Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Prologues

Speaking of prologues, those poor inoffensive often maligned, numberless chapter before the chapter...

Recently I watched the movie Spotlight. If Spotlight was a novel it would have a prologue. The first four or five scenes take place in 1976 (25 years before the main focus of the movie begins.) The scenes take place in a police station. It's not quite clear what has happened but we know that a priest has been brought in for some kind of crime, and will not be held to answer for it.

The last of that prologue is the faceless priest, escorted by the assistant district attorney, being driven away from the station, free to go.

The next scene is at the Boston Globe and the main story begins.

The function of the prologue is important: it lets us the viewer know something that the characters in the movie do not: something is very wrong, it's been going on a long time, and the powers that be are covering it up.

The tension in Spotlight comes not from "did he do it" but "will they get away with it …again."

That's all possible because of the prologue. It's hard to hate something that plays such a pivotal role, no?

Well, that's the trick of course: pivotal role.

Unless a prologue IS pivotal to the manuscript, it's probably not useful and can be discarded. I often tell writers that if the backstory in a prologue is important, weave it into the narrative. In the case of Spotlight that would be impossible. No one involved in the coverup, nor any of the contemptible priests are going to be visiting with the staff of the Boston Globe to give them backstory. If anything quite the opposite.

You need to ask yourself: what's my story? Is it "did he do it" or "will he get away with it again." Knowing the kind of story you want to write, and the kind of tension you want to build will help you know if a prologue is the right tool to use.


And as an afterthought: you just gotta love a movie where one of the lines is "golfing is not a verb."

36 comments:

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Our queen's advice matches the exact feedback I have received from all sorts of editors, agents, publishers, and readers. Weave the prologue through the narrative.

I must say this does seem to be a shift. I recently reread an old favorite fantasy series, The Belgariad, and wondered if it would ever get published if it was a debut in 2017. It has a cloggy prologue and is very slow moving. Still wonderful characters.

I do wonder how tastes change with readers. It seems, as writers, we face a reading audience with a much shorter attention span than those reading 20-30 years ago. Sadly, 20-30 years ago seems like yesterday to me.

Kitty said...

“Avoid prologues” is #2 on Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing.” It’s the infamous HOOPTEDOODLE rule.

AJ Blythe said...

Have never heard of the movie "Spotlight". Just checked it out on IMDB because I thought I might watch it to see the 'prologue' - but doesn't sound like my cuppa tea.

Will stick to reading "The Dry" by Jane Harper which is more my cuppa tea and was nominated by Jessica Faust as a great example of a prologue (mind you, it's been the next book on my TBR pile for a number of weeks - just need to find time to read!).

Kitty, thanks for the link =)

DLM said...

Janet, that IS a great piece of dialogue!

Elise, I have been reading Ursula LeGuin's Orsinian Tales and thinking frequently that it would be considered unpublishable now. And EXACTLY on your final paragraph! Thank heavens for the yesterdays that allowed us some great literature, and the tomorrows that'll hold innovations we don't see coming just now. I try not to ossify as I get older, lamenting the evolution of language and everything else, fearing and reviling change. But man is it hard to avoid those "But, but, but BUT!" feelings about the great creativity of the past.

On prologues, when they were more common and I was a younger reader, sometimes I would find myself utterly captivated by prologues in books and movies, and disappointed when things moved "later on" and I had to leave whatever past the backstory was. It got bad sometimes. So bad I ended up turning into a complete history diver, and writing it myself, staying way way back in years, not pointing forward, not mentioning the now.

Prologues like that are good and bad; if they're more interesting than the flash-forward that follows, it can ruin the rest of the piece. But sometimes the intriguing introduction raises crucial issues, as Spotlight obviously does, and creates powerful reverberations.

(Janet, "those ... numberless chapterS" perhaps?)

Amy Schaefer said...

I always thought the rule with prologues was: can the story survive without it? Spotlight is an excellent example. The so-called prologue is a key piece of the story.

Prologues are often more useful for the writer than the reader. We might need to get that piece of narrative clear in our own minds before proceeding. But that doesn't mean it should survive to the final version.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I lose interest in a book immediately if there is a prologue from inside the villains mind and his motive is, he's crazy.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

My prologue ended when I turned twenty-three.
It's taken a lot of years to get through the rest of my pages. Some good, some bad, a lot of mystery and some shenanigans. ( Great word shenanigans.) I think I'll reread my prologue. It was fun.
I'm hoping these last chapters aren't as boring as I think they are.

InkStainedWench said...

Sharyn Ekbergh, I totally agree. A crime committed by someone who is psychotic (or in a drug-crazed rampage) doesn't work. Of course, you probably have to be a LITTLE unstable to commit a horrific crime, but the motive has to be rational and convincing.

Colin Smith said...

