Author Topic: To Prologue, or not to Prologue  (Read 1334 times)

Jo Bannister

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To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« on: June 26, 2017, 03:39:48 AM »
... The old question has come up again - I'm addressing it here because I don't want to hijack Oxeaxe's topic in the Prose Workshop.  Like most established writers, I incline to the view that, if what a prologue contains is material to the book, why isn't it Chapter One?

However, the following was written following a highly unusual request for a prologue from my publisher's editor.  I had begun "Death In High Places" (St Martin's Press, 2011) with the survivor of a climbing tragedy trying to escape the consequences back at home.  My editor was keen to get a flavour of events on the mountain, without giving too much away, first.

I'll quote the opening page: the whole prologue/chapter runs to a little over 2,000 words.
                                                                                   *
THE FIRST THING YOU NEED TO KNOW about mountains is that they don’t care.  They’re not out to get you, nor have they any interest in keeping you alive.  They are supremely indifferent to the presence of tiny humans among their crags and pinnacles.  Every time you go to the mountains, you have to remember that they don’t care whether you come back.

People who spend a lot of time at sea say that sometimes – not always, not reliably, but sometimes – the sea seems to enjoy having you there.  Provides for your comfort, tries to keep you safe.  No one feels that way about mountains.  They’re cold.  And not just those jutting their heads into the region of perennial snows known as the Death Zone.  There are desert mountains whose red rocks become too hot to touch under the unblinking sun, but at the heart of them even they are cold.
 
On the bright side, they’re not actually trying to kill you.  But their very nature is hugely inimical to human survival.  They don’t have to do anything to get you killed.  Just being a mountain is often enough.

Which is precisely why young men climb.  They embrace the challenge.  They want to test themselves, test their manhood, in one of the few environments where the Health & Safety Inspectorate doesn’t get a look-in.  The first time they approach a real killer mountain they’re like any other virgin, innocent, unprepared.  Whatever they tell their friends, they may be afraid every minute they’re up there.  But even fear can be addictive.  If you genuinely think you’re going to die, and then you don’t, the flood of euphoria is better than anything you can buy on a Friday night from men in hoodies.  That’s what keeps you going back.  You tell people you’re hooked on climbing.  Actually, you’re hooked on coming back down.

The second thing you need to know about mountains is that a significant proportion of those who get to the top – who stand in triumph on the highest point of their chosen peak while their companions take bad photographs with chilled hands clumsy in big gloves – never see base camp again.

Consider these two...

                                                                                     *
As I say, it wasn't my idea to write it, but having done so it seemed so obviously the right place to start that both the editor and I were pleased with it.  Nor did it seem appropriate simply to renumber the chapters in order to accommodate a new Chapter One.

What do you think?  An honorable exception?  Should it have been Chapter One?  Feel free to criticise. 


Offline Vienna

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #1 on: June 26, 2017, 04:26:25 AM »
Hi Jo

Yes,  to prologue or not to prologue is a tricky question. Here everyone seems to be against it. But then pick up a few books in your local bookstore and see how many have a prologue, bestsellers too. Bestselling authors dont seem to be against it.
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hillwalker3000

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #2 on: June 26, 2017, 04:44:15 AM »
If it's a lazy, short-cut way to dump background information on the page then it should go. But if it provides an incentive for the reader to continue reading then it's acceptable, as long as it doesn't extend beyond a brief paragraph or two.

Here's the 'prologue' from one of my own books - hopefully to prove the point that few of us on here practice what we preach  :D

'In January 2013 the area adjacent to Loch Assynt was designated a Dark Sky Discovery Site.   
Low levels of light pollution, a clean atmosphere and an absence of trees or buildings to obstruct the view combined to make this remote corner of Scotland ideal for observing the night sky.
They also made it a perfect place to commit murder.'


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Lin

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #3 on: June 26, 2017, 06:15:38 AM »
 Jo, your prologue is very positive and seems to flow well and unlike some of the prologues we see here on MWC, it works. I think it's because the first lines are very interesting and I wanted to know where this would go:

                                                                               *
THE FIRST THING YOU NEED TO KNOW about mountains is that they don’t care.  They’re not out to get you, nor have they any interest in keeping you alive.  They are supremely indifferent to the presence of tiny humans among their crags and pinnacles.  Every time you go to the mountains, you have to remember that they don’t care whether you come back.


When I read this I could relate to mountains as you had written.  I wanted to know more. I was getting the flavour of the mountains.  This was not an info dump in the sense of the subject in hand.  You didn't really relate to things that had happened in the past.  This was the here and now and I loved it!  Perhaps a prologue should be about the present and not the past. For me as the reader, it was enlightening.

After reading this, I can see a different light on a prologue.  I would say that if you write about the background in the here and now instead of the background in the past, then it can work well.  You provided the reader with an interesting insight into mountains which I assume should bring me into the story in a way that I can appreciate the mountaineer in the main story.  

Great!  Thank you.

Lin




  

Jo Bannister

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #4 on: June 26, 2017, 02:36:56 PM »
OK, guys, thanks for the feedback.  So we can definitely say "maybe", can we?

This writing lark would be a doddle if there weren't valid exceptions to every rule we try to follow. 

Would the feeling of the meeting be:

It is never all right to use a prologue to save yourself the trouble of writing information into the book as the opportunity presents.
It is never all right to use a prologue if the same text could be retitled "Chapter One" and no one would guess it was ever anything else.
If you're going to use a prologue, it needs to be distinctive - in tone, tense or technique - from the body of text which follows.
If you're going to use a prologue, it needs to be such that, if you dropped those first few pages in the bin, readers would still get the story, the whole story and nothing but the story - but they would be missing something.

