Monday, December 5, 2011

Thoughts on... Prologues

I wrote a prologue for my book this week. It kind of changes the focus of the book in general so now I'm going to need to lightly edit the 3 1/2 other scenes I had finished to match the tone. I don't really mind that. I felt they were missing something anyway. I'm hoping that my prologue will give the main story context and more driving force. I like stories that are clearly going somewhere, not stories that meander or that I can only guess what the point of them is.

But here's the gamble I'm making: the prologue (and the epilogue that will accompany it) make the "main story" essentially one long, complex flashback. The prologue/epilogue are thousands of years later than the main story. This is a format I intend to employ with a least a few books in a series. Each book's "main story" will be a stand alone story, but the prologue/epilogue from book to book will be connected.

Now, every time I see prologues discussed on blogs and forums and such the advice is "Better safe than sorry." In other words, steer clear of them. But I think that part of being a good writer is knowing your target audience and that means knowing the genre that you're writing in. As often as not, the general advice about writing that you find here and there isn't aimed at any particular genre and yet the tropes and expectations from genre to genre are so varied. I think you need to think about when such advice may not necessarily apply to you because of what you write and who your audience is.

I write epic fantasy. And while I haven't read everything the genre has to offer, it seems to me that prologues are an accepted and welcome trope of the genre. And many prologues in epic fantasy will involve some sort of inciting incident from the distant past that set the events of the main story in motion. Large passages of time are usually not an obstacle for epic fantasy readers.

Of course, what I'm doing is sort of the opposite of that. It's entirely possible that essentially making the plot of my book one huge chunk of backstory to the prologue and epilogue will be an unpopular move. I'm one of those weird people who can never get enough of backstory. I just want to know everything and anything that ever happened related in anyway to what is going on now. I fear that I'm an anomaly and that the vast majority of people aren't as obsessed with the history of fictional worlds as I am. Ah well, I can only write the kind of story I would like to read.

Alas, the prologue of 1957 words was my only progress this past week. But it's better than nothing, right? I'm going to try really hard to make more progress during the coming week.

How about you? Do you enjoy prologues? What do you think is the greatest danger of including a prologue?


  1. I like prologues. Yes, they have to fit the story like a glove. Yes, I'm sure they're (statistically speaking) almost always not good enough (i.e. they don't help the story) to make the final cut. However, if it fits and is very good, it can really pull a story full-circle.

    I say go for it!


  2. I've read many fantasy and science fiction books that had prologues. I don't find them out of place. My publisher asked me to write one for my first book so that it started out with some strong action, but my second book doesn't have one. If it fits, go with it.

  3. Hey! I hopped over from Adam's blog and just wanted to thank you for your insightful (and well said) comment! :)

  4. E.J.- the problem is always knowing whether or not it fits or if it's just me as the author being self indulgent. Still, as my husband approved of it I am going for it. :)

    Alex, it does seem to be more of a staple of sci fi and fantasy, but that may be because they're the two worldbuilding genres and need more set up generally for readers to understand what's going on.

    Susan, you're welcome. I am compelled to post about self publishing whenever I see it discussed because I'm so excited about it. :)

  5. I know what people say about prologues but I say: balderdash! I love prologues. And epilogues. Go with your instinct!

  6. I actually like prologues, but I can see it being difficult to add to some stories. Good luck!

  7. But it was progress, so congratulations on that. I've heard that about prologues, too, yet I see them a lot in books.

  8. Deniz, balderdash is such a fun word, isn't it?

    Mel, thank you. I'm feeling better about my prologue all the time.

    Donna, progress indeed. At least, after only managing ~2000 words in one week there's no where to go but up, right? Right?

  9. I only read within the Fantasy genre, and I absolutely love a good prologue! Go for it!

  10. I love prologues! Granted, maybe only the good ones make it into publication, but I always love how they set up questions and tension and characters that are then carried throughout the story. I say, go for it! That's what I decided to do with my own WIP...we'll see if it pans out. :)

  11. As long as a prologue isn't just there for exposition purposes, can hook me into wadding through a less exciting chapter one (they tend to be, maybe that's just me), I'm all for'em!

