Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Prologues, do you skip them?













I've sent book three back to the publisher with the edits done and I'm rolling up my sleeves to get back into my new WIP (work-in-progress). Because you know, you can never really stop writing. It just sucks you in and before you know it, you're writing another book.


Right now I'm struggling with a difficult decision. I've started the new series with a prologue. I've never done this before, always just jumped right into the story. But this book seemed to need the prologue to set up the story. I'm 240 pages into it now and I'm beginning to think it was a mistake.

I'm one of those impatient people who always skip prologues. I just want to get into the meat of the story.

According to Lital Talmor you have to ask yourself these three questions:

• Do you really need a prologue?
• What does your prologue do?
• And finally, Does it get the job done right?

Read the rest of her article here. I think my prologue does set up the story. Vickie Britton says 'a prologue (or epilogue) can help explain a complicated story'. Read the rest of her article here. And my story certainly is complicated.

But what if the reader is just going to skip the prologue?

Maeve Maddox says, 'beware the back story disguised as prologue'. And she comes up with three reasons to ditch your prologue. See the full article here.

Meanwhile, Carolyn Jewel thinks 'a prologue should be a last resort, used only when there's absolutely no other effective way to convey the information. Note, I did not say easier way, I said effective way. Writing is hard work.' (She wasn't kidding about the hard work). See the rest of her article here.

So it all comes back to me again. My prologue does reveal information which is back story, but it helps make the opening chapters easier to understand. I'm veering towards taking it out and seeing if my test readers think I need one. I'll be taking it to a ROR writing retreat in September.

Funnily enough, I don't mind an epilogue. I like dropping back in on characters to have a cup of tea and catch up, especially if nice things have been happening for them.

What about you? Do you skip prologues? Do prefer epilogues to prologues?

33 comments:

Brendan said...

I think the main question about if you need a prologue is: Is this an event that you will later have to tell the reader about if you don't show them it happening in the beginning?

Do I read prologues? Well sometimes yes, sometimes no. I never bothered with the ones in the David Eddings Begariad and Mallorian books because A: They told the same story again and again, B: They 'told' me about something happening instead of showing me, and C: They were boring.

But Kate Elliot's intro to The Crown of Stars books and Julian May's prologues in the Exile Saga books were must reads. Kate's was short which helped but also gave you insight into characters that didn't become significant till three or four books into the series, and May's gave showed events that would have either have to have gone unexplained or told to the audience later.

I too like a nice epilogue, although sometimes it can seem the author has popped a "and they lived happily ever after" bit at the end because s/he was unable to bring a satisfactory end to the story at the end of the main story.

One good thing about the epilogue in a series book is it can do the job of a prologue, introducing certain events that will become significant in the next book, leaving the reader with a bit of nice foreshadowing to drool over.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Brendan,

I agree that with a series, prologues could help fill the new reader in.

With my prologue I think I can get the information into the main story, but the reader would have to persevere and be willing to gather clues.

Eleni Konstantine said...

I've always read prologues. To be honest I've never thought of not reading them. But it seems to be going the no prologue territory out there. I changed my prologue to a chapter in one of my MSs because of this.

Go with your instinct. I'm sure you'll come up with what's best for your story. :)

Brendan said...

That is cool, I like a clue hunt too. One of the reasons I mentioned the Crown of Stars series is I am currently reading it, and I am writing up all the AhHa! moments, where either small details click for a huge reveal(That Was Clever!) or I imagine the future significance of something that happens(It Would be Cool If...).

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, great post and one that resonates with me right now since I'm facing the same dilemma. As a reader, I guess I've seen too many prologues that were unnecessary. They gave information that really didn't add to the story or information that could easily have been woven into the story in later chapters without losing anything. Worse, there are those authors who put basically the same prologue into successive books in a series, barely changing a word from one to another.

What I have discovered, both with my reading patterns and in discussions with others, is that I am more likely to skip a prologue than a chapter or opening scene that serves the same purpose but isn't titled "prologue". Maybe because I've read too many that simply create the world, over and over again.

As for epilogues, if it is the final wrap-up for a series, I'll usually read it. After all, the immediate plot has ended but I want to know what happened later. That said, an epilogue in a standalone book to me can usually be skipped because it's the author's attempt to tie up strings that should have been tied up elsewhere in the book.

matapam said...

