I've already written a little bit about prologues, but recently, Agent Kristin did a post listing the reasons why, in her experience, most prologues don't work. Yeah, I agree with her. In my own experience as a reader, most prologues either give away too much, thus ruining the book, or don't tell me enough, leaving me confused and wondering why I should care. I can think of only one prologue in the books I've read recently that worked at all, and even then, when I saw it I almost put the book back on the shelf.*

Perhaps part of the reason why I'm anti-prologue is that I haven't had an idea yet that would require one, so I don't understand why every one else shouldn't just chop theirs off their books to conform with my ideas of right and wrong. I don't understand why they're necessary, why a writer would think it was important to have one.**

Some authors have said that they use a prologue to convey backstory, but can't backstory be worked into the story story? Like can't it be broken up into smaller chunks and salted throughout the narrative? I mean, if J.R.R. Tolkien didn't need a prologue to convey his backstory, why do I?

Also, isn't the point of the backstory to, you know, remain in the back? Backstory, from my perspective, is part of what makes a story three dimensional, part of what makes it live, but it's not the most important stuff--that's the story story. So my characters have to have a past, and they do, but their pasts aren't the most significant things about them. Most important is what they do now, in the present of the story.

Sometimes, I think authors use backstory to give the characters "reasons" for doing things. You see this a lot in television shows, usually involving a hero and a past love that went really wrong.
the hero is a dark and mysterious guy with a woman who died/did him wrong/left him and that's why he can never allow himself to get close to another woman, et cetera. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with this particular backstory, it's just pretty common. But there's no reason it needs to be in a prologue.

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* The book in question was Into the Woods, by Tana French, and seriously, I almost didn't buy it because it had a prologue.

** I know this is because I can't think of a situation in which I would ever use one. In other hundred reasons why prologues are awesome and necessary.

2 comments:

The prologue is a perfectly legitimate device. I have no issue with it. Some authors handle it well, most do not. I do find it amusing that a number of writers are adamantly against it. It's almost as if it's some kind of personal affront to their notion of how a book should start.

For the record, I believe Tolkien might have had the longest prologue ever written. A little something called The Hobbit. (Hee-hee.)

The thing is, the reading public loves prologues. Want to know why? A prologue usually (no matter what the writer says was the real intent) tells the reader something vague yet "important" about the story to come. Most readers love the feeling of being a detective and when given this kind of clue at the beginning and they finally get to the part where the prologue is explained in greater detail, they say "A-ha! I remember that and I sensed that it was coming and here it is and I'm a wonderful reader for remembering that part." Or something like that.

Are prologues necessary? Not really. No more than any other literary device. I'm sure people who are anti-prologue are doing some other equally annoying thing in their writing that they probably don't even know about, ha ha.

At best, a prologue is a minor nuisance and generally short enough so as not to task the reader's patience. I cannot recall any prologues that ever caused me to put a book down but I've read plenty of bad books that didn't have prologues. Maybe those books could have used a prologue!

There, those are my perfectly pointless thoughts about prologues.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010 at 10:44:00 AM EST  

I'm not going to argue with you about prologues, Anonymous (especially because you're so clearly wrong and I'm so clearly right :) ) except for one thing: The Hobbit is not a prologue. It's a completely self-sufficient story that happens to come before Lord of the Rings. That's not the same thing, like, AT ALL.

Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 4:16:00 PM EST  

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