Saturday, June 12, 2010

Those Feisty Little Things We Call Prologues

The publishing world is full of interesting questions, and authors tend to ask them the most: should I query that agent or shouldn’t I? What will that publisher think of my book? Does it really matter if my socks match in my Author’s Photo? Where on earth did I put that pencil?

The answers to some of these questions we may never know.

But there is one question that authors around the world have asked, and keep asking, and then ask it again just one more time:

“What should we do about Prologues?”

Prologues are a touchĂ© subject when it comes to the publishing world. Many think that prologues are just a way for the author to “put off” the actual beginning of their story.

“If they were any real good at writing,” these people argue, “they would just start their story at the first chapter and leave out the extra frills of a prologue.”

And maybe these people are right… to some extent. Some prologues do seem to only put off the actual beginning of the story, and can become really annoying (though I tend to attribute such annoying-ness to bad writing or a plot that wasn’t thoroughly thought through.)

Yet even with so much against prologues, many writers continue to write them. Why is that, do you think?

As a writer (though as yet an unpublished one) I have taken note of some of the advantages linked with prologues, and perhaps it’s because of these advantages that so many writers use them.

For one thing, while it’s true that a lot of people argue that Prologues just “set up” the real story, if the story is set in a fantasy world, what is wrong with “setting it up”?  It is most likely that people have never visited this fantasy world before (if this is your first book, or if it is set in a different world from other books you've written) and the problems associated with its inhabitants would be completely new to any potential readers.

What if your story is actually the memory of an elderly person looking back on his/her younger years? The question would then become, is it important that the reader knows that this character is elderly? If the answer to that question is ‘yes’, then it might be a good idea to use a prologue and an epilogue in order to make the story a “frame tale”: that is, a story told within a story. One of my books is set up something similar to this.

A prologue can even be something as small as a poem or a Prophesy just before the first chapter; perhaps it is only a short journal entry by one of the characters. Depending on the contents of the poem or journal entry, this type of prologue could be a very valuable part of your novel; a cryptic riddle for readers to unravel as they get deeper and deeper into the tale.

Above all other reasons, though, there is one reason that stands out to writers everywhere: Prologues allow the reader a glimpse of the story behind the story.

Allow me to give a few examples.  This first one I call the "Accidental Main Character" example, and I'm going to use the book "Eregon" to show you what I mean.

I was immediately intrigued with Paolini's prologue. In “A Shade of Fear”, Paolini used his prologue to have Arya send Sapphira’s egg to Eregon (by accident -- she was trying to send it to Brom), thus making a character who would normally be as uninteresting as the dirt that he farmed, become an extraordinary Main Character. If Paolini hadn’t used a prologue, the fact that Eregon found a strange blue stone in the woods wouldn’t seem nearly as significant to the reader.

The second example  that I’m going to use I like to call the “Reason for a Main Character” example, and I’m going to use “Song of the Daystar” to show you what I mean. (Yes, I know it’s my own book: bear with me here.)

In Song of the Daystar, the prologue is set in a forest with seven old men gathered to pray: a stranger comes and gives them a stone before dying, and we learn that these seven old men are in danger from the king. They call on the aid of Curron (my main character), to help them.

Because the Elders are intentionally calling on Curron for help, the fact that Curron becomes my main character is no accident, but it does provide a reason for my character to leave the relative safety of his home and set out on a dangerous journey. Why does he need a reason, you ask? Because his personality would never allow him to leave his job as a stable boy without some outside motive. If his personality was the “go-get-‘em, fight-‘em-all-one-handed” type of personality, he wouldn’t need an outside reason, thus I would not need a prologue.  And, because my prologue is not told from the point of view of my main character, I felt it would feel strange and rather disjointed from the story if I made what is now the prologue into the first chapter.

However, a writer should know that there are other problems tacked onto prologues, the biggest being the fact that many agents/publishers plain and simply don't like to take the time to read them.  This is a real shame in my mind, because I know how valuable prologues can be.  Knowing both of these facts, I have taken the time to go over my prologues and make them interesting and important enough for agents/publishers to see their potential.

Here are the three steps I use when deciding whether I should or shouldn't write a prologue:

1) before you write a prologue, check to see if the information is important enough to the story not to be left out of it entirely.

2) If it is important, then check to see if it can’t be woven into the story in some other place where it might fit better and, perhaps, feel less awkward.

3) If it’s important and yet doesn’t fit anywhere else in the story without feeling awkward, that is when you write a prologue.

And if you do it right, the prologue could be a valuable addition to your story, rather than a hindrance. :)


Galadriel said...

Very direct, to the point, and helpful.

Jake said...

Besides this, there's this prologue thing I like to call 'foreshadowing'.

It's where you write a scene that happened a certain amount of years/months ago, one that is relating to one of the main plot threads that happens as a result. My own prologue falls into this category. :)

Celebrilomiel said...

Thanks for the post, Nichole. That's some definite food for thought. I've been wondering about prologues, and this answers a lot of my questions. =)

Star-Dreamer said...

I'm glad it was found helpful! :) It's a subject I am constantly fighting with myself about. "Should I take out the prologue or shouldn't I?" When I'm struggling with it, I follow my three step rule. It hasn't failed me yet. :D