Saturday, April 25, 2009

To Prologue... or Not

Prologue: (from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

a. The preface or introduction to a literary work.
b. An introductory or preceding event or development.

I love to settle down in my comfy chair, open up a novel, and begin reading a brand new story. I especially love when there is a prologue.

Many readers insist they don't like prologues and even go so far as not to read them. What!? Why would you read a book and not read the beginning? Just because it says the word prologue?
I know several writers who choose not to include them in their work. I have also read published novels that include a prologue when in fact it should say chapter one.

To the best of my knowledge, I don't believe there are any hard fast rules pertaining to the use and construction of a prologue in a fiction novel. They come in every shape and size with an array of content. I have read books where the prologue was a mere two sentences long and others where they stretched into thirty pages. In both cases they worked well.

In a mystery/suspense/thriller novel, a prologue can be used to set up the crime, or tragic life-changing event. Often times the prologue might be in the villain/antagonist's point-of-view. This can enhance the tension when the main characters are introduced. We, the reader, know something our main characters don't. We feel the suspense as they head innocently toward the trap set up by the nasty villain. :)

Perhaps in a family saga novel, a prologue can be used to glimpse a piece of family history. A past event used to set-up the current storyline.

I write romantic suspense novels. In each of my three manuscripts, I begin with a prologue. Each prologue introduces a tragic event that affects the main characters in their present day life. They are life-changing events that help propel the conflict and characters throughout the books.

Over the years I have had each of my three novels critiqued by several different people. Often times it's one of my critique partners, sometimes in a face to face critique group, and occasionally through contests where the prologue/first chapter is judged by an anonymous writer. I usually do quite well in contests, scoring high, but I don't often final, and it seems to be because of my use of prologues.

Is it because other writers don't like prologues? Or they don't get the fact that it's a prologue and not chapter 1? Or am I starting in the wrong place, including too much back story? Probably all of these elements to some degree.
The real questions: How does the prologue enhance the story? Is it well written? Is it really necessary?

Prologues continue to be a great way to introduce conflict, show an historic event, steep the reader in the evil villain's point-of-view, enable us to view our protagonist as a child... or where ever your imagine takes you.

What is your opinion? To prologue... or not?


Robin said...

Cindy -- I think your use of prologues in your books works very well. It gives us a quick look at your characters' back story and also a glimpse into what makes them tick. My vote is to keep using them! Nice informative post.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Thanks, Robin! I love my prologues too, so I will keep them until an agent or editor says otherwise. ;)

Dell Smith said...

Cindy, this is a great post. Unbelievably, you have changed my mind, partially, regarding prologues. I have read some of your work, and yes I have asked you, "What's with the prologue?"
You explain what's with the prologue well here, and I am now more willing to accept the prologue, under certain conditions. It makes sense to put a section written from a minor character's point of view (such as a villain) or from an omniscient point of view in a prologue. Also, now that you mention it, putting some historical family trauma (for example) in a separate initial section can also work. I'm thinking of Island Moon, and that first scene. I think I wondered why it was a prologue and not just Chapter 1.
I agree, there are no real rules about this. I would be surprised if your use of prologues hurt your chances in a contest (I can't believe this is a criteria that a judge would use as a black mark against you). But maybe the judge had a personal grudge against them, and was doing her part to rid them from the writing world.
That said, I don't expect to start incorporating them in my writing, but thanks to you I can appreciate them more.

Laurie Haviland said...

Hi Cindy, I loved this post - very well written with lots of good points. Like Dell, I sometimes wondered why there was a prologue at all...I was eager to get into the story and impatient with them.
You've opened my eyes and now I will see them in a new light... thanks!

Unknown said...

Hi Cindy, I'm afraid I'm one of those people who usually doesn't like prologues. I've been known to skip them when I'm anxious to get into a book. But after reading your blog, I'm beginning to change my mind. Thanks for creating a great blog. Muriel Haviland Smith