Oh pendulum swings! It seems as if prologues are a staple of sci-fi, at least they were about 20 years ago. Probably still are. Everybody used to love a prologue. Then, probably due to prologue overkill and too many unnecessarily, clumsily prologues, the advice became "don't prologue!" Now we're saying "moderation--prologue if it's integral to the story." I'm sure that's the correct advice. But it can apply to just about anything in your novel.

I'm taking tips from my new writing guru, the Amazing Pantless Jeff Somers, and not worrying about "rules" so much as just trying to write darn good stories and write them well. Will I have prologues? Maybe. Will I have vampires? Perhaps. Will I write in both second and third persons, and include flying chipmunks and hybrid unicorn-giraffes (giraficorns)? Could be fun! More than anything, what will make these things "work" is how good the story is, and how well I execute its telling. That's really all that matters.

2Ns: I'm sure your prologue was wonderful, and foundational to the rest of the story. But you never realized how great the novel was going to be back when you wrote it. I'm sure if you were to go back, you wouldn't want to stay too long, knowing the amazing adventure still ahead. :)

stacy said...

Love that movie. Watched it once, then watched it a second time right away. It's one of those films I know I'll lose count in how many times I've seen it. So well done.

Timothy Lowe said...

Almost every published book I peek into the first 5 on Amazon (I'm talking recent ones) has a prologue. It's almost a sure thing. I'm not saying that makes it a good thing, but it seems to be a thing.

That said, just looking at the first 5 makes it hard to judge whether they're totally necessary, but I'm assuming they are.

Kitty: Love that post - been trying to wear all of that advice as close to my heart as possible, while weighing it with Chuck Wendig's "writing advice is bullshit." Sometimes I feel like I'm spending a lot of mental energy trying to unlearn how to ride a bike.

EM: Love the Belgariad, but I kind of see what you mean about "would it be published today?" Part of that might just be that it was part of an earlier canon, and would feel dated today (Chosen One story, etc.) But if you can write a character as compelling and loveable as Silk, you've got me.

Slightly OT: Reading Cujo for the first time. Awesome shit, except the first 110 pages are all character building and lead-in. Now, I love the writing, love the characters, and ate that first 110 up, but without a 3-4 page prologue of sorts where he sets the scene as a "monster story," I'm wondering if they would have worked as well.

Kitty said...

Timothy Lowe: I love Elmore Leonard's rules because they're pithy; they make sense. I bought the book, the one illustrated by Joe Ciardiello, and keep next to the computer along with "The Elements of Style." I have other books on writing, but those are the only two I keep close-by.

Steve Stubbs said...

When people watch a movie in a theatre they have presumably gussied up, driven their cars to a distant parking lot, dodging all the drivers who are texting and not watching the road, walking 50 miles from their parking space to the theatre, putting up with the foul odor of stale popcorn in the theatre, living with the other patrons who stomp on their feet over and over again going to and from the restroom and never admitting they do it for sport, trying to remove the soles of their feet from the carpet someone poured a sugary drink on that seems to have been laced with super glue. When the film finally starts they have sat through commercials (known otherwise as previews) and listened to the patrons in the row immediately behind them spout spoiler after spoiler.

They have made a commitment to watching the damn thing.

Unless the actor is Tom Cruise and the title is MAGNOLIA they probably won't walk out on it. You have a captive audience. There used to be a cheesy gimmick in which at exactly one hour into the film (you could set your watch by it) one of the actresses would take her shirt off and that was supposed to keep you in your seat. But I remember if I did not like a movie I always stayed until the one hour zinger had come and gone before exiting the theatre.

In a book you don't have that luxury. If I am in a bookstore and I open a novel entitled YAWN, PART 2 by NoNameWriter and it does not grab me by the end of the first sentence - well, I am going to do what I did after MAGNOLIA had run for about ten minutes.

You know what that is. I already told you the movie featured Tom Cruise. That says it all.

If I wrote SPOTLIGHT as a novel, the priest would be doing something dastardly in the first sentence. And I don't mean serving Gatorade instead of wine at Eucharist, either. I might have him strangling Mother Theresa with her own string of rosary beads. Maybe he is running from the scene of a crime with police sirens howling in the background. Maybe he is threatening the bishop with blackmail to get transferred to a parish in Your Neighborhood. There are all kinds of fun ways to open. But open it must. If you don't open, the reader can close it all too easily.

Of course you have to consider your market. If you are pitching one of those agents or editors who make it clear on their web site they hate commercial writing and are only interested in arty farty, and even then only if it does not sell, title your book A NON-MEDICAL CURE FOR DRY EYES and start with a prologue that is so bloody boring the reader has tears streaming down his or her cheeks after two pages. That is fun to write, too. Just be sure that is what the reader wants. Always think in terms of the reader and give that reader what you think s/he wants.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Timothy I so loved Silk in Belgariad and The Mallorean as well. All the characters were so well done. My friends and I used to plot out how to adopt both series as a Game of Thrones type thing way before George RR Martin had even written the first syllable of Song of Fire and Ice. Ah well. Movers are here so off I go to a new chapter of this story of a life.

