Sunday, January 6, 2008

Before We Begin...

How do you feel about prologues? I've heard mixed opinions--some editors don't like them, some like them if they're "done right." What's your opinion on what constitutes a good prologue?
It probably won't come as a surprise that I like cutting to the chase. When I was a child, I took "prologue" to mean "something too boring to include in the main text" and habitually skipped them.
So I'm sensitive to the fact that there are children like that out there. I suppose as long as you give it a more interesting name than simply "prologue" or "introduction," it could be fine. But what's the difference between a prologue and the first chapter of Harry Potter? Or the first chapter of Red Moon At Sharpsburg? The answer is: you've added a paragraph or two to the beginning of chapter 2, and you know your reader's really started at the beginning.
If an author wants to convince me of the importance of a prologue as a separate entity from chapter 1, I'm willing to listen. But it'll take a little convincing. How do you feel about them?

23 comments:

gsanonymous said...

I read an article by Orson Scott Card once that pretty much echoed your opinion. Essentially he thought that if a prologue was good enough to be in a book then it should be chapter 1, otherwise it should be cut. My thought is that a prologue is good for introducing an event involving characters not immediately, if ever, featured that has implications that influence the main storyline(s). Sort of a dramatic irony kind of thing, giving us, as readers, insights unavailable to the characters. Calling it a prologue is a nice way to separate it in our minds.

Anonymous said...

I echo gs's comments about the purpose of a prologue. But as a reader, including a child reader, I have always LOVED prologues. To me they signal that this story is so rich that some separate event in the past set it into motion, and the writer has imagined fully enough that s/he knows what that event is. I adore that sense that all of life is linked and what we do has far-reaching consequences, because I think it's true and we don't take that seriously. So to me, a prologue acknowledges a truth about life, if that's not too corny. I love knowing more than the characters know, and a prologue tends to provide that. I also love the mystery of figuring out, as I read, what relationship the prologue bears to the present action, as that's usually unknown at first. And this may be snobbery, but I think prologues are something mass-market writers probably should eschew, and a more literary novel can take them. However, I've always been rather out of the mainstream, and I think we should be cautious of prologues for the reason EA gave. As with any feature of a novel, we should ask ourselves what's gained by its use, what would be lost by its absence, and be prepared to explain this.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how I feel about them because I never read them. Oh, wait, I never read them so that means I don't like them.

Yeah, they're icky.

Colorado Writer said...

Sometimes I read prologues. Sometimes, I read the prologue after I get lost in the first chapter.

Sometimes I'll write a prologue in the first draft, but I usually end up deleting it during my ruthless editing phase.

I agree with gsanon.

"a prologue is good for introducing an event involving characters not immediately, if ever, featured that has implications that influence the main storyline(s)."

psamphire said...

"a prologue is good for introducing an event involving characters not immediately, if ever, featured that has implications that influence the main storyline(s)."

I used to think this, but I've changed my mind over recent years. There's almost always some other way of getting the same information into the story without interrupting the story to do so. And a prologue isn't much different from any other point where you'd stop your story to dump a pile of info on your reader's head, except that you're stopping it before you've even begun.

I guess it's no surprise that I'm only of those readers who skips prologues. I've never yet had a problem with a story because of that.

emay said...

Prologues are very popular in detective novels (and TV shows). First a little dramatic scene showing the crime, and then the mood and POV shifts with ch 1, where we are with the detective, who doesn't know anything about it yet but is about to be called in.

Do people actually have a problem with the concept, or just the word "prologue"? It doesn't have to say Prologue. It could say "Berlin, 1939" or "How It All Began" or any kind of title that suits the story.

Anonymous said...

