Friday, November 20, 2009

The Pros of Prologues

By Chester Campbell

Earl Staggs wrote recently about the often maligned flashback and his reason for using them. I thought I'd take a whack at another of those literary forms that drives some readers, and editors, to distraction: the Prologue. I like them. When, as they say, properly used.

I wrote Prologues in my first two Greg McKenzie mysteries. The fact that I haven't used one since shouldn't be taken as a slight. They just didn't fit or weren't needed in subsequent books. But in those first two, I thought they improved the story.

I write the McKenzie books in first person, from the protangonist's point of view. In the first book of the series, I used a third person Prologue to introduce elements that would improve the reader's understanding of things that would take place during the rest of the story. I wrote it in a dramatic style aimed at grabbing the reader's attention and holding it into the main plot.

In the second book, I used a third person Prologue to introduce the main plot point, which led to the murder. It also served to introduce all of the principal characters and suspects except for my two protagonists. They appeared in Chapter 1.

For my money, the kind of Prologues that gave the introductory chapter a bad name are those that launch the book with a scene from the end of the story and then build toward it. Or those that start from the unidentified murderer's POV. There are some others that have created justifiable ire, but in general I don't understand all the condemnation of Prologues. For some haters, it would apparently be okay if you just named it Chapter 1 instead of Prologue.

I've read comments from people who say they skip over Prologues. Pardon me, but if you're going to read a book, read everything the author put in it. That's like skipping over the dialogue.

I don't imagine my little diatribe has changed the mind of any Prologue dissenters, but them's my sentiments. What do you think?

Including two with Prologues, Chester Campbell has written four Greg McKenzie mysteries featuring a retired Air Force OSI agent and his wife. His newest book introduces PI Sid Chance in The Surest Poison.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Nice, Chester. I like prologues, too and have used them with 2 books (effectively, I think.) I'm tweeting this one.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Anonymous said...

It depends on the prologue. As you have pointed out, they can be quite valuable, but mostly they aren't. In fantasy they tend to be long and give huge amounts of backstory, most of which can be picked up in references throughout the story or isn't relelvent to the story being read. It may be an amazing world that has been created but I don't need to wade through a ten page opening describing the political situation for the last two hundred years.
Thanks for the post and sharing your thoughts. Incidentally, I read everything the first time I read a book. If I'm rereading I frequently jump prologues that are boring or pointless because having waded through them once, I'm really not inclined to try again.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I have no problem with prologues and always read them, although I've never used one in my books.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I always read prologues too. But I read everything, the dedication, author's notes, about the author.

Mark Troy said...

Thanks for the post, Chester. Prologues that are handled well can be very effective. I think a problem occurs when there is a drop in dramatic tension following the prologue. Often the prologue is a very dramatic event that happens to someone else. It might be the climax of that other person's story. Then the story turns to the first chapter where we find the hero in his/her ordinary world, doing ordinary things. Thud! Dramatic tension hits the ground. The trick is to maintain peak tension while moving into the ordinary world from which tension builds.

Chester Campbell said...

I see your point, Cassandra, though not being a fantasy reader I haven't encountered the problem. I agree, a prologue is no place to unload backstory.

I agree, Mark, a writer needs to guard against a drop in tension after a prologue. It should be an introduction to a ratcheting up of the tension.

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Dana Fredsti said...

I originally started MFH without a prologue and was told to put one in by an editor. I have nothing against 'em and always read them!

Dana Fredsti said...

Okay, more two cents here. I am really tired of all of these pronouncements that come from...well, where DO they come from? Who decides that prologues or shifting POVS or those evil 'ly' adverbs are the sign of a newbie author? Yes, all these things can be abused and make for bad writing, but they can also augment GOOD writing. Frankly, the decision that these things are automatically deemed amateurish or bad is as arbitrary as the fashionistas deciding red is now out.

Morgan Mandel said...

A good prologue will draw my attention and make me want to read more. One that's in smaller print or italics or just a bunch of back story thrown in makes me want to put the book down.

Morgan Mandel