Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 6th, 2013

Are prologues passé?

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The prologue to The Icon Thief

Prologues are the worst. Or so most literary agents, at least those with blogs, seem to believe. It takes just a few seconds of searching online to find countless articles advising authors to drop the prologue entirely or, if they really must include one, make sure it doesn’t end up in their query package. Here’s a sampling of the usual opinions:

Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.

Well, I can tell you from conversations with my colleagues that many agents hate them…I think prologues can often be predictable and lazy.

Prologues are usually a lazy way to give backstory chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!

It would seem, then, that an aspiring writer would have to be lazy and predictable to start a novel with a narrative device that turns off so many agents and editors. And it isn’t bad advice. When a structural element is so reviled, there’s no point in making it harder on yourself by including one where it isn’t necessary.

But in case it isn’t obvious, I love prologues, at least in my own fiction. The three novels I’ve written, including the unpublished Eternal Empire, all start with a prologue and conclude with an epilogue, and I expect to use both devices frequently in the future. This is partly because of my love of symmetry: I like the idea of two short vignettes framing the main story. A prologue gives me a chance to write a self-contained set piece that gets the plot moving while standing apart from it in space or time, which can be useful in novels, like mine, that include a lot of complicated action.  A prologue, properly written, can serve as an advertisement for the rest of the novel, and can usually be enjoyed apart from the body of the work, which is why they’re included as teasers at the end of both my books. And although this isn’t really a valid consideration, I like the extra epigraph that it affords. In short, I’m a fan. But the argument against prologues is a valid one, and if nothing else, it means that a writer should think very carefully before deciding to start with one.

The prologue to City of Exiles

The trouble with most prologues is that they take place, by definition, before the structural heart of the story, and as such, they can often seem pointless. Prologues that exist solely to provide backstory or to establish tone are generally a bad idea, as are prologues that could be removed without changing the rest of the plot. A prologue, like any chapter, needs to be integral to the narrative, and removing it should leave a noticeable hole. This only means that you need to approach the prologue as you would any other crucial chapter in the novel, only more so. It needs to advance the action in a meaningful way. It should convey information through dialogue and action, not long passages of expository prose. Ideally, it should be stylistically of a piece with the novel to come, so that it wouldn’t attract any attention, aside from continuity issues, if it appeared later in the story. And it needs to be the best work you can do. Any opening chapter carries much of the burden of selling a story to readers, and this is doubly true of any structural device that has only a tenuous justification for being there in the first place.

In short, if you’re going to write a prologue, it had better be awesome. I’ve tried to follow this rule as best as I can, which isn’t to say that I haven’t made some mistakes. Looking back at my own prologues, I find that they tend to follow the same formula, in which a point of view character is briefly introduced only to be killed off at the end. The use of a prologue often means that the lead character isn’t introduced until twenty pages into the novel, as in the case of City of Exiles. And a prologue, by its very nature, usually forces the reader to stop at the following chapter to get to know a new cast of characters, which can stop momentum in its tracks. That said, my novels all cut between several parallel lines of action, so the mental adjustment that a prologue requires only prepares the reader for the rhythms of the story to follow. And the apparent superfluity of a prologue forces me to polish it relentlessly. The prologue is almost always the chapter I’ve spent the most time revising, and although I’m rarely satisfied with the result, I work hard to make sure that the reader doesn’t question that it belongs there. Of course, that should be the case with every chapter. But if you’re going to write a prologue at all, you can’t take any chances.

Written by nevalalee

February 6, 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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Quote of the Day

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John Fowles

I remember years ago watching the commercial folktale-tellers in a Cairo bazaar….Getting the audience, I remarked, depended not at all on preaching and philosophizing but very much on baser tricks of the trade: in short, on pleasing, wooing, luring the listeners into the palm of one’s hand.

John Fowles

Written by nevalalee

February 6, 2013 at 8:02 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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