Wednesday, December 8, 2010

To Prologue or not to Prologue

Whenever I see a post or article about prologues I always read it closely. My current WIP has a prologue, and like most insecure, aspiring authors I'm looking for reassurance that I'm doing the right thing. That my words are not wasted or unwanted.

Unfortunately, in the case of prologues, the advice is more often against.

There's a lot of arguments for not having a prologue, when:
  • the event is disconnected with the rest of the story
  • it slows the start of the story and the writer is using it to introduce backstory
  • the prologue focuses the reader on the past when the conflicts important to the story happen in the present (this is quite a genre specific one)
  • it is used to create suspense in order to compensate for the slow first few chapters
  • it forecasts an event which would have a more powerful effect on the reader if revealed later in the story
  • the list could go on...

I personally am all for prologues, when written well. If I open a book and there's a ten page prologue of backstory I'll probably put it back on the shelf. Or skip over the prologue and go straight to chapter one.

But, is this an issue with the prologue? Or a bigger issue alltogether?

Looking at this list I think one thing becomes clear: these are not actually prologue issues, but rather symptoms of weak writing.

Prologues that I read and enjoy are short (about a scene or two, no more), make me ask questions (the good kind) and force me to read on to find out how they affect the characters later on, start in a different time and/or place to the rest of the story (because if it doesn't why isn't it chapter 1?), are relevant and are engaging. That last one is surely the most important. The prologue is the first thing you read if it's there. If a reader is not engaged why would they read on?

I hope my prologue meets all these standards, but I think I am too involved with my WIP to truly know. I'm sure if it's not one of my critique partners will kindly point it out to me.

Alicia at EditTorrent has a good post on prologues, and a list of questions you can ask yourself to test if it should be there. And Nathan Bransford says a good litmus test is to take out the prologue and see if your story still makes sense. If it does, the prologue is probably there for reasons other than advancing the story and is therefore not required.

I know. It hurts when you realise something you've worked so hard on needs to be culled.

What about you? Do you have a prologue? Do you like reading them?

This is the prologue from my current WIP which I hope is doing its job. I'm a little attached and not ready to cull. That's a second draft job if it becomes necessary.

The day my mother died was the day I was born. She didn’t die in childbirth, as people were led to believe. She was murdered.
On September 5th 1991, the contractions started. My Gran has told me the story many times, at my insistence, and I have committed it to memory. It’s the last link I have to a mother I never got to know. She lived just long enough to give me my name, Danshian Strider.

We were rushed to hospital through a cold drizzle, the windows fogging up as my mother huffed and puffed in the back seat. After 6 hours of ear splitting, hair raising labour, I arrived, small and red and screaming, into the world. Gran doesn’t gloss over the facts.

There were no complications; mother and baby were fit and healthy. I roared as my lungs filled with air for the first time, but gradually settled into a drooling contemplation of my new surroundings. The cheerful, scrubs-clad nurses oohed and aahed over me before quietly stepping out into the corridor. Briefly we were left alone, my mother and I.

They say that before the age of three you have no memories, but I do remember this: as I lay there, gurgling softly and staring up at my mother’s dazed, glowing face, darkness entered the room. It was no more than a shadow, stealth incarnate, wrapped in a cape so dark it ate the light around it. It coiled its tall, slender body into a predators crouch, waiting in the corner of the sterile hospital room. It slunk forward on silent feet, pausing at the side of the bed to take stock of its target. It wasn’t a part of this world, no one could see it, no one was aware of its presence: except me.

The creature swung its head toward me for the briefest moment and I stared into a face created from darkness, not even the glint of an eye discernable beneath its hood. In that moment it considered my fate, only to dismiss my fledgling spark of life as insignificant, paling against my mother’s roaring inferno. It swung its faceless head toward her and leaned in, dipping its head low as if for a kiss. With one rasping breath my mother shut her eyes, never to open again. The creature left the way it had entered; completely unaware it had killed the wrong person.


  1. I like a prologue because it can show your reader something that happens that your POV character isn't privy to, but will impact them later on. Something that they have no idea occurred but will turn their entire status quo on its head.

    Sometimes prologues can be fun and entertaining. Jasper Fforde puts a little prologue of sorts on each chapter of his books. These little snippets just add humor, sometimes a little characterization, etc. They take 30 seconds to read and add to the enjoyment of the overall novel.

    Prologues can work.

  2. I have a prologue for my current WIP and over time, I keep shortening it.

    I think your right, if it can set up the story and ask questions or make promises, they can be very engaging. Make them too long and it feels like the story starts someplace else and then jumps.

    I like yours though!

  3. I agree Stephanie. Some prologues can be great. And since I read a lot of fantasy, many of the books I read do have prologues.

    Thanks Kari, I've been over my prologue so many times. It's the most edited piece of my whole WIP.