  12. Cursed Armada, good to hear!

    Nicole, I've always enjoyed those aspects of prologues as well.

    Aldrea, I hope both my prologue and first chapter will be interesting enough to capture my readers attention. :)

  13. The fantasy crowd is very forgiving of prologues, and we're trusting enough to know that if it's there, the writer put it there for a reason.

    Now, in my case, what I thought was going to be a prologue in my NaNoWriMo novel turned into the first 10 chapters of the book. I don't think they would be forgiving of a 30,000 word prologue . . .

  14. I don't mind prologues I think it more about agents not wanting them :)

  15. I found you via your comment on the Fictorian "Viva la Revolution!" post, which was linked via "The Passive Voice." Thank you for your comment; I agree completely with what you said.

    Anyway, to address your post above, you said It's entirely possible that essentially making the plot of my book one huge chunk of backstory to the prologue and epilogue will be an unpopular move.

    When I read that, it reminded me of something I read in Story by Robert McKee. On page 306, he writes "In rarer examples the Crisis Decision immediately follows the Inciting Incident and the entire film becomes climactic action." The examples he uses are James Bond, Leaving Las Vegas and In the Realm of the Senses. (Story is a screenwriting book, but his analysis of story structure could apply to novels as well as scripts.)

    If you find the book at your library or bookstore, turn to the bottom of page 306 and see if it sounds like your story or not. That page and the next could be helpful; he talks about the features and challenges of that type of plot.

  16. I think I need a list of books with prologues before I can adequately answer this question. Often, I think (and I don't have the data to back this up), the idea is that the prologue, if it's important, can just be made into the first chapter. I don't know if Rowling intended it that way, but the first chapter of Harry Potter should certainly have been a prologue.

    I don't really know where I'm going with this other than to say that I read them when they're there and have never felt like I wasted my time.

  17. It kind of sounds more like a frame story than a traditional prologue. Many works of fantasy do feature prologues, but I think that genre is especially susceptible to the problems of them. Especially the problem that they tend not to make sense or matter until much later in the book--so you're asking the reader to read something before the story gets interesting. It can be done well, but it often has problems.

  18. blackanddarknight, you're right, 30,000 words is a bit much for a prologue. In that case, it's obviously not just set up, it IS the story.

    J.A.- You're right. And I've never cared what agents want. ;)

    Maryann, I'm glad you appreciated my comment. Though I'm not sure if your quote applies to what I'm doing, it does sound like a useful book.

    Andrew, I agree about Harry Potter. But then, I'm not sure how effective a device prologues would be with middle grade readers.

    Matt, you're right. The prologue and epilogue are pretty much a frame device. I want them to be physically separated from the main story though. Those are significant dangers which I'm trying to be conscious of as I write.

  19. IMHO, prologues are good as long as they are well written and actually help drive the plot. I think the prologues that agents hate the most are the ones that sound too writerly and which could be dropped from the book without anyone noticing.

  20. I agree with the majority of commenters above. I don't mind a prologue, provided it has a purpose to the story. I also agree that they are more accepted in fantasy books. It would be very strange to see a prologue (in my opinion) in a women's romance novel.

  21. It may depend on the individual book, as to weather the prologue fits. I'm wrapping up a single novel now that has none. It's set in an imagined country thousands of years ago, and followed by a six book series set hundreds of years later. The first of these books has a prologue looking at this country as a modern nation and vacation destination, with hints at ancient legends. I had a second prologue set 18 years before the story begins, but I've rethought it, and it might end up as the prologue of one of the later volumes. The nice thing about being at the creating stage is that you can still move pieces around. Tolkien had a whole epilogue worked out for The Lord Of The Rings, and the dropped it after negative reactions from his test readers.


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