A Bit Previous

Open question: is a prologue ever a good idea?

Why do writers insist on putting them in? And do readers even read them or do they skip on to the actual story?

For me, on the rare occasions that I have time to read books, when I encounter a prologue it’s like a barrier. I’m more likely than not to skim through it picking up whatever the salient points of character or setting it contains so I can move on and get immersed in the actual story. Is that bad of me? Am I missing out on something vital? Usually, I don’t think so.

I see the prologue most in use in SF & Fantasy where there is often a lot of invented world background that would otherwise have to be heavily exposited, slowing down the beginning of the story, so the prologue is introduced to set the scene if you like. Fair enough, but too often that’s all it does, and to my mind – unless your invented world is radically different – it’s not reason enough.

Neither is dramatising stuff that happened 1 year, 10 years 1000 years before the story starts. If it’s not part of the story, don’t dramatise it. There are other ways of referring to past events. Use them.

Sometimes you even feel that they’ve been put in there because a prologue adds some sort of epic quality, a pre-opening credits, gravel-voiced, “In the mists of time, there was a land of…” sorta thing. But come on, does anyone really want that any more? Even from a THE Fantasy book?

Admission:  At this point I think it’s fair to say that I don’t have a happy personal relationship with the prologue. When I wrote the novel I wrote, I included a prologue that set the scene both descriptively and thematically,  introduced most of the main characters in the midst of the actions that kicked off their individual stories, and even hinted at “other elements” that were working behind the scenes.  All of which sounds ideal for a prologue, you’d think. Except, because of the “thematically” part, it was artistically vital that none of the characters be named. They were all just little cogs, spinning around in their own depersonalised part of the machinery of their society. Yeah, see, artistically sweet, but in terms of reader engagement, so wrong. In the next revision I could have reworked it so that the characters were identified, but it just wasn’t worth it. And in the end, the book was much better off without it. And it got me thinking about why I thought it was a good idea to put it in there in the first place, and in fact, whether it could even be a lazy habit of copying some genre template or other.

I have read a couple of  “good” prologues recently. The first was of the “one year earlier” type, but to be honest, since it featured main characters that also featured in the novel, there was no reason for it not to have been called Chapter 1. The other was a “hundreds of years earlier” type prologue and took place in the middle of a desperate space battle. High octane excitement from the word go. The only problem was that when the story proper began it got bogged down in scene-setting and background exposition and took ages to get back up to the energy level of the openening (which thankfully it did, eventually). It felt as if the prologue had been thrown in as an attention grabber to compensate for the otherwise slow burn beginning to the book. Which it did, but in a way you wished they hadn’t bothered. If a book starts slow, there’s no hiding it (and it might be another problem you need to fix). All sticking on a high-kicking prologue is going to do is make it more obvious.

So, am I missing the point? Is there more to the humble prologue than I’m giving it credit for?

I’m open to persuasion.

26 thoughts on “A Bit Previous

    1. Hey, when you get to the end of the book you might look back and go “dammit, that is SO a prologue after all”, but you’ve got me wondering about the whole phenomenon now, so thanks for that.

      And good luck with the book!

      1. Perfect example of where the information could hav been better used than in a prologue!

      2. Jetse – Thanks for your analysis, it’s very helpful. I agree completely with your opening statement. There are excellent examples of the use of prologues (and let me state that actually it’s really on prologues I’m railing against here – because they’re clearly part of the story and often impede the beginning of it, where as forewords, introductions etc can be ignored and epilogues, footnotes and appendices come once the story is under way), so clearly I admit that, yes, *sometimes* they are a good idea. Perhaps what I’m really asking is why are they so common, especially in genre novels, and most often to little effect apart from reader frustration.

        Anyway, to your examples:

        1/ Essential pre-info dumping.
        Okay, I’ll buy this. But only if there’s a good reason for it. I’ve not read Schild’s Ladder, but I’m sympathetic with the need to dramatise an event fundamental to the story in a pre-story segment because not only do the characters not continue in the story, technically no observer could either. The only problem I have with this (from your description) is that this prologue sounds like it’s way too long to be an honest to goodness real prologue. It’s part of the story, and in the case of your example, to my mind should be part of the story. There are plenty of SF stories where (because of catastrophic events or enormous passages of time involved) the characters at the beginning of the book cannot be related to those who finish it, except that they are both affected by the same story.

        Can I suggest that a better (made-up) example of this type might be that of a suicide bomber carrying out a successful mission, leaving the story to begin in the aftermath? The bomber is not one of the characters we follow in the story (for obvious reasons) but having an insight into why he does what he does informs the rest of the book.

