I don’t spend a lot of time here writing how-to articles or making lists of what (not) to do in writing. For all that this is a writing blog, this is a different sort of writing blog, and there are plenty of other writing blogs that do cover those things as well or better than I could. On occasion, however, I must break my own inertia and tackle certain topics. On the menu today is prologues, courtesy of my friend Astrea, who made the mistake of asking how I felt about them.
Short answer: I love them.
Slightly less short answer: I love them when they are used, as Tim Gunn would say, thoughtfully.
Essay answer, basically taken out of my email and edited to remove personal examples/callbacks there is no context for in this blog:
I hate how the “don’t use a prologue” thing is in vogue right now on writing advice sites. I suppose that soundbite is more effective at checking the irresponsible use of prologues than saying “they are good if you know what you’re doing,” but the uptight thinking and blanket ban on them really upsets me. I love prologues.
…when they are prefacing the story for a good reason. I intensely dislike the kind of prologue that is basically an authorial hand-job to create a false tension about the coming events that would not have been supported by the beginning of the book (cough *Twilight* cough).
But an actual prologue? A piece of action that is self-contained, separated from the main text by years or by happening to different characters, that sets up something important for the problems to come or explains a pertinent past event with more emotional punch than a summary in the “current” timeline ever could? THOSE prologues are AWESOME. The opening chapter to A Game of Thrones is a perfect example: it tells the readers one very important thing that would otherwise have not been revealed for hundreds of pages–the white walkers are real. As readers of the story, we need the dramatic irony created by our knowing the white walkers are real when the characters do not. It creates a minor tragedy in the opening scene of Ned beheading the deserter, and every time a character laughs at the legends we cringe and know better and get a little more tense waiting for the inevitable revelation.
The Lies of Locke Lamora is a book that, to me, epitomizes “show, don’t tell” by literally showing the past events that matter. I forget if it had a prologue or merely started way back in the past and jumped forward and then back again, but the story FELT like it had a prologue. All the “interludes” from Locke’s past are there for the reason I’m talking about–to create tension and drama (and, ultimately emotional payout) that would not exist if you were merely told about the past events rather than seeing them happen. Show vs. tell, and a good prologue is all show.
Prologues, used properly, enhance a reader’s fundamental understanding of a situation and sometimes add significant tension to their reading experience. Proper prologues are good things.
One way I look at a story where I think I want to use a prologue, to determine if a prologue would be appropriate, is this: would telling the events covered in the prologue in the story be more of an info dump than just showing them as a prologue? If yes, show what happens as a prologue.
Is the prologue itself an info dump? If so, ditch it. Info dumps work better integrated into the narrative proper.
Another angle is emotional impact: will this scene/decision/choice have a bigger emotional impact if it is shown rather than told as backstory? Will the reader’s perception of this character be influenced by seeing this event happen instead of just hearing about it? If yes, then it’s a good prologue candidate.
What about writing a prologue but then just calling it Chapter 1? You can do that, right? Astrea also asked.
Theoretically, yes. If you are really twitchy about prologues that are called prologues, you could just write the events as the first chapter. If you are doing “parts” to the book like, for example, Tolkien did, the Chapter 1 (prologue) could be its own part, where Part 2 picks up in a different place in the overall narrative with Chapter 2. That is the point of part divisions, after all.
That said, personally, I would still put that part of the story in as a prologue, because ultimately the point of calling something a “prologue” is to make it easier for a reader to navigate the story. The standard for including it as Part 1, or Chapter 1, or a prologue, or whatever other division you decide to use, is the same standard you should be using for all the scenes of the story–does it justify its portion of the word count by showing the reader something they need to know (about either plot or character or setting) and do not get from another scene? If the answer is yes, then the story needs that scene. and whether you insert it as a prologue, or a part, or a chapter, or an interlude, or an epigraph really doesn’t matter. Those are just semantics to frame the scene for the reader to help them keep their bearings in your story. If the scene is necessary to the story, put it in–and call it whatever you want to, so long as it makes sense to a reader.