Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Question: the oft-maligned prologue

My WIP begins with a prologue that takes place three years before the main action of the novel but plays a significant role in the story’s conflict and plot. Chapter 1 begins with character action in the year the novel takes place.

I have been doing a lot of research on the different ways to begin a novel and have read many polarizing opinions on prologue use from various players in the publishing industry. The most common is agents saying that they HATE to see novels beginning with prologues. The reasons are perfectly valid; they’ve seen it all – prologues that are information dumps full of backstory, prologues that have no connection to the main character, prologue action that has no impact on the story. I can understand how, after receiving multiple sample page submissions of these and other examples, most agents abhor prologues.

Knowing this about agents, I have the following question: If my prologue lacks backstory, shows (not tells) an important scene of story action, plays a major role in the plot, and introduces the overall character motivation (although MC doesn’t know it until later in the story), is it an acceptable way to begin my novel?

I have heard that some agents will go so far as to reject the submission as soon as they see the word “prologue” on pg 1. I have also heard that a counter for this is to simply title the prologue “Chapter 1” and re-number the rest of the chapters. This strikes me as mildly deceptive since I fully intend for the prologue to be marketed as a prologue.

What’s your take on the subject? Will most agents look past the dreaded “P” word if the opening line and sample pages are engaging? Or will the use of this controversial opening tactic win me a one-way ticket to rejectionville? 

I am fully settled in the I Hate Prologues camp too. I go so far as to NOT read them in a manuscript.

My feeling is exactly as you've outlined above.

So, what to do?

If you leave the prologue OUT of your query, will the agent be able to understand Chapter One? If so, leave it out OF THE QUERY. Remember, you only have three-five pages most likely, or not many more, to catch an agent's attention.

A query is not the full manuscript and it's certainly NOT the finished book. Reading at the query stage is often skimming. It's NOT settling down on the couch with a cat and a cup of java for a nice read of an 800 page novel.

The query is designed to entice the reader (in this case the agent) to read more. Which part of the book is best suited for that? Your prologue or Chapter One?  Be very critical in your assessment here.  If I'm only going to read five pages, which ones are they?

And you don't actually have to put prologue you know. It's Chapter 0. Or Chapter 1.  Don't get all caught up in "this must be a prologue" cause as soon as you do the editor at the publishing house is gonna say "hey, people don't read prologues, we always start with chapters" and that's gonna be that.


french sojourn said...

This question has been killing me for so long. I've read this and that, really hunted it down with the help of Mr. and Mrs. Google to find articles. Then I read your response.

It hit me full in the chest cavity.
"kill your darlings"
I thought..."the story won't work without it."
This prologue I added a year ago...all it was, was fluff. A cool forbearing that spiced the opening.

Where does the story start? sound familiar?

I just took out the Remington 332 over/under and wasted that f-ing lil' darling.

Thank you Sharque...now I have to get rid of the ringing in my ears.

Cheers Hank

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I tend not to like prologues, because I read them and get excited, and then the "real" action with the "real" characters starts in the first chapter. I'm disappointed every time, yet I still read them, because what if I miss something?

I accidentally wrote a prologue this weekend. I didn't realize it 'til the last sentence. I looked at it, looked at the heavens and shouted "NOOOOOOOOO' (which startled the dog, I assure you), deleted that sentence. Then I wrote the next paragraph, and the next, and now it's the first chapter.

Ashes said...

The claim that "people don't read prologues" really bothers me. I can see that being true amongst industry people, who have seen countless ineffective valueless prologues.

But is the average reader really not reading prologues? I've been asking during my day job as a substitute librarian. It seems to me, by a wide margin, library patrons are reading prologues. In fact, they seem surprised that it's even in question.

I would never skip a prologue. But then, I also read the acknowledgments, dedication, author's notes and the back of my cereal box in the morning.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

I'm always perfectly happy to read them - but then, I don't have to read for a living. So I would take care to avoid the P word altogether, whatever you actually include in your sample. For anyone allergic to prologues, seeing one is only going to set up a jolt of resistance, which will then eat up further mental effort to override (assuming they DO override it and don't just ditch you there and then). You want your work to be experienced in as pleasant and relaxed a frame of mind as possible.

If you feel your prologue is vital to the story (and it sounds as though it is), why not include it but just call it Chapter 1, and follow on with the flashback scene as Chapter 2? I've seen this done loads of times, to no ill effect. The "jump" can even be rather exciting.

And I don't find it deceptive: you're narrating your work in an honest, straightforward way which causes the least confusion. At the query stage, I think that's all the agent/publisher is going to care about. You can argue the finer points regarding what to label your opening section later on in the process.

