In the context of The Tempest, Shakespeare meant that everything that came before doesn’t matter because a new, different and wonderful future awaits. That’s not what modern, current usage makes of those words, however. When we hear that phrase, we generally take it to mean just the opposite – that the past matters a great deal and indeed shapes the future.
Novelists frequently employ a prologue in their novels. Some to good effect, some not so much. Which leads us to our quandary: do we want to use a prologue in the books in our series? And, if we do, how can we do it right so that the reader will actually read it and it will shape the future of the book?
As in every field of endeavor I can think of at the moment, whether it’s writing a novel, religion, medicine, my field – law – , loading a dishwasher or folding the fitted sheets for the bed … there are differing opinions about what’s the right approach to a given dilemma.
We three read expert views on this subject pretty early on that said: literary agents don’t want to see prologues and professional editors will cut them. Besides, no one reads the prologue of a novel, don’t use them.
We were skeptical. To a woman, we always read the prologues and so do our friends who are all avid readers – so who are these people who skip prologues?
Being realistic, some writing coaches, perhaps recognizing the siren song of the prologue to writers, offered the following sage advice: if you just have to have a flashback1, for example, don’t call it a “prologue”, call it “Chapter One”. That’s not really a viable solution. We actually used that advice in the manuscript for Eden’s Fall and one of our esteemed beta readers said, “hey, your chapter one is a prologue, why don’t you call it what it is?”
As we continued to read articles about novel writing, we came across some written by authors we trust that said a prologue isn’t anathema and, if used effectively, lets the reader in on important secrets or knowledge about the story or the characters that will serve them later, information that would not otherwise come out in the telling of the story, or foreshadowing that creates that, “don’t go up in the attic!!” moment. In other words, something the reader knows or suspects from the beginning, but that the characters don’t. The trick is to do it in a way that catches the reader’s interest and makes them want to read the rest.
Pros and Cons
Cons are where the minefields are in this instance. A writer who’s not skillful may use the prologue as an opportunity for an info dump, backstory or a flashback the purpose for which never becomes clear in the telling of the story, or worse, which could all be told as the story evolves naturally.
There are prologues that dump the reader immediately into the middle of the action in hopes the reader will absorb the shock of it and stick around to see how it all turns out. This is very tricky, but can be a powerful tool in skilled hands. The risk is that after getting off to such a bang, the opening chapters might derail the reader entirely if they bring everything to a screeching halt to show why the plane crashed killing all on board, and especially if there’s so much action/information in the prologue that the reader has to struggle to remember it all as the rest of the book unfolds. How many times have I – have you – read a novel where you had to go back and refer to the prologue again and again to fit the puzzle pieces into the big picture? Maybe that’s just me. Can we expect readers to put in that effort? Nah. They’ll put the book down and move onto someone else’s novel.
I’ve been reading2 about another kind of prologue that, honestly, I haven’t seen that often in novels, although I’ve seen plenty of movies that start this way … they open with a scene that has no obvious explanation. It creates a mood or a tone that is gradually explained throughout the story that follows. Here’s the obvious risk: if the reader has to sift through the whole book to understand the meaning of the prologue, will they? In part I think the answer depends on the reader’s preferred genre of fiction. A reader who reads mostly historical fiction, for example, won’t want to wade through the disparate layers of this style of fiction to see if it gets good at the end. Is this style of prologue a tad pretentious? I think so.
So why include a prologue when it would just be easier – and safer – to skip it and get right to telling the story. Well, as I mentioned, it’s a way to provide a setup for the plot, giving information that wouldn’t otherwise come forth in the structure of the story as it unfolds. It can set the stage and prepare the reader to enter the world we’re creating.
A prologue can provide important foreshadowing, giving the reader some inside information that can escalate the tension for the reader who knows or suspects that shit will hit the fan even though the protagonists don’t. Is it too strong to say it can help keep the reader on the edge of their seat and turning pages to see what is going to hit the fan and when? Let’s hope so.
In all my reading, the consensus is, good prologues are freaking hard to do. Like so many things in life, it’s all about the execution. Is it hubris that informed us that we could pull it off? Only you will be able to judge that and tell us if we did, or not.
1 A flashback is not, by any means, the only use for a prologue. It’s more interesting, in my opinion, to allow the characters throughout the story to experience snippets of flashback – if that information is important – and let the reader learn about the characters organically.
In Eden’s Fall, for example, the prologue is a flash forward. It tells the reader right at the starting gun that a very bad thing is going to happen and shows the main female characters’ character in the way they set out to deal with it.
For Winter’s Thaw, I’ve just finished drafting a prologue that introduces the villain in such a way that it ties the resolution of Eden’s Fall into the basis for the plot for Winter’s Thaw, creates some foreshadowing and establishes connections to characters who will feature in the third book in the series, Venus Rising. None of it would naturally fall within the evolution of the story and main protagonists’ development. Hopefully, all of this while hooking the reader on what will happen next.
2 Much of this blog post owes a huge nod of thanks to Rachel Aaron/Rachel Bach who covered this material so eloquently in her blog, “Pretentious Title”, published in 2012. I recognized so many of the discussion points K. R. Brorman, S. A. Young and I have gone back and forth on as we outlined and began drafting our manuscripts for this series. I have tried to include her salient points without plagiarizing them outright to the best of my ability.