Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How (not) to do a prologue

I read a book this weekend. I say this like it's a big pronouncement, but that's because it is. It's the first book I've read since my vacation in July. Can you believe that? JULY!

I read Mary Jo Putney's Nowhere Near Respectable, which is part of her Lost Lords series. It was awesome. I cried, I laughed, I sighed. Pure magic. But that's not my point.

My point is her prologue. Now, there's debate out there about prologues, about their effectiveness, their ideal length, their permanent banishment from the literary canon, etc. I personally have used them a few times, sometimes to great affect, and perhaps sometimes to the story's detriment.

But this prologue was perfect. It was, in my opinion, the best possible use of a prologue.It was short and snappy - only 16 lines long; it introduced both suspense and humor, accurately reflecting the tone of the book; it gave immediate insight to the hero, who wasn't introduced until a few chapters later; and it hid within it's text, a clever hint that would niggle at the back of my mind later, at an opportune moment. (yes, I used the word niggle.)
So from Mary Jo Putney, here's some tips I've collected for perfecting your prologue penning.

1. Make it concrete. I think the tendency is to be abstract in prologues. We want to tease the reader's imagination, we want to give them some information, but not too much information. We want to hint at things, but not give away the ending. In striking that balance, many prologues become abstract, leaving nothing for the reader to connect with.

2. Make it short. This particular prologue was one page, and in mass market paperbacks, where the first page of each chapter starts 9 lines down. It was still one page. Because it was so short, it was easy and quick to read. I think this is vitally important. Jenny Cruise is well known for her disdain for prologues. She says they're lazy writing, because the writer is telling the readers things she needs to know before reading, when the reader only wants the story. In this particular prologue, it was so short, that it didn't make me anxious to get to the action.

3. Make sure it has a purpose. From a writer's perspective, I could see the purpose of this prologue (I'm pretty sure, at least). Putney needed a few chapters to set up the romantic suspense (ish) plot, all from the heroine's POV. It was going to be a while before she introduce the hero. The heroine is in jepordy, early on, and the hero saves her (surprise!), but for him to pull it off, she has to trust him. And if the heroine must trust the hero, the reader must trust the hero. (Following me? Agree? Disagree?)  So Putney had to give readers a sense of the hero, a reason to trust him, or at least be interested in him enough to roll with it. The prologue was a funny, short little bit from the hero's POV, that gave us some insight to the hero, and a reason to trust him, before starting the story.

I'm sure there are many more tips for pologues, but I'll stop rambling now. What about you? Any prologues stand out to you as particularly effective, or particularly distracting? Do you use them yourself? Like them, hate them? What tips would you offer up for writers?

By the way - has anyone else seen this quote floating around facebook? I love it!


Marnee Bailey said...

Hal, this actually strikes close to home for me. I debated adding a bit more of a prologue at the beginning of my story and decided against it for exactly the reasons you mention. I didn't want to slow things down.

I do have my hero's uncle's suicide letter as a "prologue" right now though. I've considered taking it out, but I like the idea of starting my story with a suicide note. LOL! Marnee=disturbed. It's not an entire page, though. I gave myself a pass because it was quick.

Effective prologues.... I can't think of any. Yikes.

Now, I do love a good epilogue, though. So lets not start hating on them, ok?

Marnee Bailey said...

PS, Hal, yay for getting in some pleasure reading! I know you've been crazy busy. Happy for you. :)

haleigh said...

Thanks Marn - I'd actually forgotten how much a good book can change my outlook on life. Ahhhh....

I was actually thinking of your prologue while writing this, because I think it works for much the same reasons. This Mary Jo Putney prologue, by the way, was the hero reading his own obituary and finding it funny. It was a great opening.

TerriOsburn said...

I haven't read a Putney in forever. Now I really want to read this one. Good topic, Hal!

The only prologue that comes to mind is the one Nora Roberts did for Carolina Moon. The mystery in the book revolves around a murder that happened when the heroine was a child. We get to "witness" the murder in the prologue, then pick up when the heroine is an adult.

That prologue was necessary. And creepy. Set up the tone of the book perfectly.

I haven't come across the need for a prologue, but keeping these tips are right on the money.

