The Prologue—ah, yes, the writer’s device by which he can begin his story twice within the span of several pages.
The Prologue is often employed because the writer believes his real beginning, that ubiquitous Chapter One, is all too weak to fully grasp the reader by the eyeballs and pull him into an engrossing story.
The solution to a weak Chapter One? Add the life-saving Prologue to sex up the story, provide teasers, tantalize the reader, interest that agent or editor.
For my present project, “Barmaglot”, a YA fantasy, I actually wrote two Prologues.
The first was a rambling fluff prose scene from the middle of the novel. The scene is repeated word-for-word at a crucial point of the story about 2/3s of the way into the tale.
I submitted this first Prologue for critiquing at a conference, and while my editor liked my story concept, she told me to get rid of the Prologue and just start with the story itself. I had never before heard that advice (or I wasn’t listening closely enough).
I got rid of the first Prologue but wrote a second as I didn’t feel Chapter One was exciting enough to begin the tale.
The second Prologue for “Barmaglot” was a literary trailer of sorts, a scene that didn’t appear anywhere in the story but only provided an interesting set of background events to lure the reader into reading further. This second Prologue had nothing to do with the actual beginning of the story, but I wrote it because I thought, “Ah, ha! This will get the reader interested enough to hook him into the story and, therefore, by the time he gets to Chapter One, he’ll be sufficiently hooked as to want to read the rest of the tale.”
My novel "Return of Evil" (Scholastic, ISBN-13: 978-0439208468) actually had three different beginnings--a two-part Prologue and then a Chapter one.
The first half of the Prologue was set at night.
The second half of the Prologue jumped back in the past some 24 hours.
The third beginning started at the present time of the story as Chapter one.
My editor told me it was a difficult way to start a novel but that it made sense, so she left it alone.
I don't advise beginning a novel in such away, and I wouldn't write the beginning of "Return of Evil" in the same way.
Instead, today I'd begin "Return of Evil" as Anna Myers begins her "Time of the Witches" (Walker Books, ISBN-13: 978-0802798206).
Anna begins "Time of the Witches" with Chapter One but hides a bit of a prologue in the beginning of the chapter as the narrator explains the difficult circumstances of her birth. This "prologue" is expanded upon later in the novel when the narrator is told the difficult circumstances of her birth by the midwife who birthed her years earlier.
I’ve tossed both Prologues to “Barmaglot” like a person spits out soured milk when he drinks it not realizing the milk has curdled.
Also, one of my novels being shopped around now (“The Calamari Code”) originally had an exciting Prologue, one I liked very much. I originally put the novel on the market with the Prologue firmly and snuggly attached to the beginning. The scene in the Prologue is repeated much later in the novel, but in a shortened form, and I was relying on my reader to remember the exciting events of the Prologue some 150 pages earlier.
What was I thinking?
When I sent out the query and the first ten pages of “The Calamari Code” on its third round of agents and editors, I tossed the Prologue with all the enthusiasm of ending a bad relationship.
And, ta-da! Surprise: Less than two weeks later, I got two requests for the entire novel within hours of each other.
To Prologue or Not to Prologue, that is the question.
A Prologue is often background material, a set-up of the past to foreshadow future events or a setting that will appear somewhere in the story at a later period whereby the reader now fully understands the significance of the Prologue itself.
It’s a matter of preference and there are no hard and set rules; however, if the reader can get right to the story without wading through a Prologue, wading through background, the story moves more quickly.
If the Prologue is a scene repeated later in the story, the reader may skip over the repeated scene not realizing additional information may be contained within the re-minted scene, and the last thing a reader wants is a reader skipping through his story.
That’s like a person watching a movie and using the fast forward button to skip through the slower and, often, more boring parts of a film.
I watched the movie “Vantage Point” and about the umpteenth time the assassination scene was shown from another character’s point of view, I had had enough and kept saying, “Just get the Hell on with the story all ready! I get your point. Geez!” Three quarters of the movie is pure Prologue.
The actual story in “Vantage Point” makes up about 25 minutes of the movie. The other 65 minutes is Prologue repeated ad nauseam from different vantage points of various characters. After the third vantage point, I was bored.
Prologues are used on three occasions. Adding a Prologue to a story depends on “when” the Prologue takes place.
1. If the Prologue’s an event in the past that has ramifications on the present events of the story, why not just call it “Chapter One”, give it date, and then segue into “Chapter Two—The Present”?
2. If the Prologue is used as a teaser for something that will happen later in the story, then it slows down the action of the story’s real beginning.
3. If the Prologue is a past event used to give clues to the story in its present setting, then you can just add that information where it comes into play in the story and eliminate the Prologue and “Just get on with it”, as Monty Python would say.
Essentially, what a writer is doing when he places a Prologue in his story is writing Two Beginnings—he’s working twice as hard to hook the reader. If the story is not hook-ish enough with one beginning, Two Beginnings ain’t gonna make it any more interesting.
The three Prologues I wrote for my two novels did help me to understand my story and establish setting, characters, and voice. The three Prologues served a purpose, but they served my purpose and not necessarily the purpose of the reader.
The three Prologues were actually short stories without the resolution of conflict—which is not a bad thing, but why not just get on with telling the tale?
Prologues are like a musical’s Overtures—a brief interlude to allow the audience to seat itself, to quiet itself, to get itself ready to enjoy an intriguing tale told in song and dance. The Overture gives snippets of the musical pieces to come, but the Overture is not the musical story and is unnecessary to the overall plot of the musical tale itself.
If the orchestra never played the Overture, the story would still be judged and stand on its own merits. No lover of stage musicals or critics ever commented on or like/disliked the musical based upon the Overture, only on the over all story itself.
Prologues like Overtures are unnecessary, overused, and abused.
To repeat Monty Python: “Let’s get on with it!”
So, where do I begin my story?
“The Sound of Music” answers that question:
Let's start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with
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