Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Does Your Story Need a Prologue?

Kristen Lamb, an author, editor and writing coach recently addressed this question on her blog when she wrote about The Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues. Since I write prologues for most of my mysteries, I hopped on over to see what sins I was committing. Being a good Catholic girl raised with the guilt-syndrome, all I had to do was see the word "sin" and I broke out in a cold sweat.


What a relief it was to find out that prologues are okay for certain books and within certain parameters. Some agents and editors still say prologues are out, period, and some readers skip them entirely when reading, although I can't imagine why. When I get a new book I read everything including the copyright page. I want to find every trace of blood, sweat, and tears that a writer put into the book, but maybe that's just me.

For my Seasons Mystery Series, the books start with a prologue, mainly because that's the way the stories came to me. The prologues are written from the POV of the victim of the crime, and I have a hard time starting a new book any other way. I liked that approach when I read Barbara Parker’s Suspicion of Guilt, where the reader meets the victim, "The night she was murdered Althea Tillett had hosted a party for her best girlfriends."

That was a great opening line that introduced an innocent young woman in such a way that the reader was outraged at her murder. Right away Parker invested the reader in the story, so you just had to read the rest to make sure there was justice for Althea.


Another effective prologue was cited in an article Marg McAlister wrote for Foremost Press. In The Prologue - When to Use One, How to Write One, McAlister shares from a contemporary novel, Mary Stanley's Revenge that opens with, "Millicent McHarg sat on an iron chair on the patio in the back garden where the Buddha with its green lights resided."

The rest of the short prologue introduces the theme of revenge and sets up a sense of the drama to come, while establishing the central players in the story.

Both Kristen Lamb and Marg McAlister gave pros and cons for using a prologue and had similar tips for if you decide to write one:
  • Keep it short - the 23 pages that introduce Canterbury Tales no longer works
  • Don't use it just for an info dump
  • Make sure it connects to the main story
  • The writing style should match the rest of the book
  • It must have a hook of its own, while connecting to the main story
If you'd like more tips check out How to Write a Prologue at E-How.com.

I'm curious. How many of you skip prologues entirely? If you are a writer, do you utilize them in your own work?  Do you have any other tips to share?


Maryann Miller
is a novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent release is Boxes For Beds,  a mystery available as an e-book and paperback. It does start with a prologue that passes the Kristen Lamb test of effective prologues. Stalking Season is the second book in the Seasons Mystery Series. The first book, Open Season, is available as an e-book for all devices. To check out Maryann's editing rates visit her website. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas.

16 comments :

  1. Ha! I'm another who always studies the copyright page - so much interesting information on it.

    If I'm browsing a book in a bookstore (or even online) I will usually skim the few page or two of the prologue and then skip to Chapter 1. If the prologue bores me, the author has one more chance to hook me with the first chapter, especially if the style differs (some fantasy authors like to write the prologue in highbrow/archaic/historical style, while the rest of the book is easier reading). Obviously if the prologue is written well enough that I read all of it, plus turn to Chapter 1, then I'm likely to buy the book.

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    1. Elle, both Kristen and Marg emphasized that if you use the prologue for a hook, there had better be another in the first chapter. In mystery and thriller the prologue can be the inciting incident that propels the rest of the story. I don't read fantasy, but my daughter is a huge fan and says she likes getting the set up for the story in a prologue.

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  2. I too read everything ... I don't mind prologues but they do have to tie straight into the book.

    What I do hate...and with a passion... is where chapter one is a happening that occurs three quarters of the way through the book and then chapter two goes back to the beginning set up.

    I have read a couple of books like that and it annoys me intensely... Daphne Clair did that with one of her novels (I can't recall the name) and I was so frustrated to discover that the gripping chapter that had me eager and wanting to read more belonged two thirds of the way through the book.

    I find this writing style bordering on deceptive.

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    1. I'm not fond of that style, either. I enjoy a story that has more of a linear storyline. I've noticed some television shows that do a lot of jumping back and forth in a timeline, and that is annoying as I am usually doing something else while watching television and I look up and don't know where the story is. LOL

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  3. For me it depends entirely on the content and purpose. If it introduces the dead body, I'll skim it. If it reads like a huge info dump and/or I have to start taking notes, I pass it by and put the book down. My attention span has shrunk over the decades. I don't mind a page or two of intrigue and I've read effective "book ends." In general, I think it's a bad way to world build and give ancient history. And please, no italics!

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    1. ACK! You are right about the italics. They are so hard to read and more than a sentence or two makes my eyeballs go wonky. Bookends can work for some stories. I used that technique in One Small Victory. The story opened with a prologue that showed the death of the central character's son, then ended with an epilogue of her visiting his grave after she found vindication. I have not used that technique again, as I think it only works for some stories.

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  4. You brought back bittersweet memories with your mention of the late Barbara Parker. She was a wonderful person, always willing to help aspiring writers (myself included--she once talked to me for about half an hour while she was out walking her dog to explain how to improve a short story I'd shown her).
    Add me to the list of those who don't want a 'prologue' to be something that happens late in the book. They do this on television, and I'm ready to stop watching. Why should I invest my time seeing what happens if I already know what happens. Must be my bias toward straight mystery. I have one book with a prologue, because I felt it needed a set up. That character is never on the page again, but what he does helps tie things together later in the book (if anyone's read my Deadly Secrets, you can tell me if it worked or if you'd have been just as happy without it--be blunt. I can handle it. I have chocolate.)

    Terry
    Terry's Place


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    1. Terry, I did read Deadly Secrets and the prologue worked. I will admit I was a bit mystified at first, but had one of those aha moments when you tied him into the story. Stirring that curiosity in a reader can be a good thing. I know when writers leave things out and I wonder why, I keep on reading. But there has to be a good balance there. Don't leave too much out. (smile)

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  5. A prologue is part of the book, so I do read it. I agree with the guidelines you've given. Most of the time it's not needed,but once in awhile that's the only thing that'll work to introduce the story.

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    1. I'm glad to see there are more of us who read the prologues. Although I must clarify that I don't read prologues that are just info dumps. I may skim it to make sure I get details I need to know, but that is all.

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  6. I like causal prologues that hint at the upcoming plot and character motivations, especially if they are somewhat unclear. But still intriguing. If you know what I mean.

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    1. Since you read my mystery, Boxes For Beds, I'm curious if that prologue meets this criteria. I wrote it with the intention of leaving some things unclear, while hinting at the mystery and the motivations. I'm like Terry, give me honesty. I'm eating chocolate as I type. I'm prepared. (smile)

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  7. I prefer a prologue that is germane to the story and leads logically into it, even if it occurs during a different time. Personally, I use newspaper articles laid out in column style, complete with headlines as my prologues. So far they've worked okay.

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    1. That's an interesting approach, Linda. I've seen it done before and thought it worked well for the story. I really think we need to do what works best for a specific story.

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  8. Hi Maryann -- I'd marked this post to read later because I have exactly that dilemma with the novel I'm revising...again. I like prologues, I want a prologue, and by golly, I shall have a prologue. :D

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  9. Award-winning YA author A.S. King has included a prologue for each one of her novels simply because someone told her you weren't supposed to. ;) If you're the kind of rebel who will rise to the occasion and make the prologue integral, relevant, intriguing, and indispensable, then I say go ahead!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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