        2/ Superb scene-setting without giving anything essential away

        Well this gets closer to my argument. To my mind there’s no reason you can set scene at the same time as you jump straight into the story. Without wishing to second guess Ian McDonald, I’d say that he possibly agrees with this since he did after all go for Chapter 1 rather than a prologue. I love Brasyl, but can’t now remember how quickly the story gets going. If McDonald seems to spend the earliest sections with introductions, though, surely it’s because he wants to establish all three settings before gets the story lines properly underway. In any case though, the events are directly related to the stuff that comes after them, so they’re part of the story, not a prologue.

        I can’t think of any other examples either, but I’m sure I’ve read books where a prologue is used to establish setting and atmosphere to great effect. Like, in urban fantasies, a wide shot of a city to establish the city itself as a “character” before we find out what its inhabitants are up to.

        I’m not sure I really buy the analogy of the prelude, by the way. I think a narrative prologue serves a similar but different function.

        3/ Both an essential pre-info dump that does give something essential away *and* a superb scene-setting that doesn’t give everything away.

        Nothing like making things difficult for yourself! To be honest though, if I already concede your first point – that there are times when a prologue is necessary to introduce some piece of information that kicks off the story, and that it is logical to present it up front so that the reader is always referring back to it – I’d have to say that you near enough MUST also use the opportunity to set the scene and tone of the story. Otherwise it’s a wasted opportunity to fully engage the reader.

        Again, I’m not convinced by the overture analogy. An overture is more like a an advert for what’s coming up, and it would be hard I think to hint at all the key moments in the novel without ruining the sense of mystery – or without making them so oblique that the reader forgets about them by the time they happen.

        As for stream-of-cosnciousness, well, I know what you’re trying to say, but it’s a different discussion. I like SoC by the way. In small doses it can be very powerful.

        >In science, the single successful experiment leads to a new, breakthrough theory that eventually gets general acknowledgement (and acknowledges the necessity of the *failed* experiments, as well, as these showed how it *shouldn’t* be done). In SF writing though, it seems that more often than not people prefer to discard the rare but spectacularly successful experiments on the basis of all the failed ones.

        That, I am arguing, is fatally wrong and will help make SF irrelevant.

        Hmm. But this doesn’t stack up logically, Jetse. In science the body of experimental work tests against hypotheses to either reinforce or weaken certain theories about how stuff works. Effectively our knowledge of the universe. Or how things *are*.

        I’m not talking about a theory of how literature *works* here. I’m not being prescriptive (and I like experimentalism, honest). I’m just asking the question.

        I don’t actually want to stop people writing prologues, I just want them to think a bit harder about why they’re inclined to use them. Surely, that nudge towards examination can only improve the quality of SF?

  1. Your point is made wonderfully and actually much of what I already believe about the prologue. AND the forward, don’t forget them pesky forwards where another author self-congratulatory underwhelms you with his/her experience of the novel you are about to read, his/her theories about the underlying metaphors and any personal anecdotes about the actual author just to prove that he/she is not just some random fan but properly important enough to have been asked to write the forward in the first place. Even though it is not necessary to the novel in any shape or form…but I digress…

    Yeah, so, DOWN WITH PROLOGUES. I’ve read almost none that were important and couldn’t have been done in some other way in the actual story. I could be wrong but maybe they come from watching to many films that begin with an explanation of the world gone before. In a written novel this should not be necessary as historical evidence can be shown in many ways inside the story.

    1. Yep, gotta agree with a lot of what you say there. Better ways of doing it – so maybe we’re just being lazy?

      As for forewords? Well there’s one good reason for having them – especially when it’s a better known writer introducing a book by a newcomer – having someone with a bigger reputation on your book helps to sell it. You see this a lot in the collector’s market. “A collection of stories by X, with introduction by Y”. At least since it’s there to be “added value” (ie it’s not part of the story), you can cheerfully ignore it without missing anything.

      1. Ah true, but you don’t usually get forwards by big shots in newcomer’s books do you? I’m talking about reprints or new editions of well known writers or books that always seem to have some equally famous person introducing them (usually). Surely this is not necessary if I’ve bothered to buy the thing or hire it from the Library surely you can conclude that I need no further prompting to read it. To me it’s a bit like blogging on someone’s book. If I want to read your blog, I’ll visit your blog, you don’t need to scrawl it all over bloody Alfred Bester!

      2. Aye, I see what you mean. Well, for some people I guess, they like extra context. It’s no longer just about the story, it’s about the author too and someone that knew them’s view can be illuminating in that sense. If you’re into that sort of thing. Like I say, though – you’re at liberty to ignore it and fire right into the story.