This is anon 8:25 again. See, I told you I wasn't mainstream. :) On the one hand, I'm incredulous that people who love to devour books would routinely skip prologues. On the other hand, I must keep in mind the reality that they do. As a writing teacher, I DO find that my students tend to use prologues as info dumps, and I think that's a mistaken use of them. As long as you're ruthless about pruning info-dump, I've come to much the same conclusion as emay: simply don't call it prologue. Label it "Berlin, 1939," or with the name of that section's POV character, or divide your novel into "parts," or in some other way include the prologue material so that it comes off as "part of the book" instead of "pre-book." That said -- when you pick up a book that has a prologue, why not try reading it to figure out why it's there? If it appears in a published book, presumably at least two people thought it was necessary, helpful, or of some positive effect.

Anonymous said...

Hate prologues, love to just get into the story.

But I love those little "author's note" sections at the back of books where the author expands on what took place in the book. By the end of the book, I want to know that stuff, at the beginning, not so much.

Take The 21 Balloons. The introduction talks about the explosion of Krakatoa. At that point I don't really care, but by the end, I do.

tim b said...

Totally depends on the book, no? The modern novel - all streamlined speed and Hemingway efficiency - is obviously suspicious of structural filigree.

But other kinds of stories - especially ones that look to Victorian precedents or their postmodern descendants - may have perfectly good reasons for setting sections aside at the beginning and the end.

Half the fun - if you can call it that - of reading William Vollman, for example, is working your way up and down through the layers of wrapping. It's part of the intellectual engagement of experiencing the books.

As for just skipping them... well, I guess if an author makes a detachable section s/he runs the risk of having it detached. But why read the book if you're not actually going to read it? I might skip an acknowledgements section, for example (unless I think I'll be in it!) but I have to presume that if a prologue is there, the author has stuff in it I'll need/want.

christine tripp said...

There are only 2 prologues/introductions, that I have ever thought were worth their taking up paper and space. They were both in my Mothers childhood copies of A.A.Milne's books "When We Were Very Young" and "Now We Are Six".

In the former, he takes pains to mention and thank Mr. Shepard, the illustrator, which you have to love, especially since the publisher doesn't mention the man at all!!!
The later introduction he sums up what an introduction is, it's an "Er-h'r'm", a way of getting the readers attention if they are still figgety and squirmy and have not settled down yet, ready to begin to read.
To quote part of it,
"Well, this bit which I am writing now, called Introduction, is really the er-h'r'm of the book, and I have put it in, partly so as not to take you by surprise, and partly because I can't do without it now. There are some very clever writers who say that it is quite easy not to have an er-h'r'-m, but I don't agree with them. I think it is much easier not to have all the rest of the book."

Chris

literaticat said...

in the wild, prologues are the natural enemy of literaticats.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Arguing that anyone who wants to read a book should want to read the prologue is like saying that anyone who wants to ride a roller coaster should want to wait in line first. Because that's how they begin, right?
Children only have to be exposed to a couple of prologues that simulate the excitement of waiting in line to start thinking "short cut!" and skipping to chapter 1.

Sarah said...

I skip prologues. If I really liked the book, I might go back and read the prologue to get more depth, history, whatever it is the author felt needed to be there.

I have read some series (like Pern) that go on for dozens of books and the prologue orients the reader on the overall world history and this book's place in it if they need it.

I read one prologue that I really liked but it was in a book being written by someone in my critique group and I liked everything he wrote. If I had picked the book off the shelf without knowing the author, I'd have skipped it.

I want the heart of the story right away. Instant gratification is not limited to youth.

Joni said...

Oh, Tim B... we should have coffee.

I have to think that the "modern novel" -- especially for kids -- has gotten so darn sound-bite efficient that the people who work on them don't even remember that there's any other way to do things.

I'm on the fence about prologues; I've seen good ones and bad ones. But I am getting a wee bit cranky about the fact that texture and depth are increasingly sacrificed to the God of Pace and his Prophet, TXT.

Back to topic, sorry.

emay said...

It sounds as if some people think of a prologue as analogous to an introduction, foreword, or preface, but I don't think it's the same thing. It's part of the story; just a part told from a different POV or taking place in a different time period or whatever.

I think the Harry Potter scene where we see what Voldemort is up to (before starting over again with Harry) is a pretty typical example of a prologue, even if it wasn't labeled as such.

Anonymous said...

