Saturday, May 15, 2010

Using Or Not Using Prologues

Upon returning from a writer’s conference, a member of my writer’s group informed us that editors and agents hate prologues. Since I had just read the group my WIP’s prologue, her revelation made my heart sag. I was quite pleased with what I had written. I introduced vital back-story in a pertinent character’s viewpoint, which was the one and only chance for this character to express himself before his demise would silence him forever.

That got me to thinking—and researching—about when we should use prologues in our fiction. The online consensus about the nasty little setup pages brought me to conclude that more readers *and editors* are against them than are for them.

Really? Why? I love a good prologue. I never skip them because I’m afraid I’ll lose out on vital information the author placed there to help me understand the plot. If done well, they can enhance a story.

I imagine editors get tired of reading misfit prologues. One editor said she could count on one hand how many necessary and successful prologues she has read in her years as an editor. Another suggests a new author avoid using a prologue if he really wants his manuscript considered. So when may a writer use a prologue or is it best to avoid them altogether? My research uncovered the following.

A writer may include a prologue if it:

Provides critical information – You should never use this information elsewhere, and it should provide necessary enhancement to the plot. However, if you can weave that information throughout the rest of the novel then eliminate the prologue all together. If the story makes sense without the prologue, you don’t need 3-5 pages more to bog it down. If you hold doubts about whether the information is important enough to stand on its own, consider making it chapter one, even if it takes place in a another time period.

Provides more than mood or action – If your purpose is to set the mood or hook someone into the story with action, then get rid of the prologue. You can do those two things in the body of your story. Using these ploys might suggest to the editor your first chapter is weak.

If you do use a prologue, make sure  it is short, relevant and in the same style as the rest of the book. Since using a prologue is asking the reader to start the story twice, make sure this addition is brief and supplies the missing elements that make the plot clear as it progresses. When submitting your manuscript for consideration, include the prologue with what you send.

After all this advise, I still love a good prologue. As I rush to the completion of my manuscript, I'll consider and weigh whether mine contains information I can slip into the body of the story or not. I want the best chance possible to impress an agent or editor. Even if the setup pages are well written, I have to be willing to sacrifice them for a sale.

13 comments:

MT said...

I've also heard a prologue is for the most part undesirable. As a writer, I can see how one would want a chance to set up the story that way. As a reader, I find them cumbersome and skip them - until after I've read the book. To each his own, right? :)

Molly Hall said...

This is so helpful. I usually enjoy prologues too! And I am constantly tempted to write them. I appreciate the thought and research you put together on this. It is very timely for me, as I try to figure out how to revise the first chapters of my W.I.P. Thanks! : )

dirtywhitecandy said...

You've hit the nail on the head. Prologues are often used as an info dump of back story, or to put in an exciting sequence because the beginning is otherwise boring. The first option may send the reader to sleep, the second is beginning under false pretences (the rest of the story is not as immediately interesting).

But prologues can be used wel - for the reasons you describe!

christopher said...

I haven't been much of a prologue fan myself. But I wasn't aware of the degree of negative reactions.

Thanks for the info!

Peggy Shumway said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peggy Shumway said...

MT- Yes, to each his own.

Molly- I found many blogs about the subject. I'm glad this was helpful.

dirtywhitecandy- I just have to determine whether mine is necessary or not. BTW, I like your website.

Christopher- I was surprised at all the negativity about prologues.

Lani Woodland said...

I like prologues too.I learned no one likes them so I made mine into chapter one. But my publisher loves them and asked me to change my first chapter into a prologue. I thought that was interesting. :)

Angie Paxton said...

I'm with you. I have no problem with prologues at all and have one in a couple of my books. However, I've also heard that agents and editors dislike them. Thanks for this post. Definitely some food for thought for me.

Jackee said...

As a reader, I think prologues done well can really add to the story. As a writer, I've only ever used them on my first "practice" novel. The best advice I could relay is to write what your heart tells you and with your brain figure out a way to market it (for example, end the prologue with a hook that would transition the reader seamlessly into Chapter 1).


Thanks for finding my blog so that I could find yours!

Peggy Shumway said...

Lani--maybe there there is hope for mine then. Thanks for sharing about your happy ending.

Angie--I'm excited that others like prologues and have left them in their books. It gives me hope!

Jackee--I like that. Write what your heart tells you and with your brain figure out a way to market it. Thanks for stopping by.

Johanna said...

OH MY GOSH! We should just swap books right now and be done with it! I also love a good prologue and am drawn to them in my own writing until I was told the same thing and went (sulking) back to revise it. I still stubbornly believe a prologue can be good to the enrichment of a story, but I also have given in to the desire to become published and gotten rid of mine. Glad I'm not the only one out there!

Great post!

prashant said...

This is so helpful. I usually enjoy prologues too!
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MLB2k11 said...

Interesting one. Thanks for the share. It was very interesting and informative.
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