Opinion is divided about prologues, so don't take chances. I'd stay away from anything that even MIGHT spark a negative response in the public. Remember, they're browsers before they're readers. The sweeping beam of their attention is relentlessly swift - so don't give them any extra reason to pass you by.

Valerie said...

i can sometimes force myself to read a prologue if it's not more than a page or two. i hate it when someone puts in a ten page prologue, i feel like it's the homework i have to do before i get to recess.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

I am ambivalent about prologues.

The single best one I have ever seen had the prologue in biblical times, the character hid the treasure in the ship, just as the storm overwhelmed it and . . .


Modern day, the divers were laughing as they prepared to dive over the shipwreck.

It worked.

However, when I do my weekly survey of the Amazon freebies and I see 2-3 pages of close packed text, often italicized, that doesn't pull me into the action and give me immediate jumpstart on the stakes?


If the story needs it, it needs it. I am doing the dive into book 2 right now and struggling with the how-to-fold-in-book-1-critical-facts. The only thing I know for sure is that it won't be a prologue.


ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

When I entered into this whole "let's try to get published" deal, I discovered that I became much more critical of prologues in my reading. However, my other observation was that maybe you can't get away with a prologue in your debut, but in subsequent books? Seems to be less of an issue.

The lesson I take from that is two-fold: Janet's clarity in how to approach a prologue in your query is spot on and hopefully once you've successfully published, you've determined the efficacy of prologues in future works and included or excluded them accordingly.

Craig F said...

There is a reason for the prologue but the shame is that most writers who use it don't know it.

Wat too often I have seen prologues that suck the entire mystery out of a book. You find yourself reading just to find out when the MC will find the truth that you already know.

Many of those prologues would be better served somewhere around chapter 20.

The prologue can be a necessary thing in some historical and sci-fi books that span a lot of time. Like most things in writing you should allow the book to dictate the need for a prologue, just don't get too cute and reveal all those things the other chapters try to build.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I think most great fantasy books have prologues. Sometime they're not called that but it's what they are. Brandon Sanderson is an artist at writing prologues. Maybe they don't belong in romances. TV shows have prologues.

Anonymous said...

Like Hank, this is a part of writing I have researched, although nothing I've written starts off this way. For some reason, I'm surprised by the Shark's answer. Personally, I don't mind a book that opens with a prologue. There are always a few exceptions - THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE comes to mind. (and a debut, to boot.) I guess this is why the question is still asked.

Unknown said...

I think what the Shark says is the big takeaway here. Will the query and sample pages fly without the prologue? Not, will the book fly, but will the sample fly? The prologue can be quibbled over once you’ve landed that agent and they’ve read the whole thing.

Another thing to keep greatly in mind is that the sample should match the query. If the query is pitching a story about dogs and you send the prologue and it’s about cats, well, confusion (and rejection) may well reign.

Lastly (and for later), can the prologue info be layered in in a flashback sort of fashion?

As a reader I will always read a prologue, but as some here have suggested, sometimes withholding that information in favor of releasing it later can do a great deal to increase mystery and reader interest, as long as you’re not lying or otherwise deceiving them.

LynnRodz said...

Whew! Glad to see that others read prologues as well. I don't mind reading them if they're done right and they're an integral part of the story. The problem is a lot of writers don't know how to use it and that's what most agents see. In the end, the prologue has been given a bad rap.

Kyler said...

It was actually my parents in Florida who said that they didn't read prologues, back in the first-draft days of my novel. So I quickly changed my prologue into Chapter 1 and it's stayed that way ever since. Didn't want to take the chance that even Florida parents might miss my very important first chapter!

Amanda said...

I just love you, Janet! Always so blunt :) I have this same prologue issue. Since I feel it's so crucial to the story I'm just going to call it Chapter 1 like JK Rowling did.
But I'd never considered the fact that I could just skip the prologue pages when querying. Great advice. Thank you!

Laura said...

I usually skip/skim prologues, forewords, poems, Shakespearean quotes, and the other detritus in front of chapter 1, especially in fantasy, my favorite genre. I did this before I became a writer. I even skipped the foreword in Lolita, which contains the ending, and it still became my favorite novel.

I do this because I love books like a lion loves fresh zebra. A prologue is like a large rock, blocking my view of my prey. I prefer to soar over it majestically and get right to the good stuff.

Wendy Qualls said...

