Monday, November 9, 2009

Prologues: bad rap or ditch worthy?

MOOD STATUS: "Bored". I desperately NEED to start a new story.


I promise this is the LAST bit of conference talk I'll do...

until the next conference, that is. :)

I can't remember exactly, but I think Jenny Crusie might have talked about prologues in her Beginnings and Endings workshop. It was either there or her pre conference workshop. But regardless, there I was--innocent little me sipping my tea and thinking about how much I would like a scone to go with it--when she blurted out, "Never write a prologue."

(She also said never write an epilogue, too, but that's another topic)

I think I was the only writer in the room who gasped.

Although I'm not a big fan of prologues and have never written one, I found it shocking to be told not to do one. So I anxiously looked around to see if anyone else was having the same kind of reaction but no one blinked. Sheesh.

Wouldn't you have found that shocking advice?

Maybe some didn't find it shocking, because they've heard and read on blogs about how so many agents wrinkle their noses at them. Even Kristin Nelson said, "99.9% of the time, the prologue is vague or doesn’t really give me a sense of the writing or the story that’s going to unfold. I skip them as a general rule."

Eeep. Poor little prologues... Why are they so unpopular? Is it misuse?

Well, author Maeve Maddox gives a litmus test (of sorts) to see if your prologue is up to snuff:

Ditch your prologue if…

1. …it seems boring even to you and you can hardly wait to get to Chapter One.
2. …it’s a lengthy narrative of back story that could more effectively be doled out in small bits as the story progresses.
3. …all it does is create atmosphere without having much to do with the story.


Here's Ms Crusie's reasoning against them:

Think of your story as a party. You welcome the reader in with open arms as soon as she reads the first sentence and the party immediately begins.

When you have a prologue, you're basically saying to your reader,"Hi, so glad you could come to my party, but you see, I can't let you in yet. Wait here on the step because there's a few things I need to tell you first before I think you'll be able to have a good time at my party."

I thought she made an interesting point.

At least one more thing to keep in mind when writing a prologue!

Now I've read some really good prologues that didn't read like "prologues" at all; the authors did a wonderful job of establishing character or setting up conflict with them.

But...I've read some stinky ones that seemed to be wrapped up more in setting the mood than really telling the story. Because I've been burned by them, I don't skip them but I do tend to skim them at first when I'm reading--unless something interesting is happening.
But that's just me. :)

How do you feel about reading prologues? Love them, hate them or indifferent?

Have you ever written one? If so, do you think it should still keep it?

29 comments:

Jessica said...

I don't like to read prologues, but I did write one during revisions because I wanted to show the relatiohship between the characters as kids. But I'm still not sure it works and am prepared to delete it. :-)

Tamika: said...

I'm like you Jennifer, I've read some really good ones. But overall I haven't enjoyed the majority. I like to just jump right in.

Chicki said...

Suzanne Brockmann writes the best prologues that set up the story, and I love them. As far as writing them myself, I've only written one. I'm a fan of epilogues and it seems that editors hate them too ...

Amy De Trempe said...

For me they need to serve a purpose. I like them best when it is a scene that is years earlier than when chap 1 begins and shows something that is very important to what is happening when the story opens. Otherwise, if it doesn't serve a purpose of establishing something necessary, I don't like them.

Kristen Painter said...

No one's opinion matters but mine and my editors, that's what I think.

All this "never" and "must" business is basically crap. Do what works for you and ignore everything else until your editor tells you otherwise.

Stephanie Newton said...

I have a prologue in a book that's coming up. It hasn't been submitted yet to agent or editor, so I'll let you know what they say. It's the first prologue I've ever written, but it shows extremely traumatic event that happened to the hero. In my opinion it has more power and weight if the reader experiences it rather than hears about it in bits through backstory. But...my editor could well disagree. :)

Chelle Sandell said...

I heard the same thing from Mary-Theresa Hussey this weekend at our local conference. And since she is the executive editor for one of the lines I'm targeting...her advice is gold to me. ;)

Diane said...

Sorry you're bored today. Hope a fun surprise awaits you! :O)

Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought said...

I'm currently thinking of kicking mine to the curb. It's catchy and short, but it might be like asking someone to put down their umbrella, take off their hat, and wipe their shoes before they come on in.

