Sunday, May 24, 2009

Prologues Pro and Con

By Earl Staggs in Fort Worth for what it's worth.

A few years ago, I joined a local writer’s critique group. Only one other member wrote Mystery. The others wrote in a range of genres from Fantasy to Science Fiction to Historical. It wouldn’t hurt, I thought, to gain exposure to other genres. After all, writing’s writing.

My initial exposure to the work of another member, Chuck by name, came when he submitted the beginning of a new novel. He submitted for critique not one, not two, but three prologues to his novel.

The others didn’t bat an eye, but I had to ask. “Why three prologues, Chuck?”

He explained that his novel was set in the present with a heavy dose of religious undertones and each of the three prologues dealt with the creation of a different religion centuries ago. Knowing how those religions originated was backstory, he explained further, but had nothing to do with the current story line so he wanted to get it out of the way before he started the main story.

I wanted to ask, “If it has nothing to do with the current story line, why do you need it at all?” Since I didn’t know him well and since he was nearly twice my size and half my age and might not like my being so abrupt, I didn’t ask that.

Instead, I offered several suggestions as to how he might blend the backstory into the current story without using prologues. I suggested small doses of narrative exposition cleverly spaced within the current story, for example, as well as flashbacks and having the backstory come out in conversation among characters. I didn’t phase him. He remained steadfast in his resolve to have his three prologues.

I then told him I knew for a fact some agents are so deadset against prologues they will not even read a manuscript that has one, certainly not one with three of them. I added that some readers will not read a book with a prologue.

His defense was, “Many famous authors use flashbacks.” He went on to name several whose names I didn’t recognize then and don’t remember now.

He was right. Some authors use prologues, some agents read manuscripts with prologues, and some readers will buy and read books that have them.

My philosophy, however, is this: I won’t include a prologue in a novel of mine because I don’t want to take the chance it will end up on the desk of an agent or publisher who happens to be anti-prologue. If an agent or publisher decides not to do business with me, I want it to be for a reason other than because I wrote a prologue. I also don’t want to take the chance some browser will pick my book from the shelf, open it to find a prologue, and promptly put it back without giving it a chance. If I have backstory, I’d much rather use one of the methods I suggested to Chuck.

That’s not to say, however, I will never write something that looks very much like a prologue. I will simply not call it a prologue. I’ll stick it in the front of the book and call it Chapter One.

Earl Staggs


Mark Troy said...

I agree with you for the most part, Earl. A lot of times, the porlogue is the conclusion of somebody else's story and is always dramatic, so, in the next chapter, when you introduce the main character, there is a big emotional let down. OTOH, there are times when the climax of somebody else's story is part of the setup of the main character's story.

Earl Staggs said...

Mark, I know we both like to open with our main protagonist and plunge right into the main story. It's all a matter of preferences. I might read a prologue, but I doubt I'll ever write one for the reasons I gave.

Dana Fredsti said...

The only writer I can think of that does the equivalent of three prologues would be Michener... Michner? That dude who wrote HAWAII. :-) Three prologues would drive me batty as a reader. I'd start worrying I had to keep track of all the info in all three and who needs to be stressed when reading?