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A Question about Prologues

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Incanus, Mar 11, 2020.

  1. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    Though I think this is aimed chiefly at folks who say they dislike prologues, I’d be happy to hear from anyone.

    The novel I am about to begin has, for now, an opening scene that shows characters that won’t be seen again and takes place a month or two (in-story) prior to the scenes that introduce the main character(s).

    In other words, it is a prologue. At least as far as I understand the term.

    I’m contemplating putting this scene at the beginning of Chapter One, instead of making it a separate prologue. I estimate it will be around 4-5 manuscript pages long. The next scene or two will comprise the remainder of the chapter.

    So the question is this: if you read such a scene and recognized it as an unidentified prologue, would you feel cheated or tricked? Would you feel as if I forced a prologue on you and stop, or would you just roll with it and continue reading (assuming the first scene wasn’t too awful)?
  2. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    I've never understood the gripe some people have with prologues. Who honestly cares?

    That said, there can be good prologues and bad ones. As long as the prologue is not part of the main story but informs the reader of some aspect/clue to the main story, that's fine. It should also be as short as the writer can make it. Preferably no more than two pages...three tops.
    Incanus likes this.
  3. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    'Labyrinth: Journal' - character with a somewhat stressed life comes into possession of a manuscript, sits down, opens it up...cue the Journal, the bulk of the book. Said character is also one of the MC's in the sequel.

    "Empire' Series -

    The bulk of these tales revolve around the exploits of four principle characters, plus flashbacks of a sort to a fifth POV.

    Yet three of the books begin with other POV's. The first opens with a disgraced knight attempting to rebuild the castle of an exiled wizard. He receives visitors, which leads to a second introductory POV, this one an account of a savage battle during a recent catastrophic war. Then, back to the knight again, before the tale proper. Both POV's tell complete stories while setting the scene for the Empire. They also introduce another character who becomes increasingly important as the tale progresses, but is 'off stage' for the first couple volumes - though his exploits are of great interest to multiple characters.

    The prologue to Book II includes the exiled wizard, but is mostly a running account of the dire powers touching this world. It puts the events of the main story in a larger context.
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I suggest you write it, just as part of Chapter One. The big challenge (I'm guessing) will be managing the transition from this prefatory scene over to the main part of Chapter One. So write it and see how well it works. Once you have it down on paper, you'll be better able to tell if it really ought to be a separate prologue or not.
    OberonLordofSylva and Incanus like this.
  5. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Well, obviously it is cheating. That seems to be the whole goal here.
    Though I doubt many people will notice. If the prolog is short enough and the first few chapters sufficiently compelling, reader will have forgotten about the prolog characters by the time it becomes clear that they will never be returned to.

    But the question remains why to include it in the first place? Why not cut a scene that is irrelevant to the plot and delays the start of the story?
    OberonLordofSylva likes this.
  6. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    Why include anything irrelevant to the plot?

    You'd only have a prologue if it WAS relevant to the plot but didn't otherwise fit with the spine of the main story.
  7. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    Thanks for the responses!

    I also don’t understand the beef against prologues that some seem to have. For one thing, I’ve yet to see a ‘bad’ prologue in an otherwise ‘good’ book. It also seems arbitrary, not much different than saying something like, “I don’t care for books that have more than 37 chapters.”

    I agree that I should think about it again after writing the first few scenes out. That may provide a new perspective on it. Of course, it would be the easiest thing in the world to make it a separate prologue, or put it back at the beginning of Chapter One. I wish all editing could be that simple.

    As far as relevance goes, the unidentified prologue I have planned is definitely related to the main plot. Indeed, the relevance should become pretty obvious in the scenes that directly follow, all within Chapter One. I have no plans for non-relevant material in this story.

    It sounds like, from the responses here, few would have much of a problem with my sneaking a prologue into Chapter One. In theory, that is. We’ll see how it goes in practice before too long…
  8. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    If the prologue is relevant to chapter one, then maybe you don't want a prologue.

    My idea of an effective prologue is one whose impact doesn't become fully apparent until the end of Act Two. Or even part of the final revelation.
  9. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    For now, I'll stick to the classic definition of a prologue, which looks to be less limited than this particular description. But if it did work like this, then I would be more justified in not labeling it as a prologue.

    But technically speaking, there wouldn't be a prologue, only a scene at the beginning of Chapter One that functions like one.