        I’m going to get on to your library and warn them to look out for defaced copies of The Stars My Destination.

      3. Haha! That was probably a bad example as Neil Gaiman’s forward wasn’t actually that bad and he did make some relevant points but I probably could have sussed them out myself. Now, if you want to talk forwards worthy of defacing look no farther then Frederick Pohl’s “Gateway”, coincidentally, a book someone else was discussing on their blog in relation to how much information a writer should or should not divulge.

      4. Who did the foreword for Gateway? Does it contain spoilers? Would it have been better as an afterword?

        And yeah, I both read and liked Gaiman’s intro for TSMD, made me want to read on and share his enthusiasm.

  2. As I already mentioned on Twitter, prologues are like highly dominant spices in a dish: they can work if used with mastery and restraint, and if they add someting essential to the whole.

    Three types (from the top of my head):

    1) Essential pre-info dumping.

    In this, a previous event that — like the famed ‘wings of the butterfly’ — sets off a much larger event. The much larger event is the novel, the much smaller event that initiated the storm is the prologue.

    Example: Schild’s Ladder by Greg Egan. Part one of that book is nothing but a prologue; that is: the experiment that triggered a Universe-wide change of reality. The experiment in the prologue is about probing reality at its deepest core — like Fermilab and Cern are doing, but then on a much grander scale. This experiment focusses immense energies at a very small scale, and triggers a change of the ‘normal’ vacuum state, something the researcher in the prologue didn’t expect.

    However, once a quantum of the vacuum turns into ‘novo-vacuum’, this releases enough energy to transform nearby vacua as well, and a chain reaction ensues: reality changing from state 1 to state 2 at about half the speed of light.

    The researcher and her team don’t survive the experiment (are simply transformed/absorbed by the novo-vacuum), so can’t be used as a flashback/infodump latter on in the story.

    The rest of the novel is about how the novo-vaccuum expands from the initial site of the experiment — a sphere expanding at half lightspeed — and how some people eventually find that — while it transforms ‘normal’ space, ‘eating up’ planets settled by humans — this might not be a bad thing after all, as they discover that the novo-vacuum might be *richer* than normal space. However, for deeper emotional richness and involvement it is essential that the reader knows that the onruishing novo-vacuum is not a freak event, but something initiated by scientific curiosity, giving the novel a richer moral ambiguity.

    Schild’s Ladder is probably the most extreme hard SF novel ever written, and possibly the one’s that least understood. I consider it Egan’s absolute masterpiece, the most extreme extrapolation of hard SF to date.

    And it wouldn’t have worked without the prologue (even if it’s called ‘part 1’: it stands completely apart from the rest of the novel, so is the perfect definition of a prologue).

    2) Superb scene-setting without giving anything essential away (that almost the antidote of example 1).

    This is even harder to do: the only example that comes to mind right now (and I’m almost certain that next week or next month, when this discussion is forgotten, several better ones will come up) is Ian McDonald’s Brasyl.

    I know, Our Lady of Production Values is presented as a first chapter rather than a prologue, but its first three ‘slices of Brazil’ — present, future and past — work phenomenally well as three separate prologues into the complex multiverse that is ‘Brasyl’.

    (Warning: music analogy coming): It’s akin to the way that ‘Prelude to Madness’ — which is a very heavy version of the Grieg original — is used as an prelude (musical prologue) of Savatage’s “Hall of the Mountain King” (which is the original title — albeit in Norwegian — of Grieg’s composition. It sets the stage for the main song, the whole atmosphere while also, in a way, is quite different from it. It paves the way without giving too much away, and both the prelude and the main song are more than the sum of the separate parts.

    3) Both an essential pre-info dump that does give something essential away *and* a superb scene-setting that doesn’t give everything away.

    This one is the hardest to do.

    For this, check out The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This is probably one of the most perfect prologues ever written: the protagonist tells how — when he was still very young — he was taken into the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ by his father, and had to make a life-changing choice by selecting one book (which was, obviously, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax). This foreshadows everything while giving almost nothing away. It makes you want to read this, no matter what. And the novel delivers in spades.

    Maybe it’s more like an overture (warning: musical analogy coming up) than a prelude: it contains the seeds of everything to come while not telling the whole story. Like the ‘Overture’ of 2112 by Rush.

    I know that anybody can give countless examples of prologues that are total failures, and I gladly concede that the utmost majority are.

    However, that is the same as saying that ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing can never work. Indeed, it almost never does. However, you have novels like ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ (the obvious English-language examples: there are Russian & French predecessors and many international and English-language successors to this style of writing).