My solution has been "Don't put a prologue in your first book." Hopefully by the time I'm a NYT best-selling author, I'll have an agent and editor and an intern and maybe a housekeeper and among them, they'll figure out how I can slip a prologue past the unsuspecting public :-P

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Janet - I think perhaps it would be interesting to hear what percentage of books submitted with prologues actually end up published with those prologues? Are there any numbers you know of? People often assume the books that end up on the shelves are the exact same books that went through the front door of the publishing house or into the editor's hands. The prologues we as readers see aren't all that exist. Those are the ones someone decided needed to be there. My guess is that there is a far greater number of them that were axed before publication happened. But I could be wrong!

Julie Sondra Decker said...

Ooh, I have a prologue--but I called it "0." Not really to avoid prejudice against them, but because it's the protagonist talking to the reader and setting the stage. That probably sounds unnecessary, but it's supposed to be the character's autobiography, and . . . she would have one. It doesn't seem to have affected me negatively, having a lead-in like this, but then, it's clear to anyone who reads it why it's there. I talked about it with my agent a little during our first phone call and she said something like "Was that even a prologue? I GUESS it was. . . ."

Calorie Bombshell said...

I skip prologues completely. If it's necessary to the story, it should be reflected somewhere b/t Chapter 1 and The End.

Mindy Tarquini said...

I write all my prologues in French, hide them in the middle of the manuscript, then wait to see if anybody notices.

Janet Reid said...

Qu'est-ce que Mme Tarquini a dit est vrai

DLM said...

ProfeJMarie, I had the same thing happen with narration in movies. Now it seriously hurts my brain. Sometimes, we dis-aquire our tastes.

As Jennifer Donohue points out, if a prologue is good, I want to read THAT story. It's amazing how often I want to read backstory for a novel which otherwise underwhelms. There's always a kernel of fascinating material; there isn't always an arrow in the center of the target, though.

Stuart Neville said...

My WIP has a prologue. It's the first of my novels to have one. The prologue was there from the moment of the novel's inception several years ago. It takes place seven years before the novel's primary timeline, but it captures the novel's premise and its central conflict in less than 500 words. It is not, was not, will never be chapter one. It is a prologue, a clear and defined thing that is separate from but essential to the primary narrative.

The supposed rule that you should avoid prologues is, like all absolutisms when it comes to creative writing, pure bullshit. It either works for your story or it doesn't. If it's a short cut, an info dump, a way to build your world without showing it in action, then it's probably a bad move.

I guess the question to ask yourself when considering a prologue is why it should be there, not if it should. If the reason is simply about convenience, then it's the wrong choice.

Joseph S. said...

I feel like a battered badminton shuttle. After I’d written several chapters of the start of my first novel I got the impression the novel must capture the reader from paragraph one. I liked my beginning but it didn’t have the mystery or suspense somebody said it should. I wrote a Prologue with suspense and mystery. It is a Prologue because it is what the bad guys are doing before the good guy enters the picture. I read the Prologue at a local library writers club and the whole discussion was on whether books should have Prologues – The anti-Prologue people being the loudest and most indignant. I have three people I use as readers. I told them I thought I’d remove the Prologue. All three said leave it in. It alerts the reader when a bad guy enters the picture, they said, even though the good guy has no reason to suspect anything. I saw top sellers on Amazon.com using prologues. I left it in, for now
Now I read this. The question was a good one (and I understand why it was asked. Boy, do I understand.) Every comment is a good one, too. I’m back to confusion square one. I tried calling the Prologue Chapter One. It’s told from the bad guy’s perspective and doesn’t feel right as Chapter One. I am curious what I finally do. But never again will I write a prologue (unless I write a book on writing a book and I can use this dilemma to show why I’m writing the book).

Sara J. Henry said...

Recently read a friend's manuscript with a kick-ass prologue ... that simply didn't fit the book that followed. It was well written and engrossing, but didn't belong - readers inevitably would have been confused/frustrated/disappointed when the rest of the book didn't deliver what the prologue led them to expect.

It belonged in the book it promised, not the one it ended up being tagged onto.

Melinda Szymanik said...

I am struggling with what seems to be a blanket prejudice against the word prologue. So it's okay if you call it chapter zero or chapter one? Not really. It either is a prologue (if you look at the definition of the word) or it isn't. And surely the bottom line is if it is great writing and deserves its place. Just to dismiss it if it is called 'prologue' seems a little odd.

Joseph S. said...

I agree with you, Melinda.

But if keeps an agent, a publisher or a reader from getting to Chapter One, what good does it do to be right?

Joseph S. said...

