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When is a Prologue not a Prologue?

02 Jan

Much of my writing time of late has been spent, as it should be, on my current WIP novel, “Smoke and Goblet”. I wrote what I thought would be the opening scene quite a while ago. My writing group critiqued it and I made revisions. Thinking I had a solid opening scene, I moved on to writing other scenes that would round out the first third of the book. Several of these scenes introduced other major characters and gave additional exposition regarding the main conflict. While writing a scene introducing my primary antagonist, I hit a wall. The scene just did not feel right. It read like a flashback based on the preceding scenes.

I went to my storyboard and moved some scenes around. The logical place for this scene was the opening scene. I based this on the flow of ownership of the object that causes the main conflict in the plot and not on which character is introduced first. It just made more sense to me that the reader would want to know how the object got to where the protagonist obtains it. Also, it is a great set up to show just how nasty the antagonist is.

My dilemma came from several writing sources which stated, “Anything before the protagonist is introduced, is a prologue.” These sources further state that, “Prologues, with few exceptions, should be avoided.” Prologues require the author to write two opening scenes which cause the reader to start the story over. A prologue often contains characters other than the main characters of the story, is set in an early time, and/or is located in a different setting. It is a set up that may provide exposition the author can think of no other way to introduce to the reader. I have read novels with and without prologues and I understand what the writing sources were trying to say. I think most stories can do without a prologue quite nicely. That brings me back to the question of this post.

My opening scene introduces my antagonist, his evil personality, and the object which will be the main cause of conflict for the remainder of the story. The second short scene shows how the object changes hands before the protagonist is introduced and obtains the object in the third scene. I do not believe that the first two scenes fit the definition of a prologue as the timeline, antagonist, and conflict are consistent with the rest of the story plot. I’m not adverse to using a prologue. I’m just not sure that is what I’m dealing with.

So…when is a prologue not a prologue? Have you used a prologue in your writing? Did an editor ask you to either add or delete a prologue? What was their reasoning?

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16 responses to “When is a Prologue not a Prologue?

  1. annewoodman

    January 2, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Hmmm. My first novel was a women’s friendship novel with a mystery threaded through it. I originally wrote it with a prologue (even knowing all that about editors not liking prologues). The prologue actually took place AFTER the action, with the MC reflecting on life as it is now.

    I took it out.

    I know all advice is subjective (and I haven’t read your chapters), but first: be careful with making your antagonist too evil (his motivation should be clear, and it would be nice for us to see why he wants the object so badly; maybe even see things from his POV). If his action fits neatly into the timeline, and you’re about to bring in the protag, maybe the story will tick along nicely. But don’t wait too long before you show the MC. We will want to side with him (while still understanding the antag’s reasoning… people are almost never all good or all bad).

     
    • Dennis Langley

      January 2, 2013 at 1:54 pm

      The timing of when the Protagonist comes in was one of my concerns as well. But he is introduced on page 8 so, I thought that would be okay. Once I perform a little revision, I will post the scenes in question.

       
  2. yhosby

    January 2, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Hey Dennis,
    I say follow your gut. I’ve never written a prologue before. But I’ve read stories with them. I can take them or leave them. When I book review, I don’t start jotting down notes until I get to the plot or characters in Chapter 1 if that makes a difference. Sometimes the prologue is important and sometimes it isn’t.

    Keep smiling,
    Yawatta

     
    • Dennis Langley

      January 2, 2013 at 3:39 pm

      You are right. The Gut is rarely wrong. I know the scene order is now where I want it, but I’m not calling it a prologue. Thanks for you insight.

       
  3. Michelle Proulx

    January 2, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    I have a bit of a mixed relationship with prologues, because I love writing them but hate reading them. That’s why, when my editor told me to delete my prologue for Imminent Danger (my book), I was resistant at first until she asked, “Do you like reading prologues?” And my answer was no, of course, because whenever I read a prologue my main thought is “I don’t care about this, I don’t know who these people are or what’s happening, how is this even relevant, let’s get to the story already”. So unless the prologue is directly related to the main story, I have no interest in it.

