Anne here, and today I'm talking about prologues. (According to one definition a prologue is a piece of writing found at the beginning of a literary work, before the first chapter and separate from the main story.)
There is a school of thought among some writers that prologues are to be avoided at all costs, that most prologues are about backstory (the past that takes place before the story started) and that backstory has no place showing up in the early part of a book. They argue that if the information in the prologue is important, it should be subtly woven into the story, later on.
Some writers argue that by starting with a prologue you lessen your chances of selling the story, that it labels you as an amateur or old fashioned. These opinions, remember, are from some writers: it's far from a universal opinion. In fact writers often debate the issue.
I've also heard some readers say they usually skip prologues, that they're boring and unnecessary, even annoying, and they just put off getting the story started.
I must confess when I first heard all this, I was dismayed. I am a user of prologues, not all the time, but when I think the story needs one.
My first prologue was in Tallie's Knight (my second book. It was a "convenient marriage" book — my first of many — and the prologue showed the moment when my cold, cynical, marriage-averse hero, known as "The Icicle" in society, is confronted by his friend's imperious and charming toddler and decides he wants a child of his own, which therefore would necessitate marriage.
The actual story begins later, when having informed his cousin that he was looking for a bride, he sets out to find a convenient female. For the first part of the book he comes across as cold and emotionless, but the prologue demonstrated (at least I hoped so) that a man who a toddler could wind around her little finger was redeemable.
I could have tried to explain that, but I thought it was more effective to show it, and have readers know it, rather than be told it. Here is part of the prologue of Tallie's Knight (and I'm linking to this amazon paperback just so you can see the hilarious, utterly ridiculous price listed.)
'Huwwo man.' The voice came, slightly muffled, from a slight bulge in the curtains. As he looked, the curtains parted and a mischievous little face peeked out at him.
Magnus blinked. It was a child, a very small child—a female, he decided after a moment. He'd never actually met a child this size before and though he was wholly unacquainted with infant fashions, it seemed to him that the child looked more female than otherwise. It had dark curly hair and big brown pansy eyes. And it was certainly looking at him in that acquisitive way that so many females had.
He glanced toward the doorway, hoping someone would come and fetch the child back to where it belonged.
'Huwwo man,' the moppet repeated sternly.
Magnus raised an eyebrow. Clearly he was expected to answer. How the devil did one address children anyway?
'How do you do?' he said after a moment.
At that, she smiled and launched herself towards him in an unsteady rush. Horrified, Magnus froze. Contrary to all his expectations she crossed the room without coming to grief, landing at his knee. Grinning up at him, she clutched his immaculate buckskins in two damp, chubby fists. Magnus flinched. His valet would have a fit. The child's hands were certain to be grubby. And sticky. Magnus might know nothing at all about children, but he was somehow sure about that.
'Up, man.' The moppet held up her arms in clear expectation of being picked up.
Magnus frowned down at her, trusting that his hitherto unchallenged ability to rid himself of unwanted feminine attention would be just as effective on this diminutive specimen.
The moppet frowned back at him.
Magnus allowed his frown to deepen to a glare.
The moppet glared back. 'Up, man,’ she repeated, thumping a tiny fist on his knee.
Magnus cast a hunted glance towards the doorway, still quite appallingly empty.
The small sticky fist tugged his arm. 'Up!' she demanded again.
'No thank you,' said Magnus in his most freezingly polite voice. Lord, would no-one come and rescue him?
The big eyes widened and the small rosebud mouth drooped. The lower lip trembled, displaying to Magnus's jaundiced eye all the unmistakable signs of a female about to burst into noisy, blackmailing tears. They certainly started young. No wonder they were so good at it by the time they grew up.
The little face crumpled.
Oh Lord, thought Magnus despairingly. There was no help for it——he would have to pick her up. Gingerly he reached out, lifting her carefully by the waist until she was at eye-level with him. Her little feet dangled and she regarded him solemnly.
She reached out a pair of chubby, dimpled arms. 'Cudd'w!'
Again, her demand was unmistakable. Cautiously he brought her closer until suddenly she wrapped her arms around his neck in a strong little grip that surprised him. In seconds she had herself comfortably ensconced on his lap, leaning back against one of his arms, busily ruining his neck cloth. It had only taken him half an hour to achieve its perfection, Magnus told himself wryly.
Another time I used a prologue was in Marry In Scarlet, my most recent book. In that I showed my hero and heroine's first meeting, a dramatic chase and confrontation that takes place some five or six years before the real story takes place. When they do recognize each other, it adds to their understanding of each other, and to the undercurrents.
I could have written that scene later in the book as a flashback, but for me, flashbacks often slow the momentum of the front story. Or I could have had him remember it, but that would have lost the drama of the meeting. So I used a prologue.
*Addendum — Wench reader Vicki just pointed out to me in the comments that there is no prologue in Marry In Scarlet, and she's right. Sorry — I used an old document when I checked this. But in the many changes that come in the formation of a book, I must have pulled the prologue (and forgotten). The scene I'd originally written as a prologue is now a flashback/memory in Chapter 7. And thus I contradict myself. (g) I think my reasoning was that the scene where Aunt Agatha offers the duke her other niece was a better opening. A lot of chopping and changing and editing happens in the last few weeks of a book.
Here are links to a few of my other prologues. You can click on the "look inside feature" and read them.
Marry in Haste, in which we see a pivotal moment in the heroine's youth that explains why she is in the situation we find her much later in the story..
Marry In Scandal, in which we meet the heroine as a little girl, and learn of her "flaw" and her determination to be loved despite it.
The Perfect Waltz, which shows us why the hero makes a decision that he needs to marry. His little sisters have been lost to him for years. He's got them back now, but all is not well with them. So he decides to find a suitable, no-nonsense bride.
In To Catch a Bride, I used a prologue to raise a question about the hero, Rafe. It opens with an angry, reckless curricle race, and he's driving very dangerously, acting as if he doesn't care whether he lives or dies. Why is he so furious? It's not explained in the prologue — you don't find out until much later — but it sets up the mood for him to accept a wild and unlikely quest to find a lost girl in Egypt.
For me, a prologue needs to earn its place in the book. It needs to set up a scene that will provoke questions in the reader, questions that will become relevant later in the story. It should explain very little but show a lot. It can set a mood, or show an aspect of the character that he or she doesn't usually reveal.
Not all my stories have prologues, but when I think I need one, I'll write it. If writers want to throw (metaphorical) rocks at me, that's too bad. And if readers decide to skip my prologue, that's fine, but I think they'll miss out on something important.
So, what about you? Do you have a view about prologues? Do you tend to skip them? What would make you skip a prologue? Do you care? Or if you're a writer, what's your stance on prologues?