Of Lima Beans and Cherry Pie Filling: The Art of Effective Prologues

A prologue is a much-maligned, greatly misunderstood narrative device. It is the fictive analogue of a preface, which is an introduction written by an author for a piece of non-fiction—or is it?

Generally, a preface talks about the idea of the book—how it came into being, how it was developed, and includes thanks and acknowledgements by the author to all those who helped bring the idea/book into being.

To develop the analogy, one has to conclude that the prologue must then revolve around how the story developed (world-building) or how the story came to be (an incident). So let’s split the analogy into two: (A) a prologue front- loads the world-building or (B) a prologue plunges the reader into an incident.

This is not wild speculation on my part.

Wikipedia defines a prologue as “an opening to a story that establishes the context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information.” Phrases such as “establishes context and gives background details” and “miscellaneous information” are just another way of saying world-building. And “some earlier story that ties into the main one” is simply an earlier incident.

Dictionary.com‘s first definition for prologue is “a preliminary discourse; a preface or introductory part of a discourse, poem, or novel.” Vaguer than Wikipedia’s definition, it still speaks to world-building (preliminary discourse) or earlier incident (introductory part). Merriam-Webster likewise says that a prologue is “an introductory or preceding event or development.” Again, world-building and earlier incident.

Maybe at first glance, this doesn’t seem to matter much, either way. If so, I congratulate you. You’ve avoided a writerly headache. Just like any group of aficionados, we writers delve into the minutiae of our profession with fervor and relish, debating adverbs, Oxford commas, the length of scenes, and the evils of making readers look words up in the dictionary.

But if you’re one of those readers that skips prologues, or one of those writers that avoids writing them, or worse, calls it “Chapter One” then you might want to stick around.

Long gone are the days when you can front-load chapters on cetacean biology or any world-building element. I’d also argue that dropping an earlier incident made up of talking heads duking it out in a white room is like putting a little bit of poison in your product’s free sample.

The first, (A) a prologue front-loads the world-building, is a signal that you didn’t have the skills to world-build in the main narrative. Perhaps you left out some crucial element that wasn’t apparent until some test readers pointed it out and you decided that rather than going back and inserting the necessary information in the main narrative, you’d just plop it into a prologue. Now maybe you can get away with it, but can you really blame the reader for skipping it? It’s nothing but boring description often without context and missing the crucial element of character.

The second, (B) a prologue that plunges the reader into an incident, depends on dosage and concentration. I compare it to poison, because when it’s bad, it’s really bad. But even when it’s good, it’s risky. What makes it so? The aforementioned talking heads (characters we don’t care about), the white room (lack of details of setting), and an incident which means nothing to us because frankly, we don’t care about the talking heads. This type of prologue at least makes an attempt at conflict, even if it is still somewhat meaningless.

No wonder prologues have gotten a bad reputation. First, we have a huge dump of information we’re expected to remember, for a reason which we know not. Second, we have something that might be tolerable if short enough and not too badly done. Maybe if we trust the author, are familiar with his work, or have a high pain tolerance, we won’t mind. It gets us to the story. But if we can skip it and the main narrative still makes sense, then why bother with it in the first place?

So maybe instead of praising or maligning prologues (I’m not one of those people that skip them or will tell you to just call it “Chapter One” because a turd is a turd no matter what you call it) we should delve into making them relevant and enjoyable for the reader. Let’s look at what makes a well-done prologue different from a poorly written one, as well as what makes a prologue different from a first chapter.

By far, the best resource I’ve found on the subject is in Nancy Kress’s excellent book, Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. Overall, it’s an excellent book on Craft from an author who has been writing since 1976 [her list of published works is here].

I’m going to summarize what makes an effective prologue in the simplest terms. There are many elements of craft that go into writing well, and prologues are not an exception. For a full understanding, I refer you back to the source.

First and foremost, there has to be a strong reason to set off the prologue by itself because in essence the reader expects the story to start over again.

What makes for strong reasons?

  • It takes place a long time before or after the main narrative.
  • It is written from a point of view that will never be used again.
  • It’s a real or fictional document like a newspaper article or a letter that prepares the reader for the drama to come.

The separation of time, space, viewpoint, or content is why it’s a mistake to call it “Chapter One.” If a prologue is labeled “Chapter One” the reader doesn’t expect the story to start over in the next chapter. If it’s labeled properly, he does.

Put yourself in the reader’s shoes.

Example 1:

The story opens with a scene in the distant past, let’s say a medieval setting. The reader is expecting a story set in medieval times. He makes it through the erroneously labeled chapter one, turns the page, and is plunged into modern times. Remember, confusion is not suspense or tension. It is not a reason to keep turning the page. It is, however, a failure to meet reader expectations. Some readers are forgiving. Others are not. Maybe the blurb will help, but properly labeling the prologue would help even more, since he’s not going to be confused and wondering, “Why doesn’t this opening match the blurb?”

Example 2:

The story opens from the viewpoint of an old woman in a nursing home. The reader is expecting a certain kind of story, maybe one about the difficulties of aging. Then chapter two opens up from another point of view [PoV]. Fair enough. That happens in a lot of novels without prologue issues. Except that the old woman’s PoV is never used again. A prologue prepares the reader for that fact. A “Chapter One” does not.

Example 3:

The story opens with a fictional newspaper article labeled “Chapter One.” How much of a jolt is the label in this case? I’m not sure. There’s a clear and definite signal here that it’s not the main narrative. I think this is the most forgiving of the three, as long as it doesn’t also suffer from a jolting transitions across time and space.

These examples show why the label of “Prologue” matters. But what about the rest?

The challenge with any writing is to make it interesting enough to the reader so he will keep turning the pages to the end and then buy the next book. That’s why passive descriptions that set the scene, i.e. front-loading world-building don’t work—there’s no promise of conflict, no characters to like.

But wait, you just said, don’t plunge the readers into a conflict until they have characters that they care about. I did, and that’s why the choice of writing a prologue (separation of time, space, PoV) entails writing two equally good openings.

Two openings means two hooks, two opportunities for the reader to put your book down. It is a risk, even if you endow the prologue with all the depth, detail, and tension of the main narrative rather than shortchanging the reader with something sloppy that signals “skip me.”

As Kress says at the end of her section on prologues: “…spend the same time and effort on both prologue and scene one that you’d give either if it stood alone.”

And for Pete’s sake, don’t call it “Chapter One” when it’s a prologue. It’s like labeling a can of lima* beans with a picture of cherry pie filling. Why would the reader ever trust you after discovering that your first act was one of deception?

Epilogue:

The same techniques can be applied to epilogues, except that an epilogue can be a wrap-up rather than a hook. Or it may be a teaser outside the main narrative that deals with the next book in a series. As long as it’s outside the main narrative, and the loose threads of the main narrative have been wrapped up or acknowledged, an epilogue can fulfill the function of providing satisfaction to the reader. A well-written prologue and epilogue can work together to “wrap” the book in a nice tidy bow.

*I like both lima beans and cherry pie filling. I just don’t plan on putting lima beans into a pie calling for cherries. 🙂

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