    Mine might work something like this: introducing a classic murder mystery story by showing the first murder taking place, and then going on to introduce the detective as he/she gets the case.
  10. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Sage

    My personal beef against them is this awareness that what I read is taking place in the past. Those secondary characters I follow are going to be dead once the real story kicks in. (At least, that's the structure for a lot of prologues, like Incanus example.) This brings about this restless headspace where, sure, I read that there prologue, but I'm not really there. I'm just waiting in line for the actual story.

    There's are good prologues too, of course. But generally, I have lots of beef.
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2020
  11. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    I think fantasy, in particular, lends itself to a prologue that may have happened even deep in the past - magical things lying hidden or prophecies waiting to be fulfilled etc.
  12. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    It looks like we have two separate--but related--topics here.

    First topic, it appears that a number of folks don't see my proposed opening as a prologue at all, which means I can 'get away' with placing it at the beginning of Chapter One. There will be no prologue, or at least, nothing labeled as one.

    Second topic, the validity of prologues. I don't know, I'm just asking, but perhaps it is an issue of patience? I guess I don't mind spending a little time looking at material that is relevant, but not part of the 'main' story. I'm patient, and I want a complete picture of whatever tale the author is trying to convey.
  13. Malik

    Malik Auror

    It sounds to me like you have a prologue.

    This is not a bad thing.

    The problem with prologues in fantasy is that not every fantasy needs a prologue, and not everything that a fantasy author calls a prologue is in fact a prologue.

    One of the defining points of epic fantasy is that the characters' actions have to change the world. This is what, by definition, makes it "epic." The characters make their mark on history. If your characters are out on an adventure/misadventure and what they do doesn't have any major impact on the world at large, then you're not writing epic fantasy. You might be writing high fantasy, S&S, whatever. And that's fine. Hell, the first book in my series is sword and sorcery--it follows pretty much one character, and he does some cool stuff but he doesn't really do anything for the history books--and the second and third books are epic fantasy--more characters, bigger stakes, the world actually changing because of their actions, including the actions of the MC in the first book and his chickens coming home to roost. Point being, it's your story, so go nuts.

    This is important to distinguish, though, and it's important to know what you're writing and what the popular definitions are--even if it doesn't fit exactly-- because in epic fantasy, the world is its own character and has its own arc. It goes through changes just like your characters do. It interacts with the characters and it reacts to what they do. It is a character. At the end of the series/story/whatever, the world is different from the way it was when this all started.

    Stick with me on this; we're almost there.

    In epic fantasy, the prologue is the world's introductory scene.

    You don't introduce every character by giving a ten-page backstory all the way back to when they were in a bassinet. Similarly, a prologue is not a history of the world. It's not an infodump. The prologue is just the world being the world, and going about its business. It's where you establish "normal" so that you can show how much things have changed, later.

    If you're not writing epic fantasy where the world ends up different than the characters found it, you don't need a prologue. No one needs a history of your world before they start reading your book. Save that for WorldAnvil. Put it in an Author's Note at the beginning or the end of your book, or start a blog about your world's history.

    Anyway, it sounds to me like you have a solid prologue. I say, leave it.
    Azeroth, Incanus and Prince of Spires like this.
  14. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

    I'm with Malik on this one. It's a prologue. So treat it as one.I think you will only confuse people if you have characters in a regular chapter (without one of your main characters present) that never show up again and do stuff two months before the rest of the story.

    Some people will not like the prologue on principle, but then, you can't please everyone.
  15. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    Thanks Malik.

    I mostly agree with your descriptions of how prologues function. And I agree that the opening scene I’ve been talking about basically IS a prologue, even if I decide not to label it that way.

    This would probably be a good time to try to relay a little more about the story I’m working on. First, I don’t think it falls squarely into one genre, or sub-genre. It’s a bit of a blend. There are elements of epic fantasy and classic high-fantasy, and a touch of ‘Weird Tales’ style fantasy. However, it is also supposed to be a dark comedy, with satirical elements and quirky, off-beat characters and humor.

    It is this satirical element that makes me want to sort of hide the prologue (or whatever it is) in the first chapter. In a roundabout way, I’m poking a little fun at prologues and the folks that criticize them in anything like a universal way. I can always change this later; it’s not the hill I want to die on.

    I’ve only just started working on this, and it’s not like anything I’ve done before. I have no idea if this will work out at all. But the first two (short) scenes I’ve written seem pretty OK for now.

    On a side note, the opening (or prologue, if that’s what it is) contains virtually no exposition. As written, it just shows an inexplicable event that should pique interest and raise some questions. Or so I hope.

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