"No prologues" is one of those current rules with the fine print "unless you do it right."

The two main problems with prologues is telling instead of showing (boring the reader), and irritatingly, showing so well that the reader is hooked by a Character who, in the first chapter is found to have died seven hundred years ago (infuriating the reader).

If you were a neophyte, I'd say, keep writing, finish the story, then start trimming. Is it the prologue that is the real problem? Or is the problem the first few chapters that the reader has to persevere through? Where should the story really start?

You've got a track record of getting that right, so listen to yourself about this.

Francis Turner said...

Umm. I like prologues. And I rather enjoy somewhat cryptic ones which end up being important but where you have to figure out why this apparently less that related scene has anything to do with the main story.

Short (as in a page or three max) I think unless the characters etc. in the prologue are going to figure in the main story in the same form.

Also I like the advice that says don't call it a prologue and, the further corollory, that says that it needs to be hooking enough to get people to read onto what is now "chapter 2" set 20 years later in a different place.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

I'm not a fan. I find it rare for a prologue to not just give the whole game away in terms of the plot (in the case of Eddings, for example) or otherwise lay down a whole lot of backstory exposition. I've also red a few where the prologue is really misnamed-- it's essentially a Chapter One where the characters of the chapter are not the main characters of the story. Now, that can work well if used cleverly. But again, I've often found it's used as a jackhammer when the needed tool is a scalpel.

Anthony J Langford said...

Good post. Well, when I used to read the 'Do's & Don'ts of Writing' books and publishers/agents tips etc, most of them said the same thing, 'Don't write a prolouge.' It's either Chapter 1 or any such back story should be included in the unfolding of the actual story. I'm surprised people still use them which brings us back to the real point, publishers don't know everything and rules are meant to be broken. They also said YA novels should be under 70,000 words and look at Stephanie Meyer. Agreed that most of her stuff is waffle but there's another broken rule. If you want to write it, write it. Personally I don't write them because of the aforementioned 'advice' and learnt to navigate around them though I think its a good quick way to let the readers know what they are in for. So of course I read them, if they are there. They're a part of the story. Just don't see that many anymore.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Skip... prologues...? Honestly, it has never occurred to me to skip them. Why not just skip the first chapter, if your intent is to ignore chunks of book? A book is a complete entity; picking and choosing which bits to read genuinely has never popped into my head.

I have no problem with the (apparently much-scorned) prologue, assuming it is done right. But for me you could say that about writing in general - I enjoy reading stories, if done right. If done badly, then obviously it turns me off. Concurrently, a prologue which gives the game away or fails to hook my interest in either a plot or character isn't going to be any good either.

warpcordova said...

I was never a huge fan of epilogues. However, I am guilty of using a prologue once. ONCE. I swear, after OMike made the paint peel after blistering me for using one, I doubt I'd ever use one again.

I still feel they can be useful, however. Sometimes a prologue can be used to set up a scene or character's arrival later in the book better and more conveniently than any other way.

In the end, it just depends on the writer's judgment and the situation.

Kate Sheeran said...

I agree with Jonathan - it never occurred to me to skip any part of a book I'd purchased until I started reading about how some people skip prologues. What?

I don't tend to write them (never say never) - I figure it's just as well to start with Chapter 1. But I can't see myself skipping one. If I don't like how it's written or don't think it's well done, chances are I won't like the rest of the book, either.

Jim McCoy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim McCoy said...

I enjoy a well written prologue. Larry Correia's (sp?) Monster Hunters Incorporated has a terrific one for starters. Sometimes it's much easier for the reader (note that I did NOT mention the writer) and an effective way to draw the reader into what you're doing. Basically, an effective prologue makes a good hook.

Epilogues are alright when they don't drag. The epilogue at the end of Lord of the Rings feels like it takes three months to read. I've read the series three times and I don't think I've ever read it all. The epilogue at the end of The Deathly Hallows which is book 7 of the Harry Potter series was almost the exact opposite. It takes like five pages. The scene is set we find out what we need to know and it's over.

Anonymous said...

I do read all prologues simply because I don't want to mess myself up later by not understanding something in the book that would've been remedied by reading the prologue. I've always considered it part of the story, or why else would it have been there?