I'm trying this: I deleted "Prologue" and inserted "The White Box" as the title. It may not work but at least it calmed me down for a day.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's novel Buffalo Afternoon begins with a prologue if ever a book did - two completely contrasting voices of anonymous characters, in first-person narrative. Then the story itself starts, told in the third-person, and they never appear again, nor directly affect the plot. And it works. I gobbled it up, unaware that I was (shock, horror) ingesting a Prologue.

The author got around the problem (which is really one of definition, as Melinda says) by giving it both a chapter number *and* an individual name, i.e.:



Three - PARADES [etc.]

We never really find out who these two voices belong to, yet they enrich the story, adding subterraneans layers of meaning, and the novel would be poorer without it. (The fact that they're beautifully written doesn't hurt either.) But this goes against all the standard advice and breaks every rule on the list.

So, IF* a beginning is a vital part of your book, for Heaven's sake, put it in! Just disguise it under another heading, or a bare chapter number, and the devil take the hindmost. I really don't think anyone should mutilate their work or leave vital elements out simply because of a definition.

But that definition swings a lot of power. So dodge it. This isn't a perfect solution but it seems to be the best available. Certainly in an initial query your wisest course is to avoid anything which would put an agent or editor off. You can quibble later. However:

* It's a great big red underlined-three-times "IF" - because of course Janet's point is invaluable: Give it the Big Delete Test, and make sure it really can't be done without. Is your story more punchy and powerful without the introduction?

What a great discussion -

Kitty said...

Bonnie, I haven't read Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's novel Buffalo Afternoon,, but I've read, and reread her book Anya, which also begins with a prologue. When I first read the book, the prologue was so engrossing I didn't realize I was reading a prologue.

Susan Bonifant said...

Almost every time something like this is suggested here, I make the change/edit in my work and it improves right before my eyes. I would be cranky if I weren't so grateful.

Unknown said...

Let me state from the get-go I dislike prologues intensely and to this day I have read only a few and then only those under 1 page.

I'd like to comment on Melinda's point about the "blanket prejudice against the word prologue"

OK so I'm coming from the NO PROLOGUE TEAM. Even so, I've spoken to several agents about changing the word to something like CH-0 and why that works better and I have had a fairly uniform reply.

When an agent asks for "ch 1-3 or the first 25 pages" for example, people often do not send the prologue and yet that makes up the first 25 pages. Often, as part of the query letter, agents ask for 10 pages or similar, most agents expect THAT INCLUDES THE PROLOGUE -- yet people don't send it.

Most people don't send the prologue because THEY KNOW it's not their best work. They know that if (for example) the prologue is 5 pages & the agent has asked for 10, the Main Character may not even be introduced because the prologue is full of back story and/or too much exposition.

So they send Ch 1-3 without the prologue thinking Mr./Ms. Agent will just love their chapters that the prologue will not even enter the equation (down the track).

By naming it Ch-0 for example, people are more likely to send it. If you go to Michelle 4 Laughs blog it's full of agent interviews where she asks about sending or not sending the prologue -- I can't think of a single agent who answered DON'T SEND.

So it's not the word PROLOGUE that's the agents enemy its us, the aspiring writer, who has manipulated it.

Melinda Szymanik said...

Nikola I think the aspiring writer behaviour is in response to a perceived dislike of 'prologues' by agents/editors irrespective of quality. I still think the bottom line is whether it's great writing and deserves it place. It is not the prologue that is the problem, it is its quality. I struggle to understand how someone can write a book good enough to be published and yet completely lose all their skill when it comes to the prologue. I don't think it is the prologue that is the problem. It is either a writer who can't manage it skillfully or an editor who decided to leave it in when it didn't do the book any favours. The prologue itself, I contend, is innocent.

S. Callaghan said...

The prologue is just a tool like any other structural element in any piece of writing. I don't understand this antagonism towards it. Of course if it doesn't add anything to the story then it's no question that you would cut it. That goes for any part of your MS, though, so why all the attention on the prologue? Writing is about making decisions. So if there is a very good reason why you have decided to include a prologue that is pertinent to the overall structure of your story, then add it. If it's just something you tossed in their because you thought it'd be cool or you couldn't resolve a problem with your exposition and thought it'd be a nice cheat... well, to echo Ms. Szymanik's comments somewhat, I would suggest you may have some deeper issues with your MS and writing habits than ones concerning chapter breakdown.

S. Callaghan said...

I just worry how lost readers must have been when they skipped the Prologue to The Book Thief. And if that were a first novel headed off to a publisher or agent, would it really have mattered if it was marked "Prologue" or "Chapter One"?