Recently, Maya Reynolds did an excellent post on the appropriate use of prologues and backstory. In her analysis, prologues are often mistakes because they deal solely with backstory -- stuff that is history of the story, but that's not changing or moving. A prologue is usually only useful if it is an active (if preliminary) part of the story.

I personally don' t do prologues--I haven't come up with a story yet where one has seemed necessary--but Maya's description of the prologue really intrigued me. She compared the events of the prologue to a "precipitating event," like a trigger in the crisis counseling she's done. In crisis counseling, precipitating events usually happen six weeks in advance of someone calling a crisis hotline.

So this week I went back and looked at the stuff I'm working on right now, and sure enough, there they were, the precipitating events. In The Book, the story starts approximately six weeks after the main character gets busted by her parents for doing something dangerous. In the other current project, the main character is keeping a secret that started about six weeks before the book started.

That's not to say that all of my stories have precipitating events--the TRP, for example, starts almost at the very moment of the precipitating event--but it's interesting to see that the six week rule of precipitating events has found its way into my fiction.

I wonder how Maya's advice would work for people who do write prologues--does the six week rule apply? Is that the stuff that's being covered in your prologues? Or is the stuff that typically goes into prologues not precipitating events, but actually backstory, stuff that's over? Most of the ones that I recall reading have been backstory prologues, but I'm thinking about going to look at my book shelves to check that.


I imagine it varies but I'm always amused that there are writers out there who hate-hate-hate prologues. For some writers, you get the feeling they're saying "well, I don't use them so nobody should use them." Then you have your literary snobs who think such a literary device is beneath them (note: I do not place you in either group).

For example, I just finished reading an old James Ellroy novel the other night and he's very fond of prologues. It was the kind of book that, when it ended, made you want to go back to read the prologue to see how he set everything up. Used properly, the prologue can invite the reader back for another look or set the stage for a theme that the average reader might not notice at first.

Prologues can be interesting, they can be annoying, they can be dull. It's just like any other literary trick. I'm just tickled that some folks hate it so. Do these folks hate every other literary device, too? I'll bet these same folks spend the first few pages really trying to hook the reader, don't they? Oldest trick in the book, people.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 12:08:00 PM EDT  

Prologues are tricky -- you have to have justification to make a prologue -- some kind of structural reason. Ken Follett did a really good prologue in Pillars of the Earth. I was so enamored with it that I dedicated my first blog entry to analyzing it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 9:01:00 PM EDT  

@Livia -- I'm going to have to check out Follett's prologue again. I don't remember it, which means it must have been good. :)

Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 12:28:00 PM EDT  

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