Donnaeve said...

I don't mind prologues unless they do nothing but confuse things.

One of the best (IMO), although it seemed confusing at first, was in THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, one of my all time favorite books. The voice was so defined, for one thing, but it was also such an integral part of the story except you didn't know it until...

Yeah. Definitely one of the best prologues ever.

Craig F said...

The last time this subject came up it was used as an excuse to send me to Carkoon. I do still owe Dena a beer over that one.

A great many prologues would work better as backstory buried somewhere in chapter 3. The really good prologues can sometimes get all the way back to chapter 15. Those are the really deep and obscure prologues that sometimes keep your interest up through the dragging middle of that book.

That said, there are places that prologues work. One of the best was in 2001, with the apes dancing around the plinth. What makes it strong is that it is also the epilogue. Prologues that deal with ancient history usually work but sometimes work as spoilers.

Keeping a prologue from being a spoiler takes even more care than brushing your teeth with explosives.

Dena Pawling said...


Hey Craig! Considering that summer just started TODAY and we've already had a heat wave hot enough to be reported on CNN, so hot that flights have been canceled [I never knew it could be too hot for planes to fly], buckling asphalt, several fires, etc, I could sure use that beer. And anyone with rain to spare, please send it this way.

Regarding today's topic, I don't have much to add except I've read some good prologues, but many more that seemed like a bad place to start a book.


Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

For prologue that's excellently done, I highly recommend reading the one in "The Dry" by Jane Harper. Awesome set-up, atmospheric, a literary appetizer.

wanderlustywriter.com said...

I know I tend to be in the minority, but I love prologues. Most of my favorite writers use them at least some of the time (Tana French's are amazing; the first chapter of Harry Potter is in essence a prologue and I think it was super necessary). But I've heard so many times that agents don't like prologues that I've found ways to remove them from all my own manuscripts. Maybe once I'm a bestselling author and have more leeway to do what I want I will be able to add them back in!

Joseph Snoe said...

An early draft of my WIP had a great Prologue. I read it to the local library writers group. They went nuts badmouthing prologues in general. Lesson learned. I dumped my Prologue.

Then I read a few sample pages of thrillers on Amazon.com, and about half of them had prologues. Some had three chapter prologues.

I don’t see why it matters. If it’s part of the story, read it.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Loved The Belgariad when I was young. I was more a Polgara fan than Silk.

Why could The Belgariad be published in the 80's but not the 20's? That's what I need to know.

I have no prologues because I have no info that would optimally function best in one.

julieweathers said...

I have mixed emotions about prologues. If they're done well, I love them. I bought Game of Thrones because of the prologue. I read it and thought, what wonderful writing and I have to know what happens. Then it flips to Ned taking his sons out to execute a deserter from the night watch and I'm disappointed because I don't get to find out what happens next until I realize who the deserter is, with great sadness.

Totally and completely hooked.

As with anything else, if it works it works.

I dislike hard and fast rules for the most part aside from use good grammar and punctuation. Adverbs are bad. Prologues are bad. Short sentences are good.

Someone did a breakdown of adverbs in novels. Yes, this was one of those geek number crunchers, God bless him. He analyzed several best seller and classic authors. Lo and behold, Stephen King, the guy who rails against adverbs all the time falls right in the middle of the pack for adverbs per 1,000 words.

Hemingway and Twain, I believe, were on the low end of adverbs.

I loved The Belgariad. It's what made me want to write fantasy.

Thankfully, I don't have the horrible experiences with theaters Steve describes. For many years, my youngest son has called me out of the blue and asked if I want to go to the movie and we'll go to a matinee somewhere. Sometimes we'll be walking across a parking lot and he'll say, "Dance with me, Mom." and we'll two step around the parking lot.

We'll enjoy the movie. We'll discuss the story later, writing, dialogue, plot. If there was CGI, he'll explain to me how it was done and who did it.

If golf is a verb, why wouldn't golfing be a verb?

BJ Muntain said...

The problem with prologues is that too many people use them badly. They use prologue to pour in all the backstory they think a reader has to know right up front in order to understand the book. So you wind up with page after page of uninteresting backstory. That's why many readers don't read prologues anymore.

My novel has a 'prologue'. It's not labelled as such. It's similar to a murder mystery prologue - written from the POV of a victim, with hints to some information the protagonists won't know at first because the victims die before they can tell anyone. It also gives a bit of a view to the excitement that comes later in the novel - while the novel itself starts out with conflict, it's not adventurous conflict yet. Oh, and this 'prologue' has only 375 words. I've had good feedback on it, too.

