on October 5, 2006

To prologue or not to prologue, that is the question . . .

How many of you have entered contests and been told by one or more judges that you “can’t” or “shouldn’t” have a prologue? (raising hand)

Do you like prologues? Dislike them? Are neutral?

How many of you skip prologues altogether?

When I first heard that some people skip prologues, I was shocked. That’s like *gasp* reading the end of the book first. Or skipping chapter seventeen just because you don’t like the number seventeen. Prologues have a purpose. Or they should.

I never took the debate about prologues seriously–I thought it was one of those stupid “rules” that some judges espouse–until several READERS and a specific reviewer said they hate prologues and most of them skip them. Even Elmore Leonard suggests to “avoid” prologues because they are “backstory” and can be dropped in anywhere. Stephen King doesn’t like prologues or flashbacks, either (flashbacks to come next week.)

The fact that so many top writers AND readers avoid or skip prologues makes me uneasy. Why? Because I write prologues. I love prologues. But the comments had me concerned enough that I didn’t put a prologue in SPEAK NO EVIL. It’s not that I care so much about making readers mad (I’ve already done that with some plot points and character decisions in previous books), it’s that I don’t want people to skip the prologue. Sounds silly, eh? I spend a lot of time on my prologues to set the tone and show characterization. The prologues, particularly in THE HUNT and THE KILL, were the past defining event of my heroine. I felt putting that information in later in the story would diminish the impact of the scene. Miranda could have told someone how she felt running from a serial killer, how it felt watching her best friend die, but I believe it was much more powerful to have that information upfront for the reader, so the reader was in Miranda’s shoes during the single most defining moment in her life.

And yeah, it was a hook. A good hook, if I do say so myself. To this day it’s one of my all-time favorite scenes.

Anyway, after all these prologue debates and readers posting on loops and lists that they skip the prologue altogether, I didn’t include one in SPEAK NO EVIL. Guess what? My editor asked me to add a prologue.

So I did.

I like prologues and I think that when appropriate, they add to the story. So I’m creating “Allison’s Guidelines for Writing Prologues”.

1) Don’t let anyone tell you, except for whoever is paying you for the book, to include or not include a prologue. This is your creative choice. You can listen to people, weigh the pros and cons, but this is YOUR story and YOUR characters and you need to make the final decision based on what is good for the story.

2a) A prologue should be “before the story.” Avoid a prologue of an action scene and then segue into Chapter One which is simply the next moment in time after the prologue. Short chapters are okay.

2b) There are exceptions to 2a . . . some prologues are actually a scene from the middle of the book, or near the end, a pivotal scene that ends on a hook. This allows the author to create a sense of drama and excitement and gives them the luxury of a more leisurely opening. This is particularly effective when there’s a twist or character growth over the course of the book. This technique can be incredibly effective. It can also fall flat. I read the debut novel THE MARK by Jason Pinter (MIRA, July 2007) and he uses this technique. It worked.

3) Avoid calling a prologue (something that happens in the past) “Chapter One.” It throws me off. Not that you’re writing to please me. This is me as a reader and my personal pet peeve. But refer back to #1.

4) A prologue should be short. My personal preference is 3-5 manuscript pages. Take or leave. One of my favorite prologues of all times is Suzanne Brockman’s prologue in Sam’s POV (GONE TOO FAR, I think, but I’m not positive.) Sam is a kid and the scene shows his character so well in a pivotal childhood moment. I think it was brillant. It was longer than five pages, but it worked. That’s why I say a prologue “should” be short, not “must” be short.

5) A prologue should set the tone. One of my huge problems judging unpublished contests is that the prologue is dark and scary, often in the villain’s POV, then the beginning of chapter one is light and frivilous. Doesn’t work for me. This happens often in romantic suspense where the writer is trying to hook in the reader, but their natural voice isn’t dark and scary. You’ve now committed the cardinal sin of writing: breaking the promise to the reader. If the reader expects a dark and scary story based on the first three pages, and you give them something completely different, they’ll be disappointed.

6) A prologue should be necessary. It should show character, motivation and/or conflict and be a pivotal turning point for a major character. THE HUNT needed a prologue, in my opinion. THE KILL needed a prologue. Without them, Miranda would have been too unsympathetic and Olivia’s motivation would not have been clear. But not all stories need a prologue. To be honest, SPEAK NO EVIL didn’t *need* a prologue. But it worked because it did set the tone immediately. (I did violate my own guideline #2a in a way. While chapter one wasn’t the next “moment in time” it was eight hours later which to me isn’t quite long enough. I like prologues way in the past. But hey, when in doubt read Guideline #1).

But these are merely guidelines, not rules. As long as you, the writer, have a purpose for the prologue, as long as you’re being true to the story, prologue–or don’t prologue–to your heart’s content.

What do YOU think about prologues? Do you write them? Read them? Skip them? What are your prologue pet peeves? Is there a prologue that sticks out in your mind as being truly an outstanding–and necessary–opening?