    In science, the single successful experiment leads to a new, breakthrough theory that eventually gets general acknowledgement (and acknowledges the necessity of the *failed* experiments, as well, as these showed how it *shouldn’t* be done). In SF writing though, it seems that more often than not people prefer to discard the rare but spectacularly successful experiments on the basis of all the failed ones.

    That, I am arguing, is fatally wrong and will help make SF irrelevant.

    1. “Essential pre-info dumping.” FAIL.

      Starting any story with a history lesson is bad, doing it in a sf novel is especially bad.

      “As you know, the Wibbledong Megaspatial Drive was invented by Professor Wibbledong in 2121AD and, as a result, humanity spread to the stars. By 2233 AD, they had colonised 425 planets and created a thriving galactic empire…”

      Nothing is so essential to a story it needs to be explained upfront – you can either streamline it into the narrative, or simply infer it. If a reader can’t even begin a story without having something explained to them, you’ve failed.

      1. >Essential pre-info dumping.” FAIL.
        Actually, I can see circumstances where this can be allowable (but see my response to Jetse).

        >Starting any story with a history lesson is bad, doing it in a sf novel is especially bad.
        This on the other hand. 100%.

  3. Most are caused by lazy writing, but you won’t get rid of lazy writing by abolishing them. You would, however, lose Alasdair Gray’s ‘The Book of Prefaces’, and that’s far too high a price to be rid of something that’s as only as important as representational jacket artwork to the body of the novel.

    Of course, a prologue is not a preface is not a foreword is not an introduction, but where do you put that killer first sentence if not at the start of Chapter One?

    Have you thought about footnotes?

    1. Jim – All these things have their place. There are good examples of prologues in general use (not including Gray here, because that’s a specialized use and doesn’t really fit in with what’s on my mind). Footnotes can be good or awful. I always enjoy Pratchett’s because they act as comedy asides, Susanna Clarke’s on the other hand, did tend to outstay their welcome.

      >but where do you put that killer first sentence if not at the start of Chapter One?
      Yeah, this kinda nutshells my problem I think. Prologues are too often like an airbag, lessening the impact of the first page.

  4. Nope.

    Prologues and other extra-narrative wads of text are generally for the author’s benefit, not the reader’s. (Think of Tolkien’s appendices to ‘The Lord Of The Rings. Dwarvish alphabets. Great.) It’s a way of saying, well, the story won’t be starting for another ten pages, but here’s something to read during the intermission. (Elevator music plays.)

    Like when bands switched from LP to CD, and all their records got longer. Not better, just longer.

    Do the books you admire the most start with a prologue – or with a hook?

    1. Oh, anon – anon, anon, anon. Using the name “anon” is kinda like prologuing your comment with a whole load of meaningless wad of “who is this nameless stranger?” before we even get into finding out what you have to say.

      Anyway…
      >Prologues and other extra-narrative wads of text are generally for the author’s benefit, not the reader’s.
      Yes, that’s my inclination too. Anything I see that looks like appendices or glossaries I tend to skip, assuming I can dip into them for reference when necessary. I do appreciate though that there are readers out there that love the world, the invented environment, so much that they want any excuse to stay there as much as possible, revelling in every magnification of the granularity of the detail. These are the kind of readers I suppose that continue to buy JRR’s books long after his death, and create their own fan fiction and role playing game scenarios, etc, etc. I can understand it, but not for me. I prefer books that start with a hook.

  5. “I’m not talking about a theory of how literature *works* here. I’m not being prescriptive (and I like experimentalism, honest). I’m just asking the question.”

    OK: the question was “Is a prologue ever a good idea?”

    Answer: yes, if used with wisdom, passion and precision and if it adds something to the story (novel) that couldn’t be done otherwise.

    At the end, I have to admit, I didn’t answer *that* question anymore (although I did try to do that for the most part of my reply), but was reacting to the things said on Twitter (which set off this discussion): and on Twitter there were simple, blanket statements like “A prologue is bad/unnecessary/stupid. Always.”

    I was railing against those blanket statements, not against your post here, and my apologies for that.

    My point — and I repeat that this is not against you, but against blanket statements like ‘prologues never work’, ‘stream-of-consciousness is always horrible’, ‘never write in the second person, present tense viewpoint’, etcetera.

    While most of these things will not work, especially if done by writers who don’t have the experience, craftsmanship and/or sheer brilliance to pull it off, it doesn’t mean they *cannot* work.

