Over the last three years, I’ve spent hours researching my craft. I’ve read agents’ websites, blogs of established authors, and books on writing and publishing. I also attended conferences and workshops run by writers and agents. I learned early on that tastes vary. In the same conference an agent will espouse the importance of doing something one way, and a writer will enter the room and tell you to ignore everything you just heard. However, study enough and some general consensuses begin to emerge. One area most agree on is the use of prologues, or rather the misuse of prologues.
The biggest problem with prologues is that they come before the rest of the book. Yes, this is inherent to prologues, but the problem is that in today’s market, when consumers are flooded with choices, most writers and agents agree that a writer has about two pages to sell a book. Those crucial first pages need to establish setting and tone, introduce an interesting main character, and have enough action or intrigue to hook a potential reader. If the first two pages are prologue, that doesn’t always happen.
So as readers should we kiss the days of prologues goodbye? As writers should we avoid them like dream sequences or dialogue tags? Is this too a matter of taste or a hard and fast rule? Well, in my opinion, while most meals are best eaten course by course, there are times when it’s not just okay, but downright decadent to break the rules and devour a meal or a book out of order.
Deciding when a prologue will work starts with determining what type of prologue you’re writing. By definition, the events of a prologue take place prior to the events of the main story. I call this an appetizer prologue. Depending on your server, appetizers can be served long before the meal or just before the main course arrives. Appetizer prologues usually provide backstory about the main character, some from years earlier, others from seconds before the story begins. As a reader, I love characters’ backstory, but, most of the time, I agree with the agents and other writer’s on this one. Backstory is usually best when worked into the plot later on. If it’s important enough to the main character’s life, they’ll think about it at some point in the story. That’s the place to put it in. If it’s not important enough for the main character to think back on it, then the reader doesn’t need to know it, especially in the opening pages. In this case, Mom was right, you need to let the readers’ save room for the main course.
Plenty of books, though, have prologues that don’t actually fit the traditional definition of describing events prior to the start of the story. Many writers use a prologue to introduce the conflict, often through the eyes of the antagonist. As a writer, the pull to do this is strong. Everywhere you read says to start with action, hook the reader, set up the tone. What better way to do this than to drop the reader into a scene with the bad guy being bad? It’s like giving the reader a taste of a spicy side dish. I did this myself in one of my drafts of my first book. Writing it was a great way to really get to know my antagonist, so naturally I thought reading it would have the same effect. The problem is that it draws the reader away from the main story and the main character. It’s also hard to write without giving away too much, too soon. You might pull the reader in with that zing, but then when they start chapter one, that first bite might fall short. Better to build expectation and intrigue with a taste of the main dish. Make their mouths water with your main character. Save the heat for after they’ve whet their palates. Unless…
Hey, there are exceptions to every rule. I think books later in series and even sequels can successfully start with a side dish prologue. Readers of a series or sequel already know and, if they’ve continued to book two or beyond, presumably like the main dish. They know what to expect. Tone, setting, and characterization have been established in previous books, and although those things need to be further developed in a new book, readers can be side-tracked for a few pages without being overly jolted when the story returns to its main course. In these cases introducing a character who is new to the series piques readers’ interest by assuring them something different is in store for the main character.
Finally, we have dessert: it is by far my favorite course. As a reader, the climax is the triple-layer chocolate cake of a good book. Let’s face it, dessert is the real reason most of us go out to eat. So why not give readers a little dessert before the meal? Some writers do just that in their prologues, which aren’t actually prologues at all, but rather an excerpt from a crucial point later in the book. These dessert prologues are really teasers. They’re included to make the reader’s mouths or minds water for more. Stephanie Meyer did this in her obscenely successful Twilight series. As a reader of these books, I enjoyed this type of teaser, especially in the later books in the series. Since I knew from reading book one that the prologue would appear later, I remember reading the teaser/prologue of the final books and trying desperately to predict how the story would enfold. I think that’s the key if a writer wants to use the dessert prologue. The passage picked must only hint at what’s to come. You can’t actually hand the reader dessert first, or they’ll never eat their meal. But pass an artful dessert tray under their noses a few times and you’ll have them zipping through those other courses in unbridled anticipation.
So, to prologue or not to prologue? Readers’ tastes in books and beginnings vary as much as their tastes in food. You’re never going to please every reader with every decision. Some, like me, are happy to see the dessert tray first. Others like a little appetizer. Still others, which apparently include most agents, are purists who like to start with a well-presented main course. Frankly, I think if what you put on the plate is appetizing enough, it won’t matter to readers or agents what course you started with. Any great beginning to a book, be it prologue or main story, is a writer’s way of telling their reader “bon appétit.”
*This week’s blog was inspired by my latest read, The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch (Author) and Lee Chadeayne (translator), which, as you’ve probably guessed, included a prologue. Check my review page, On The Nightstand, later in the day for a review of the book. I promise I’ll include whether or not Pötzsch’s appetizer prologue worked for me!