Of course, this begs the question: What about epilogues? Do you like to have the "here's how everything wrapped up" ending given, or left to the reader's imagination?

tim b said...

If we're going to use the roller coaster analogy, here's a different take: it's not the line, which is indisputably boring. It's the getting into your seat, getting buckled in, listening to the announcements, orienting yourself for what's to come.

It's a setup, a active moment of anticipation which, rightly handled, adds to the enjoyment of the ride taking off.

Anonymous said...

I agree with emay; a well-done prologue is part of the story. And with tim b -- if you're going to read a book, read the book. The author's note, or acknowledgements, are different from the prologue. I read those too, by the way. And -- guilty again -- I love epilogues. And I agree with joni big-time. Now -- I wonder how long it'll be before somebody has the guts to blaspheme the god of Voice. Ahem. Back to topic.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Tim B,
I agree that's what a good prologue should be like. My point is that they are not all like that, and there are children who will skip a prologue if one is included.

It really doesn't matter how many people say that they feel readers should read prologues; what we're talking about is what readers do. You can't argue with children about how they read books. You can only give them books that they want to read.

tim b said...

Well, EA, some kids may not read whole chapters of a book but that's not a reason to disparage the notion of chapters.

And although I embrace the virtues of hard realism in business as much as the next person, in fact we can give kids more than just what they want. Our books are the ones that are teaching them how to read and not just in the most basic sense of translating printed signs into meaning. As makers of books for young people, we don't just sell our work to readers, we create readers and shape their tastes through their encounters with what we make and sell.

A kid learns to read different ways by encountering different books. Mo Willems give her/him one kind of experience; Adam Rex or Lane Smith gives him something completely different. The structure of Kate DiCamillo's Desperaux stretches the brain one way by making it assemble fragments; Holes or Harry Potter keeps it alert to passing minutiae.

A kid who skips the prologue but loves the book will come back to that prologue afterwards and discover its relation to the rest of the text. The next time s/he encounters a prologue in a book, that reading habit, or convention or whatever you want to call it, will have been established. Ditto epilogues, illustrations, diagrams, maps, vocabulary or any of the other giant palette of tools contemporary creators of books have at their disposal.

Will every kid pick up on every thing? Of course not and that's fine. And it goes without saying that the author's success in deploying any particular tool will have a big impact on readers' interest in it in the future.

But later on, if that reader is lucky enough to encounter a text as structurally rich and complicated as Fielding's /Tom Jones or Melville's Moby Dick, the early encounter they've had will help them access the more advanced wonders of those adult reading experiences.

And if that isn't a big part of what we're trying to do, will someone please explain to me what we are trying to do? Because let's face it, if we were only in it for the money we'd all be better off as marketing consultants.

psamphire said...

The prologue, at least as most people here have described it, and as most authors seem to use it, isn't at all like strapping yourself into the rollercoaster. That's part of the ride. Most prologues aren't. They are a separate part--a different POV, a different time period. They are not an integral part of the story as it is told. If they are, they are essentially chapter 1.

In just about everything I've ever written, I've started with a prologue. In 90% of the cases, I've dropped the prologue and found the story better. In the other 10%, I've re-labeled it Chapter 1.

We're not talking, here, about pacing or speed. A story can be as slow or as fast, as direct or as wandering as it needs to be. But a disassociated prologue, completely separate is a barrier. Whatever we're reading, we want the story, and we want to be in it immediately. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. How it progresses, how focussed it is, what speed it moves, those are different questions, and most of us can deal with a whole range, whether we skip prologues or not.

Oh, and as to why someone would skip a prologue, simple: experience. Experience of reading way too many irrelevant, boring prologues by self-indulgent authors. :)

Editorial Anonymous said...

I find myself so much in agreement with both of the last commentors, I'm not sure there's much more to say. Nicely argued, both of you.

ae said...

Tim,

"a kid who skips the prologue but loves the book will come back to the prologue afterwards..."

I asked this very question to a bunch of middle schoolers yesterday, and they said what you said. GRIN.