    What particularly stuck in my craw was that Gareth posted a seemingly innocuous remark (I can haz prologue), which was already somewhat self-deprecating through the manner in which it was voiced, and then immediately several members of the writing community jump up and say — in effect — ‘No, you can’t do a prologue because they are *always* a bad idea’.

    Especially since nobody has actually *read* that particular prologue. They’ve read countless examples of prologues that didn’t work, so this one cannot work, either.

    And that mentality, I argue, is totally wrong. Blanket statements without seeing the actual piece in question. Limiting a writer beforehand. Limiting a writer sight unseen.

    Statements like:

    “No prologues. Prologues bad. Naughty writer.”

    “Agree. Prologues are like inflatable vampires. They bite and suck and blow! And aren’t nearly as useful as you think.”

    (although you did qualify that later with “But you’re the author, of course. XD”)

    I am *very* wary of blanket statements, even if made in jest (which is not always clear on the internet, and especially on Twitter with its 140 character limitation).

    I’m also *very* wary of a community telling a writer not to do something while not having seen the piece itself.

    Especially in the way in which Gareth immediately felt the need to backtrack:

    “It’s not really a prologue – just an incident that happens six months before the main part of the story begins”

    “Okay, okay. It’s not a prologue any more. It’s chapter one. Happy now?”

    Critique after having examined the piece in question: fine. Critique sight unseen that limits a writer: very, very bad.

    Furthermore, some people learn best by making the mistakes first. So let a writer write a prologue, a 2nd person present tense PoV, a stream-of-consciousness, whatever. If it fails it’s a good lesson learned, if it succeeds it’s an enrichment of the genre.

    “I don’t actually want to stop people writing prologues, I just want them to think a bit harder about why they’re inclined to use them. Surely, that nudge towards examination can only improve the quality of SF?”

    I have no problems with that. And in this very post the questions are worded very well. So my apologies again for not making it clear that the last part of my post wasn’t aimed at you (although I did write: “In SF writing though, it seems that more often than not people prefer to discard the rare but spectacularly successful experiments on the basis of all the failed ones.”), but that it was aimed at a certain prevalent mentality where people offer a general condemnation on a specific case, rather unthinkingly. And the part of the writing community that thinks that certain writing rules are commendments written in stone rather than guidelines that can be ignored, in certain cases, and at the writer’s own risk.

    In short, there’s a difference between warning someone of the dangers ahead, and in telling people not to go there ever.

    1. I agree with you Jetse, that communicating via the internet can still be a source of confusion and miscommunication, however I think you’re being a bit oversensitive in this case. My take was that Gareth posted a general question in a humorous tone, and got responses that matched that tone. One of office banter. He stuck finger up in the air (“I wonder if I should add a prologue to the novel”) and found out which way the wind was blowing in terms of how some of his fellow writers felt about the idea of prologues in general.

      Yes, I agree that no-one has the right to proscribe what should or shouldn’t go into Gareth’s book. But since, as you point out, none of us have read it, so it’s not reasonable to suppose that we were genuinely attempting to critique it, just knocking back an instinctive response to the idea. And besides, and most importantly,we all know that he’s an experienced enough and good enough writer to make his own decisions about the contents of his own book.

      >Furthermore, some people learn best by making the mistakes first. So let a writer write a prologue, a 2nd person present tense PoV, a stream-of-consciousness, whatever. If it fails it’s a good lesson learned, if it succeeds it’s an enrichment of the genre.
      I agree with this 100%, and would never seriously dissuade anyone from anyone experimenting with what they felt was right for their story. Having said that I don’t think there’s anything you CAN do to dissuade a writer who has his heart set on a particular course of action, and that’s as it should be. (And it’s one of the reasons that I admire The Book Of All Hours so much, incidentally, because the writer stuck to his vision throughout). I’ll admit this – my writing life has been lived in a critique-rich environment, and I’m may have a thicker skin than other writers as a result. And I may throw comments around a little liberally sometimes, but it is always meant with the best intentions.

      I go back to the first sentence of this reply. I didn’t think Gareth actually genuinely felt got-at by that twitter exchange, but if he did, I whole-heartedly apologise. From his verbal description it sounds like book of enormous pleasure, and one that greatly look forward to reading, prologue or not.

      Sorry for getting you knickers bunched about this.

  6. This has certainly started me thinking. I’m going to start my next book with a prolapse to see if it generates more complaints.

    1. The tragedy is that most people reading this will assume you’re joking, Jim.

      But they’re not going to have to read it, are they?

      1. Okay, so I have just read the start of very likely the first – and hopefully last – novel that actually does begin with a prolapse.

        Dear lord.

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