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A Propensity for Prologues

Scribe smallIn search of inspiration for this week’s Editor’s Corner, I returned to the brackish well of Amazon e-books and discovered a curious trend, particularly among new authors: prologues.

Prologues, prefaces, introductions….in whatever guise, they abound behind the covers of genre tomes and would-be literary masterpieces. The question is: are they really necessary? Or are they simply catchalls for back story we just can’t bring ourselves to leave behind? If you have chosen to begin your novel other than with the first line of Chapter I, ask yourself “Why?”

Now,  I admit I’ve written my share of forwards and introductions, prefaces and preludes over the years. However, as a matter of editorial preference, I find them decidedly annoying in most novels. Nine times out of ten, a prologue serves as a historical exercise, giving background to characters and places, giving hints of what is to come. In unskilled hands, this often amounts to little more than an information dump. We writers have a tendency to be packrats, hoarding our notes and scribblings as if they were nuggets of Fafnir’s gold. The truth is, while they might be necessary to the literary process, they are essentially work product. If it is important to know that Abra met Benjamin when they were ten and she broke his nose on the playground, then lace it into the novel proper. If the village of Xington is frayed by economic strife or long years of war, don’t tell us about it in the past, let those elements play out in the present.

Sometimes, as happens in the best of prologues, you have a totally relevant, engrossing story from time past without which all that is to come is but half a tale. If this is the case, then great. Tell that chapter of your tale, but tell it boldly. Make it Chapter I. This is one of the wonderful things about the fiction writer’s craft: we are not constrained by time. Even if every other chapter in your book unfolds within a twenty-four-hour period, there is no rule that says your first chapter can’t take place a decade earlier or span a year. In short, if your prologue is part of the story, make it part of the story.

In fairness, there are times when a few introductory pages are just the thing. If, for example, you are writing a series, a little reminder of who and what have come before can help ground the reader in the current volume. Or, if you’re prone to concision, you might prefer the virtue of the jacket blurb. It is amazing how much information can be put into a judicious paragraph or two. Think Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” – each volume could be summed up in a couple of sentences. Anthologies also benefit from a few prefatory words addressing the purpose, unifying theme, editor’s take, et cetera. My personal inclinations aside, at the behest of my publisher, my Dragon books both sport somewhat lengthy introductions. I have made peace with this because, though fictive, they have the structure of non-fiction books, and, thus, subject to different rules. Introductions were positively expected.

In the end, whether you call it a preface, a forward, or Chapter I, remember that the opening line is always the opening line. It has to reach out, shake the reader by the lapels and command them to continue. More than one book has been set aside – or tossed into the reject pile – over a less-than-gripping beginning.

This is first contact. Make it memorable. Make it count.

first contact

Finally, a lesson from the Master – a k a: If you’re going to do it do it right.
Sonnet as Prologue from Romeo & Juliet:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.