If you ask me, the general advice to a) don't have a prologue, and b) if the prologue is necessary, then make it the first chapter, is too generalized. As with anything, it really depends on the book - and the writer's skills. Heck, all 'general advice' is over-generalized. Books aren't cars - they don't need to be written to certain specifications. They just need to be a good read.

julieweathers said...

BJ,

If Rain Crow ever sees the light of day, the second book will have a prologue. It's a short one, a paragraph long and simply introduces Captain Baron Patrick Callahan, CSA. He's already known through volume one, but the second volume takes a deeper look at war through his eyes. "The days of people enjoying picnics on hillsides as men gathered below to deal death were over and the grim reality of war had set in."

It signals the change from the first battle of Manassass, to the settling in for war through his eyes.

As you say, all general advice is a bit too "generalized".

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I like prologues as long as they are short and tell me something the word-world I am about to dive into doesn't know. Give me insight, history and knowledge and I'm hooked.

Brigid said...

On a cheerier note, have y'all read Jennifer R. Donohue's latest short story? It's excellent.

Lennon Faris said...

I keep wanting to put a prologue in for my WIP. But I hate prologues. So, I'm trying to keep myself under control.

The only prologue I can think of that I liked was in ENDER'S GAME, which wasn't actually a prologue because that style (anonymous speaking, and not from Ender's POV) appeared several other times in the book. Of course, I think I would forgive anything from that book.

Susan said...

I don't really have an opinion on prologues either way, as long as they lure me (and keep me) into the story. But I don't like when the prologue sets up a world and invites you to know characters and then doesn't stay there. The book I'm thinking of is Station Eleven, which may or may not have been a prologue at all, I can't remember. The beginning sucked me in, and I wanted to stay in that world and follow along with what was happening, but then the prologue ended and we jumped a bit into the future and the aftermath. I was so irritated, I stopped reading. Someday I want to give it a second chance.

I can understand why agents bemoan the prologue. Like everyone is saying, most of that information given in the prologue can be woven into the rest of the manuscript. But I think there are also times when a prologue is called for. It's all about tension and pacing.

Now the epilogue...I've become a big fan of the epilogue. ;)

Barbara Etlin said...

An example of a good prologue is the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone. It contains necessary backstory about Harry's first encounter with Voldemort, how he got his scar, and why he is an orphan.

An example of a bad prologue (or it may have been the first chapter; I don't remember) is Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes. I did like the rest of the book, but I was irritated by this introduction. (POV character is killed off by the villain. In the next chapter we're in another POV character's head.)

I had a prologue in my WIP originally but I deleted it because it's unnecessary.

Colin Smith said...

Oh no--my Jeff Somers link from earlier doesn't appear to work. Here it is for those who wish to follow his words of writerly wisdom:

https://unconventionalwriting.wordpress.com

Panda in Chief said...

I almost put a prologue in my current WIP, but remembering the anti-prologue thingie that seems to be going around, I figured out a way to incorporate it later in the story, as a tale the villan tells her minions. It really worked out better that way, but I could see it working as a prologue as well.

The Coen brothers have a hilarious prologue at the beginning of "A Serious Man" which has absolutely nothing to do with the story in the movie, but that's kind of what they do. I suspect they...um...use some "herbal inspiration" when they write. That's the only explanation I can come up for it. There is also a prologue/epilogue of sorts in "Burn After Reading" one of their more hilarious movies. In this case, the prologue is necessary, setting up the characters and dynamic for what follows.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

Jennifer, that is an excellent story! Love it.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Brigid and Sharyn Ekbergh, thank you so much! It's a story I really like, and I'm so very happy that it's finally found a home.


A prologue isn't an automatic dealbreaker for me, but it's something I will view pretty critically. There seems to be such a profound disconnect between most prologues and the text which follows, sometimes in subject matter, quality of writing, and tone, and sometimes I just can't get past it.

One of my *cough* unfinished novels, a fantasy, has a prologue. It isn't a thing I've written before or since (though my first cyberpunk novel does have an epilogue, which was another rare decision). I'm not sure it'll stick through publication, whichever manner that happens, if it happens. But right now, having actually read it pretty recently, I still feel good about it.

MA Hudson said...

When the prologue invites you into one world and the rest of the book is set in a different time or place - it makes me feel like someone's pulled the rug from under me.

John Davis Frain said...

Jennifer, that was a wonderful read. I didn't see a way to leave a glowing comment, which I would have liked to do. I've been known to look for my sunglasses that were on my head before, so there's a decent chance I just didn't see the way to leave a comment. If there is, lemme know.

Regardless, great job. Congratulations on the acceptance and publication credit. That was truly an example of a story that did NOT need a prologue. Woulda ruined it!

LynnRodz said...

I may be in the minority, but I enjoy reading prologues.

Btw, I loved Jennifer's story. Congrats!