     
    • Dennis Langley

      January 3, 2013 at 8:19 am

      I agree completely. If the prologue doesn’t set the story up and move the reader directly into the meat of the plot, it has not succeeded as a prologue.

       
  4. Subtlekate

    January 3, 2013 at 5:15 am

    I did have a prologue and I removed it, and put it back, removed it….you get the idea. After some advice I left it in. A good prologue isn’t going to do anything bad.

     
    • Dennis Langley

      January 3, 2013 at 8:24 am

      That’s a good way to look at it. Thanks.

       
  5. L.S. Engler

    January 3, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    For me, it’s all about the structure of the story when it comes to prologues. One series I’m working on utilizes them, because the structure of those books usually involve a very tight time period, and the prologues work to introduce some important event and characters that might not seem relate at first, but tie in several factors later in the book. Another series I’m working on is structure around the perspectives of six main characters; there’s no room for a prologue in a structure like that, so I don’t use them, but jump right in with character number one.

    Structure aside, I think a prologue has to tie into the main story at some point. Most prologues, I find, give a little slice of something that is brought up later, but the good prologues, the ones that don’t leave me wondering if this is why prologues have such a bad rep, are the ones that make me wonder how they’re going to tie everything in, especially if the story jumps to a different set of characters that don’t seem initially connected. A prologue and the chapters that follow should spark the reader’s curiosity, should make them intrigued to discover how it all comes together.

    It’s got to have meat. It’s got to have substance and structure. It’s got to give a deeper meaning to another part of the novel. Otherwise, to me, it’s just fodder, and an author is much better off trying to incorporate the information he or she is trying to develop in the prologue somehow in the rest of the story…

     
    • Dennis Langley

      January 4, 2013 at 8:52 am

      You make a very good point. A prologue should be tied to the main plot and should be significant enough to engage the reader with the characters and plot that follows.

       
  6. scottweberwriter

    January 6, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    I don’t like writing prologues, I feel like I am cheating. When I start to think about one my next thought is “If this information is important enough to be in the story, then work it in where it belongs. Stop waving your hands around saying hey reader if you like this prologue, then please wade through the story until you find this interesting part again”.
    The wierd part is that when I am reading I often find prologues interesting. They can help to set the stage, set a tone, or add tension to a story.Yes, I realize that this is not logical.
    In the end, its your story. If you can justify why it belongs, why the story would suffer with its absense, then leave it in.

     
    • Dennis Langley

      January 7, 2013 at 7:47 am

      Thanks, Scott. And that is a little weird. My question is, if it is in timeline order, is it still a prologue just because the protagonist is not in the scene? That seems like an arbitrary “Rule” that really does not make sense.

       
  7. 4amWriter

    January 6, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    I had a prologue and removed it. I still wonder if I did the right thing, but all signs point to no prologue, especially for new authors. Lit agents generally don’t like them. Personally, I love them. Especially ones that offer up a secret or end on a cliffhanger. Once I get to the point of being famous and not having to worry about made-up rules — I’m putting in prologues in ALL of my books! 😉

     
    • Dennis Langley

      January 7, 2013 at 7:49 am

      May we all get to that point! I hope to read more of your work, and soon. 🙂

       
  8. ltownsdin

    January 10, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Hi Dennis! What’s the harm in doing the prologue? When you’ve finished this draft you might change your mind. I’ve put scenes in and taken them out and taken out and put back in as the revision process moves along. I wish I could write straight through with everything in the right place at the right time, but so far that hasn’t happened. Good luck!

     
    • Dennis Langley

      January 10, 2013 at 12:00 pm

      Thanks for you comments. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out. i still have a lot of story to write and who know, I may go back to my original idea. Either way, this is a topic that continues to come up and should be carefully considered by the writer.

       

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