TerriOsburn said...

"...but keeping these tips..." Really? WTH was I trying to say there? LOL!

I think I was trying to say, "You're right, Hal!"

haleigh said...

haha - I'll always take being right :)

That sounds like a great prologue, Ter, and definitely a necessary one. I think setting the tone is an important part. I've run across a few where the tone, or even the voice, in the prologue feels different than the book itself, and that always throws me off. I also (usually) prefer a situation like that, where we need to witness something long past, to be a prologue rather than a flashback.

Of course, I say that with whole chapters of my current WIP being flashbacks :)

haleigh said...

Oh, and this book is part of a current series, the Lost Lords, and now I'm gobbling up the whole series. ( I read the 3rd one first, and didn't feel like I missed a thing, and I believe there are more coming in this series. It's awesome!

MsHellion said...

I love them for the most part. I am not drawing any examples of poorly done prologues (because usually if the prologue is bad, so is most everything else and I'm usually bitching about those things first.)

I think the prologues in YA fiction stand out most for me. They give a hint of mystery before confusing the hell out of you with massive worldbuilding that's not explained until the last page of the last book... :) I eat them up.

I loved Julie Garwood prologues: they were usually short, pithy, and IRONIC. Total set up for the rest of the novel. I probably love prologues because of her. :)

And I have to hunt up this series because this book sounds awesome!

Scapegoat said...

Great blog!

The book that instantly came to mind for me was Kieran Kramer's When Harry Met Molly. Hands down one of the best examples of the use of a prologue that I've read.

What a way to draw the reader in and set up such a backstory of history between the h/h that the reader just knows right off the bat that this story can't be ordinary.

Really loved that book but the prologue was the shining star for me.

Donna Cummings said...

Hal, I know what you mean about getting to read -- it seems I do less and less of it, and then when I do, I feel all revived and rejuvenated, and I wonder why the hell I didn't find time for it sooner!

I can get impatient with prologues sometimes. It can feel like it gets in the way. But there are two I can think of that worked (I wrote a post about them, which is the only reason I can remember them -- LOL).

One was High Country Bride by Linda Lael Miller, and it's from the POV of the dad who is planning on leaving his ranch to the first of his hell-raising sons who gets married and settles down. It's almost its own little story, and it needs to be in there to make the dad's goal sympathetic. He's getting older, misses his late wife, feels like he hasn't done a great job raising his sons, etc.

Another great one is Gone Too Far by Suzanne Brockmann. It's about the 4th book in the series, and the hero has been in previous books, and he's kind of dick-ish. But this prologue demonstrates how he got that way, showing him as a young boy, having a hard time but being tough about dealing with an abusive father, and also showing the first signs of heroic behavior.

So that's what I've got. And this got WAY too long. LOL

haleigh said...

Hellie - excellent point. If the prologue is terrible, there's probably other problems in the book too. It's rarely the worst offense :)

It's been a while since I've read Julie Garwood, but you're comment makes me want to go back to her. I love pithy and ironic prologues!

haleigh said...

Scape - excellent example! I read that book a while back because of your raving about it, and I agree that was a VERY well done prologue!

haleigh said...

Donna - ahh, I share your love for both LLM and Suzanne Brockman. I remember the LLM book you're referring to, and I think you're right, it was necessary to be in Angus' head, to understand why he did what he did. Otherwise, you risk losing the reader because the motivation for the conflict (having to get married) made no sense!

I haven't read that Suzanne Brockman one, but can see how that prologue would be necessary, especially since you're trying to take readers into the head of a character they'd already formed opinions about. It's good for new readers though, too!

Janga said...

I'll be brave and admit that I disagree with Crusie on this one. Sometimes prologues are lazy writing, but sometimes they work well. Like most elements of fiction, it all depends on the writer. MJP used a prologue, a longer one, in Never Less Than a Lady, Book 2 in the Lost Lords series. I didn't find it lazy writing. I've been reading MJP's books since 1988, and she's a no-fail author for me. Nowhere Near Respectable was one of my top ten reads of 2011. And I'm especially looking forward to No Longer a Gentleman, a May release. It's Wyndham's story. But the Fallen Angel series is my favorite of her series. I want the ebooks now that they are all out. My paper copies are tattered.