That said, I don't usually enjoy the prologue. I've rarely read one that I've considered interesting. That may be because, while as stated above, I do consider it part of the story, I don't see the relevance to the story as I expect it to be yet. I'm also not involved with the characters yet, if these are even the characters who are part of the main story.

All in all, I'd rather read flashbacks within the story so that it all does come to me as one big story, but I'm not opposed to prologues if done well.

Linda Davis

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Brendan, I like clues too!

But I don't want to be too obscure. That is where my test readers can help.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Eleni, Hi!

I guess all a writer can do, is going with their instincts in the end. It is so subjective.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda,

Absolutely agree. If the info in the prologue doesn't contribute to the story, then it is just an indulgence.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam said:

'The two main problems with prologues is telling instead of showing (boring the reader), and irritatingly, showing so well that the reader is hooked by a Character who, in the first chapter is found to have died seven hundred years ago (infuriating the reader).'

I hate it when I get hooked on a character who turns out to be dead, or so minor they hardly count. But then I tend to like off-beat characters. (Room for another post there).

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Francis,

Ah, so you're saying disguise the prologue as a chapter. And you like 'obscure'. You are probably my ideal reader. Sigh. Should be more of you!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Marshall,

I'm getting a real divide here from people. They either love prologue or skip them.

You're with me in the 'skip prologue' camp.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Anthony,

I used to read all the 'how to write' books religiously. I learnt a great deal from them but, like you, I eventually put them away and went on instinct.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Jonathan,

I'll add you to the pro-prologue camp. Naturally, only if it is done right!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Warpcordova,

That is just it. I don't want the book to feel old fashioned and I get the feeling that prologues are just that.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

RE: Prologues, Kate said:-

'If I don't like how it's written or don't think it's well done, chances are I won't like the rest of the book, either.'

What if the prologue was written in a different VP (because it had to be) and that character was a bit annoying (because they had to be) but it was all part of an underlying scheme by the writer to play with people's assumptions.

Gah! I think I must drop my prologue. It's too obscure and it is going to put people off.

You have so little time to grab the reader.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

JIm,

I agree about the LOTR epilogue, but then the 'Concerning Hobbits' intro was amazingly long and dry, too.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Linda said:

'I don't usually enjoy the prologue. I've rarely read one that I've considered interesting. That may be because, while as stated above, I do consider it part of the story, I don't see the relevance to the story as I expect it to be yet. I'm also not involved with the characters yet, if these are even the characters who are part of the main story.'

I think you have encapsulated the essential problem with prologues right here.

Stephen Simmons said...

A very timely post for me, since I'm wrestling with this question myself. My current fantasy WIP was a novel in my head, but it's turning out to be either four or five volumes now that I've started turning it into words - unless there's someone out there who'll print a 400K-plus word novel ...

What I'm struggling with is two points: The first thing the readers must see involves a character who doesn't become truly significant to them until volume three or so, but it's an action-chapter. I don't think of it as a "prologue", but it could be perceived that way. And then I'm wondering about whether to stick some manner of "our story thus far" sort of thing into the later volumes, or assume people are smart enough to realize that "Volume II" means they've missed things and leave it at that.

Yes, I do generally read everything the author gave me, since that's they way they wanted me to experience the novel. But I often find that prologues didn't really enhance the experience all that much, and sometimes they actually detract, imho.

Stephen Simmons said...

Rowena said,

"But then I tend to like off-beat characters. (Room for another post there)."

Thing Two (my daughter) has a habit of announcing, halfway-ish through any book, "This character is going to die. I know, because he/she is my favorite." She hasn't been wrong yet, not even about the house-elf ...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Stephens aid:

'Thing Two (my daughter) has a habit of announcing, halfway-ish through any book, "This character is going to die. I know, because he/she is my favorite." She hasn't been wrong yet, not even about the house-elf ...'

LOL, don't you love kiss!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Umm ....

'don't you love kiss!'

That should have been 'kids'.

Dave Freer said...

You know - current fashion says 'no-prologues'. But then I never been a dedicate follower of fashion ;-)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

I do tend to skip prologues, unless they're disguised and very well done. However, sometimes they're inevitable. Do what the story requires.