I planned on blogging about how books keep expanding until they take over your house, but Loretta did such a fine job on clutter in general that I decided to put that idea back on the shelf for now.
Instead, I want to talk about prologues. I’m on a little writer looplet that includes a couple of mystery writers, and one said that there are mystery readers who despise prologues and wouldn’t read them. This came as a surprise to me. People don’t want to read part of the story? Would they read it if it said “Chapter 1” instead of “Prologue?”
I know there are people who don’t like first person narratives (though I’m not one of them), but I can understand that since point of view is the angle which takes us into a story, and first and third are quite different. But fancy taking a hatred to an innocent little prologue that never hurt anyone…!
I suspect that prologues might have a somewhat different function in romance than mystery, since in romance the purpose will often be to reveal character, while in mystery it may be more about plot. (That’s just a half-cocked theory, not anything I’ve thought deeply about!)
As anyone who has read my books probably knows, I adore prologues. My one medieval, UNCOMMON VOWS, had three. <g> This affection for prologues is not absentminded, but carefully thought out, even though I don’t usually do a lot of rational analysis when it comes to writing.
To me, a carefully chosen prologue is a perfect way to give powerful insights into a character in minimal space. Showing a key moment in a person’s life can illuminate their behavior for the whole rest of the book. A prologue doesn’t have to be long—it’s probably better short. But it can save a ton of flashbacks and carefully inserted back story later. And it can reveals things that add to the narrative tension of the story.
Furthermore, since a prologue takes place in real time, it’s far more vivid and less distracting than a flashback later in the book. When I wrote my first historical, DEARLY BELOVED, back when mastodons roamed the earth, I started with a vivid, jarring prologue that showed the hero being forced into a marriage with shocking consequences. My agent took the book to market, and an editor at a major house was interested in buying, but she and her boss thought the prologue was too jarring, so she asked for a revision. It was an easy matter to turn the prologue into a flashback. It worked, the editor made an offer—but I ended up selling the book, in its original form, to NAL, and part of my reason was because I just plain liked starting where I started.
I’ve been doing prologues merrily ever since. In my most recent book, THE MARRIAGE SPELL, the prologue shows how the hero, Jack Langdon, is sent to a ghastly school that is designed to beat an unsuitable interest in magic out of well-born little boys. Just a few pages show how this particular society feels about magic and those who practice it. The prologue also shows how this particular boy feels about magic, and how he and several other boys band together in self-defense, creating bonds that will last a lifetime. The scene is set for this alternative Regency world quite efficiently. (Well, at least I thought so. <g>)
In my first Fallen Angel book, THUNDER AND ROSES, the prologue shows the hero, Nicholas, being brought to his aristocratic grandfather by his gypsy mother. It shows how Nicholas has been shaped by his upbringing and will always be a little different from his peers, and how horrified the grandfather is to learn that his only legitimate heir is half-gypsy. That affects how the reader will view Nicholas and his story for the rest of the book, and sets up one of the principal conflicts.
Even I wouldn’t claim that all books require prologues, of course. Sometimes it just isn’t necessary, or there might not be a vivid, key moment that deserves to be shown. Two of my three contemporaries don’t have prologues, but the first, THE BURNING POINT, does. I wanted to show how a little girl is wild to join the family business of controlled demolition, because seeing that explains a whole lot about
the woman she becomes and the choices she makes.
Often, my prologue shows one of the protagonists as a child to give an idea of what shaped them, but as I went to look at my booklist, I realized that on several books, the prologue was in present time, and a good part of the book tells what happened to lead up to the moment shown in the prologue. In THE CHINA BRIDE, we see the Chinese-Scottish heroine arriving at an English estate to reveal that the man who was briefly her husband is dead. The final book in the Bride Trilogy, THE BARTERED BRIDE, had a similar set-up. (Are the hero or heroine really dead? “Trust me!” the author cackled evilly.)
There are many ways to write a story. Some are better than others, but one can’t say that there is only one Right Way to do it. I use prologues when I feel they make the story better. (This is the rule of thumb for everything that happens in a book.) It’s up to readers to decide what works or doesn’t.
What do you as readers think? Do you like prologues? Hate them? Never thought much one way or the other? Or do you not care as long as the story grabs you?
Mary Jo, whose next book has a prologue. *g* And who is currently in Canada, not home.