dump. I'd rather discover the character as I go along.

    In the end all you can honestly do is write the best book you can. If by some chance your prologue doesn't work (but the rest does), you'll get that feedback from your agent or an editor.

    If I've learned anything it's to be prepared for 'anything'. As long as the original story stays intact, there are bound to be changes unforseen before anything we write is published. (Hugs)Indigo

  14. In the fantasy genre it's rare to pick up a novel that doesn't have a prologue. Wanting to be a fantasy author there's pressure to include one in your novel. I've read some hundred fantasy novels, and I think I've read the best and the worst of prologues.

    One of my favorite fantasy writers, Rober Jordan, had a prologue in every novel he ever wrote. I feel like the best prologue I've ever read was written by Jordan. It was in the first book of his series The Wheel of Time. It was only a few pages long. It took me all of five minutes to read it. Every now and then I pick up The Eye of the World for nothing other than to spend just a few minutes reading its prologue. Saying it's the best prologue I've ever read is an understatement. It's some of the best writing I've ever read.

    Now, on the other hand, some of Jordan's prologues make me suicidal. Later on in the WoT series the prologues stretch for hundreds of pages. I would toil through every page just to get to chapter one, and wipe the sweat from my brown when I finished. I've hesitated rereading the series just because of the thought of those prologues.

    The best prologues are short, snappy, and will have me hooked by the end. If your's is like that, Paul, don't hesitate to include. I like a good prologue. Like I said, I pick up "The Eye of the World" about once every few weeks just to read its prologue. Who knows what your's might do for someone.

  15. Michael: I'm with you. The stories where people intentionally break the rules, with a purpose of course, and get away with it are encouraging. I'm a fan of individuality and creative thought. Trying to fit a mold never appealed to me.

    Jeffrey: Well said! I'll leave it up to others to tell me what doesn't work when the time comes.

    Roberta: No worries - I have no intention of writing an epilogue :)

    Levi: Your comment is amazing. I think I like it in a way methinks is probably illegal. Cheers!

    Alex: That's interesting - I haven't heard many stories where a prologue was requested. Good to know.

    Linda: "What's needed is what makes the story work best." Amen!

    Alex: Yes, sir!!

    Indigo: Great insight. I too believe the author knows his or her book best. And I'm prepared for changes, if I'm ever fortunate enough to get to that stage. I'm open to suggestions when the time comes. But I'm also a perfectionist, and it's important for me to present something as close to perfect as possible, hence my high blood pressure.

    Mark: Thanks for your input and explanation of WHY. It's helpful to read through your thoughts and use it to evaluate my own. Of course I personally like my prologue, but I must also consider that others will respond with the same positive reaction I have. It helps to know, specifically, what people like and don't like, instead of just knowing they are controversial. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Know what you mean because I have a prologue on my novel which I think is actually necessary (early readers concur at this point) but agent articles say no way.

    Solution for you: Call it chapter 1

    Solution for me: I'm going to see if there's a way to incorporate the information differently. If I can't, I'll take my chances and see what comes.


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