"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In Defense of Prologues

There seems to be quite a buzz lately about prologues. Many agents and editors have apparently developed an aversion to them. Some agents have said on their blogs that if they get a submission that contains a prologue they will automatically reject it because they see it as laziness on the author's part, the "easy" way out to present backstory. Others have said they will not read the prologue but go straight to chapter one and see if it makes sense without the prologue. (And, no, it probably won't make sense because the author wrote chapter one knowing that certain things were explained in the prologue. Why explain them again in chapter one?) One agent says that to have a prologue means the reader has to start the book twice because there are two beginnings.

As a writer, I disagree with all of the above. I'll explain in more detail. But first, out of curiosity, I decided to see how many authors took the easy way out by using a prologue. I looked through thirty-six books I have laying around my office. They were in a variety of genres. I found it was divided right down the middle: half had prologues, half did not. Some of the authors who used prologues and made their readers start the book twice were Mary Higgins Clark, Karen Marie Moning, Tami Hoag, Barbara Delinsky, Carla Neggers, Wendi Corsi Staub, Dorothy Garlock, and P. J. Parrish. I felt much better about my own prologues after seeing that I was in good company with these bestselling authors!

Now, let me explain from a writer's perspective why we use and like prologues. (By the way, I got feedback from other writers as well to ensure that I wasn't completely wrong in this belief.) I can sum it up in three reasons: prologues are effective, easy, and they show (don't tell). How many times have we had the latter pounded into our thick skulls?

Okay, so why are prologues effective? A prologue is indeed backstory, but it portrays an event from the past that will directly affect your character's life in the present. It can be hundreds of years ago, or minutes ago, but it should lead to a turning point in a character's life, something that will change your character's life forever. The turning point is the reason the rest of the book exists.

From a writer's perspective, it is much more effective (and easy) to put this event into an action scene, often in a prologue, that immediately engages the reader and allows him to "see" the backstory and be thrust right into the crux of things rather than to be "told" about it in the first two or three chapters through boring introspection, narrative, and contrived dialogue. By showing this all-important event with action, the reader is immediately engaged and inherently understands the emotions, the motivation, the conflict, the stakes–everything–without being told. Even movies use the efficiency of prologues.

As for starting a book twice, I've never heard a reader complain that they had to start a story twice because of a pesky, gosh-dern prologue. If anything, it whets their appetite and they burrow down deeper into their chair and dive right into chapter one because they are now invested in the protagonist on every level. They understand inherently what is driving the story and the characters.

Sometimes prologues are not necessary because they are nothing more than a character's history. And sometimes they really are too long. I won't argue either of those points. But, as a writer, I believe prologues can be a good and simple tool with which to hit the ground running. Call it lazy if you will, but if prologues didn't work so well, writers wouldn't use them. Many times they just make good sense for choosing the best, the easiest, and the most effective way to engage your reader and "show" your story.


Will Edwinson said...

Hi Linda:

I just read your post on prologues. Good job! I whole heartedly agree.

Speaking of "lazy," it might be said that these editors and agents you spoke of are themselves too lazy to take the time to read a prologue. Too lazy to take the time early on to find out what the story might be about.

While, as you say, a prologue can present some backstory, it also, depending on how the author wants to set his story up, can serve as front story as well. In my novel Operation Achilles, for instance, I wanted begin the story by throwing the readers smack into the middle of the devastation created by the Internet going down, and then go back and bring them through the events that led up to that devastation. I used it as a set up for the real story that begins sixteen years earlier with chapter one and works its way back up to 2010, the year of the prologue. So the prologue serves as a front story in a manner of speaking. As you will recall, I used this technique in LouIsa as well, with a scene about Morgan Earp’s assassination at the beginning of the story and then went back and built the story around the events that led to that assassination.

Jack Higgins and Sydney Sheldon are two other bestselling authors who use prologues. And speaking of length, Sydney Sheldon wrote a twenty five page prologue in one of his novels that I read some twenty five or thirty years ago. As I recall, it, too, was more of a front story than back story. If memory serves, it started out in an emergency ward with all the stresses of overworked doctors and interns. A patient dies because of an exhausted intern's misjudgment. The story went from there into the history of how interns and resident doctors are over worked with 78 hour shifts while serving their residencies before becoming full practicing doctors. It was an interesting eye opening novel. Makes one wonder if emergency rooms might be a place to avoid.
So I think prologues--frontstory or backstory--can be very useful, if they are interestingly done.

Linda Sandifer said...

Good points, Will. Thanks for commenting!

Angela Felsted said...

What about prefaces, where you put in a part of the story that hasn't happened yet as a kind of intro? Are those taboo too?

Linda Sandifer said...

Angela, I'm not sure about Prefaces. I haven't heard anything in that regard.

Kae said...

Great post, Linda. I especially like the "it portrays an event from the past that will directly affect your character's life in the present..." graf. This is the key.Prologues that don't work often read like literary exercises only marginally related to the story.

Linda Sandifer said...

Thanks for commenting, Kae. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Eunice Boeve said...

Interesting, Linda. I didn't know prologues were a problem. I think they are generally just a part of the story. Maybe, in some stories, more useful than in others, but you can bet I'll pay attention to them now, and if I use them, I'll at least be aware that some minds are prejudiced against them.

LadyMac said...

I personally like prologues. It's such a good way to capture the readers interest.

What worries me is the fact that some agents and publishers refuse to read your manuscript if it starts that way. I understand it's difficult enough theses days to get an agent and or publisher to read your story.

I really enjoyed the blog. I hadn't realized people in the business didn't like prologues. Now I'm wondering if I shoud keep mine or get rid of it. Mine, like Bill's,serves as front story and then goes back a few years.

Do you think I should take a chance and keep it or leave it out?


Linda Sandifer said...

Maxine, I wouldn't want to say unless I read your work again because it's been a while. I have a prologue in my new book and I'm going to take a chance and keep it. Some books don't need them, and I think the writer usually has a gut instinct about where a story needs to start. It's not always science.