Anything anyone can add to that?

Offline Simple Things

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #5 on: June 26, 2017, 03:16:41 PM »
:) Jo

Where I don't believe every story needs one, I also believe that some stories do.

Your lists of reasons seems fine for me. I take others into consideration, but that's just how I look at writing. For example, with me I handle the writing a bit differently than story prose; to keep it reader-friendly. To be honest I could go on and on and still couldn't tip that iceberg.

Still, I like your list of whys, whens and whats. They are a great base to stand upon when viewing the should-I-s.

Thanks for the post.

Offline Cathy C

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #6 on: June 27, 2017, 02:31:51 AM »
If you're going to use a prologue, it needs to be such that, if you dropped those first few pages in the bin, readers would still get the story, the whole story and nothing but the story - but they would be missing something.

I think this sums it up well. For me, a prolouge is information that, while not relevant to the book per se, adds a little extra information or flavour of what's to come.
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Offline johnnyh2

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #7 on: June 27, 2017, 09:01:16 AM »
Hi Jo.

It’s rare I bother reading a whole prologue. Maybe I’ll scan a couple of lines, but usually I give up because I'm eager to start the main story. Sometimes, if I’ve finished a book and really loved it, I'll go back and read the prologue.

If I opened your book and started reading this prologue, I’d happily continue. Why wouldn’t I? It’s a fascinating and dreamy read. It doesn’t feel like the start of the story, it feel like a prologue – but a good one.

Bottom line? Prologues are tedious. They stop the start of the story. Yours is an exception. It’s welcome. It feels like a little secret. A secret worth knowing before the story begins.
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Jo Bannister

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #8 on: June 27, 2017, 10:19:36 AM »
Well - how very kind.  Many thanks, Johnny and Lin and all of you. 

It seems that a prologue is a bit like a box of chocolate truffles: a carefully chosen one now and again isn't going to kill you, but it's probably best not to make a habit of it.

Offline Shortcross

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #9 on: June 28, 2017, 06:50:06 AM »
Hmm - not sure if I'm agreeing or disagreeing, but for me, this summed it up:

Quote
If you're going to use a prologue, it needs to be such that, if you dropped those first few pages in the bin, readers would still get the story, the whole story and nothing but the story - but they would be missing something.

The reason I'm not sure if I'm agreeing or not, is that I think if the prologue is adding something that's missing from the story, it should be in the story because it's missing. Whether that's characterisation, exposition, scene-setting - whatever. For me, it belongs in the story.

I think prologues do have a use, though. I can imagine them working quite well as a warm-up act before the main event. Much like your thing about the mountains. I realise it's just the first part of it, but so far there's no story there, no exposition, no character building. But it's intriguing and thought-provoking. It leaves the reader with the feeling that the story will be worth their time. Warms them up for something good to come. But it's a separate entity to the story, as a warm up act is to the main event.

On the whole, though, I think prologues are often backstory-heavy, and generally skimmed.

Offline Mindy

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #10 on: July 01, 2017, 05:07:24 PM »
I'm an inexperienced, newbie writer, so I probably know nothing! :D   But, I'm an avid reader and for some reason I enjoy finding a prologue in a book I've just started.  Feels like a bit of lagniappe ;)

Offline Mindy

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #11 on: July 01, 2017, 05:08:59 PM »
I'm an inexperienced, newbie writer, so I probably know nothing! :D   But, I'm an avid reader and for some reason I enjoy finding a prologue in a book I've just started.  Feels like a bit of lagniappe ;)

Sorry, I forgot to mention, I enjoyed your prologue, Jo.  Definitely made me interested to keep reading!

Offline Stephen Wand

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #12 on: July 02, 2017, 03:07:00 AM »
Having completed the draft for my debut novel The Door to Caellfyon, I found I'd gone way above the word count recommended for my intended age group of 9-11. But what to do with the mass of necessary back-story that I considered the reader needed to know?

I mulled over this long and hard. I had, in effect three chapters of waffling information dumping that needed to be culled. But what to do with it? Do I trim the waffle and create a prologue of sorts, or incorporate into a re-engineered chapter one? Or what?

I briefly considered using the prologue approach as I regarded such a tool to be one that is there to provide background information - either facts concerning the settings or personae, or a summary of 'what has gone before'. So I accept the prologue as a writer's tool - but it's not one I tend to reach for. I much prefer beginning at chapter one and working through to the last without topping and tailing to tidy things up. My own view, of course.

(Odd then that my favourite novel of all time - The Lord of the Rings - uses a prologue in which Tolkien provides information Concerning Hobbits.)

But what did I do in the end? To avoid throwing chunks of information at the reader in paragraph-hogging verbiage (strange how that rhymes with garbage), I worked the information into dialogue. What had previously occupied three chapters and many, many words, became several key pieces of dialogue between two of the players. I was happy with the result but have since tried hard to avoid reflecting on the amount time I'd wasted in producing those three chapters in the first place.

Offline G. London

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Re: To Prologue, or not to Prologue
« Reply #13 on: August 16, 2017, 06:56:23 PM »
If you're at the point where you're seeking serious professional representation, I'm finding the advice in the industry is to get rid of any prologue before submitting.

I like prologues and have a good one for my book. Beta readers like it as well. But I have been warned to leave it out.
 

If I leave it out I will post it on my website if the book sells.


As hillwalker says,  keep it to a paragraph or two if you are going to write one.