Nora uses a lot of prologues. All the books in the Dream trilogy have the prologue with the bit about Seraphina's treasure, and the prologues of the Bride Quartet take the four heroines from eight to eleven to teenagers to deciding to open their bridal business together. I though they were quite effective.

I also think sometimes as writers we need to write prologues as part of our process even if we cut them when we revise. I've done that twice now.

quantum said...

Hellie: I love them for the most part. I am not drawing any examples of poorly done prologues (because usually if the prologue is bad, so is most everything else

Absolutely agree. They give a quick overview of the author (great if its a new-to-me author!)
and set the scene before the main story. I loved Putney's 'Lost Lords series' including the prologues!

The last prologue I read was for Nora Roberts 'Sea Swept' (Chesapeake Bay sage #1) Which shows Cameron as the womanising reprobate before the main story starts when he has to show a very different facet of his character.

Haleigh, as a reader I agree with all of your tips. When done well the prologue can be brilliant for setting atmosphere and getting the reader in the right mood.

P. Kirby said...

I can't really think of any particularly effective prologues.

By and large, I'm not a fan of prologues. In fantasy, there's a tendency to use prologues as a means of injecting exposition, "showing" an event from some long bygone era, using characters who will never be seen again or who won't show up until much later in the book.

I've got an eensy-wheensy attention span; I won't remember that the warlord used some special sword to kill the other warlord. Then there was the romance novel I read where the prologue showed backstory from when the heroine was a baby. Meh. I'm also not a fan of prologues that are used to set a tone; a tone that contrasts with the tone in Chapter One. It feels like a cheat. "See my story is really about vampires, even though you won't see the vampire until Chapter Forty-Five."

But...I think I may have written a prologue in my current WIP. Maybe. It's a scene that shows my hero essentially getting sentenced and punished for his crimes. It's eight years before the main story and takes place in his world, an alternate universe. Besides the hero, it also includes several other characters who will be part of the main story. Also, the majority of the novel, after the first 4-5 chapters, takes place in that alternate universe. I.e., these aren't long dead characters in a setting that won't ever be seen again.

So is it a prologue, or just Chapter One? (I'm inclined to slap a "Chapter One" on it just because I don't like prologues.) Hmmmm. I'm not going to mess with it at this stage; I just want to get the @#$#&! first draft written. But the possibility that I, she who disdains prologues, have written a prologue, is, uh, amusing.

Maureen said...

I like the short and sweet prologues, but I also like it when an author uses lines of poetry or song lyrics to 'introduce' a chapter. I like to look for the connection as I read...

I consider an effective prologue is like the intro short to a movie, with the big announcer voice...not the clip of all the best stuff used to promote the movie!

What I'm not a fan of, yet understand the need for, is the recap of past events when reading a series... I know they are necessary for the reader who hasn't read the earlier ones...but geez! Let the book ride and if the reader is intrigued, they'll buy the other books.

haleigh said...

Go Janga! You can totally disagree with Crusie. I usually agree with her writing advice, but I think this is one that's her personal preference bleeding through. I'm with you that a prologue can be well done, if handled with writerly care and skill.

Never Less than a Lady is up next on my list. I can't wait to read this whole series - I love the characters!

haleigh said...

Hey Q! Oh, I like prologues that show a totally different side of a character than what you get in the opening of the novel itself. Really, what isn't Nora good at??

haleigh said...

That definitely sounds like a prologue, Pat! Especially as it's different, in both time and universe , from the first chapter.

BUT, it's also an example of a necessary prologue! (or at least, certainly sounds necessary from your description).

I fully agree about prologues that feature characters who won't be back, or who won't be back until the end. Great tip - make it about the primary characters!

haleigh said...

That's a great analogy of an effective prologue, Chance!

I too adore quotes at the beginning of chapters. It can add so much depth, without weighing down the story.

(and I'm with you on the 'recapping the last five books' prologues :))

Marnee Bailey said...

I like anything like that at the beginning of chapters. Old letters, quotes... songs. I'm a sucker for that.