Excellent post.
~ Wendy

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I love prologues! And yes, I write them. I really do enjoy them. I can see Cruise's point, but I don't necessarily agree. If you get a chance, check out Jessica Morrell's "Between the Lines". She has an entire chapter on prologues (and epilogues) that's really great.

Wow, I really hope agents don't skip over them. I'd at least like a chance!

Linda Kage said...

I like to write them. But I don't always add them when I submit my stories. I guess they're kind of for my own personal enjoyment.

But I agree with you, sometimes I like to read them in published stories, sometimes I'll skim too.

Susan R. Mills said...

I almost always skip the prologue. I've never missed anything because of it. That right there tells me something.

Cindy said...

It seems like I've read a lot about prologues lately and how they're, for the most part, unnecessary.

I've written prologues before and have found that 9 times out of 10 they weren't needed and I ended up getting rid of them.

Julie Dao said...

I really like prologues. Even Shakespeare used prologues of some sort, didn't he? You can do so much for your story with them and I think they are only superfluous if they aren't carefully thought out. Foreshadowing is a biggie in a good prologue, and setting the mood or the theme of the whole story. I'm an advocate :)

Ava Walker Jenkins said...

I do not enjoy reading prologues and laughed at the party analogy.

Poor little prologue. . . just skimmed an raced through. If it is important enough to write, just make it your first chapter and include it like a full member of the family!

T. Anne said...

It depends. if its well written of course I'll stick around if not I'l scim it.

Jennifer Shirk said...

Cindy: Very interesting you should say that.

Stephanie: I bet your prologue works just great! :)

Julie: You sound like my crit partner! She's an advocate, too. That's why books are so different and interesting. :)

Stephanie said...

I agree with Kristen Painter, "never" is a pretty strong word and in an artistic field, I don't think there should be rules. Guidelines yes, grammar rules, yes...but rules like this...I don't know.

I always read a prologue f it's there...obviously the author had a reason to put it there...there's information I need to know.

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

In my first novel attempt, I wrote a prologue, but nixed it when I read all the advice out there. Now I just make a habit not to have one. It's one of those things that seems like it's either going to at best cause indifference and at worst hurt you with an agent. So until I'm multi-published, I'm not going there.

Having said that, I don't mind reading a prologue if it's brief and has some action, but a lot of times they do seem unnecessary.

Melissa Johnson said...

Love the different views on prologues. I just wrote a blog post on beginnings and how my a prologue is, like another comment said, for ME. It's part of the writing process and a way to introduce ME to the story. Whether it stays depends on a lot of things.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

If you have previously been published, and are an established writer, you could probably get away with writing a "good" prologue, but if you are writing a first or second novel, or if you are writing in certain genres, no way Jose.

Stephanie L. McGee said...

I don't mind prologues. My current WiP has one which will either be drastically revised or eliminated. The planned epilogue will likely remain. We'll see. Interesting post.

Shelley Munro said...

I think prologues work in some books. If I feel I need a prologue then I'll use one. I'm not big on writing rules. :)

Diane Craver said...

I have a prologue for my inspirational romance but it's the only one I've written. I always thought it worked - the editor never mentioned deleting it. But I agree, I usually like to jump right into the first chapter.

Good luck on starting a new story.

Jill Kemerer said...

I'm opinionated on this one. To me, a prologue is usually just a bunch of backstory that I don't want to read. Ditto on starting with a flashback. Just a personal pet-peeve! I'm sure there are terrific prologues out there!

Cammie said...

I was an epilogue addict until very recently - funny, I never read or write prologues, but I always read (and until recently, wrote) epilogues. I look forward to any future analysis you give on the topic!

Glynis said...

That was news to me, thanks for sharing.
I have read good and bad prologues. I pondered with the idea but decided against it.

~Ellie Kings~ said...

I like to dive right into the book. It's like movies. Word of mouth tell me 'this is a great movie, you gotta watch it' and so I do. The previews most times give away the whole movie. I like to be surprised. Hope that made sense.

Heather Sunseri said...

A prologue is a funny thing. I just did a post on the same subject, and I got a bunch of mixed reactions as well. I don't usually like them, but I just wrote one. It's a very intense action scene that happened two years prior to the beginning of the novel, it's weaved into the entire plot of the novel, and my husband absolutely loved it and how my Chapter One starts after that. I'm going to try it out on many people before I ever submit it, but for now, it stays.