The inclusion of a prologue (or not) is one of those literary questions heavily debated and naturally everyone has an opinion. It’s right up there with discussions about how much backstory to use before it becomes excessive, or whether or not past tense or present tense is more suitable. It came up again (for me) this past weekend, thus the motivation for this post. Many highly respected and uber-successful authors (George RR Martin, Clive Cussler, to name just a couple) make consistent use of the prologue, so it can’t always be bad. But why such a negative response by a substantial segment of the industry? Let's get into it, shall we?
I’ve done a bit of research and here are some of the most common complaints I've read about using a prologue. 1) The prologue is nothing but an info-dump. The device is used to force-feed a lot of exposition or backstory instead of working all that knowledge into the plot of your story. 2) The prologue has no relation to the story. It takes place within the realm of your novel but offers little insight into the story’s basic ideas. In truth, it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of your story. 3) Your prologue could very well be chapter one. Who are the characters in your prologue? Does the prologue hook the reader and set up the rest of the story? If you answered ‘my main character’ and ‘yes’, then you just wrote an awesome first chapter. 4) The prologue is just there as a hook. There’s some crazy stuff going on in your prologue. It’s gripping and it hooks your reader into the story…but does it really? Does your flashy prologue have anything to do with the book, or is the author using the prologue to foreshadow future events to artificially offset low-energy early chapters?
There are some solid reasons why the use of a prologue makes it seem more like a gimmick than anything else, but conversely, there are times when a prologue makes sense. But what determines whether your first chapter is just that – chapter one, or it needs to be deemed a prologue?
First and foremost, the prologue has to contribute to the plot. It has to reveal significant, relevant facts, without which the reader will be missing something. Establishing atmosphere cannot be its only reason for existing. Its first duty is to supply information that is or will be vital to the understanding of the plot. But for me, the true test of a prologue is that it must stand out from the body of the novel in at least one fashion: the time of the events (which should be stated both in the prologue and in the first chapter), the POV character, and so on. The reader should feel a distinct switch in his mind when he begins reading Chapter One.
Who knew that the label above the first section of a manuscript could stir up so many conflicting opinions? Even with a sound reason for using the term prologue, you still have to ask yourself -- as an aspiring writer -- is it worth the risk of alienating agents/publishers who are steadfastly against it? Why not just call it chapter one and avoid the hullabaloo altogether? I can either play it safe to appease the literary gatekeepers who cannot get past their own prejudice to recognize a perfectly acceptable writing tool, or remain true to the spirit of the label. Well, if you’re like me, you’re a fan of books with a perfectly executed prologue and shape my own writing to emulate those authors.
For me...I choose the prologue. If that means my book(s) ends up in the slush pile because of that choice alone, then that wasn't the agent/publisher for me anyway.
What about you? How do you feel about the subject?