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Prologues

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by wordwalker, Jul 11, 2014.

  1. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    We've been through this question before, and I know there are people who "just don't read prologues." But anyway:

    What are people's senses for how long a prologue can be before it starts to wear out its welcome? Just a rule of thumb, when the writing isn't outrageously good or bad (and when you haven't read and liked the author before; then all bets are off).

    And, what ideas have people seen for what might call for a prologue? There's the obvious Glimpse of the Villain (aka The Monster Eats Someone), the hero's formative or pre-formative moment years ago, and the historian, witness, or manipulator talking about or in the middle of events that are going to affect the action. Or I suppose you could have "nobody's riding *that* dragon!" or "if anyone can draw that sword we're all dead."
     
  2. acapes

    acapes Sage

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    For me, I prefer prologues to be only a few pages long - generally at least.

    The best prologues, I reckon, seem to have viewpoint character who is never seen again but is pretty damn interesting, or is a prologue set apart from the main story via a really significant time period, or even place. I've seen a few in 1st person with the main story in third but my biggest issue with them, as a reader, is that I have to become/end up emotionally invested in a character/story that may not reappear for ages. Then I gotta go through it all over again with chapter one.

    Of course, an awesome prologue circumvents all that for me :)
     
  3. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    This is, in my opinion, the worst kind of prologue.

    The purpose of the prologue, as I see it, is to provide a tantalizing appetizer for a story that grows slowly and thus might lose readers without something to capture their interest. It's like a promise to the reader: "There is some seriously awesome stuff coming, just be patient."

    But if your prologue is full of awesome and interesting stuff that never comes back into the story at any point, to me that feels like cheating the reader. It makes the prologue feel like a gimmick or a trick and, in me at least, makes me lose trust in the author.

    The prologue should have a connection to the story you are telling, a strong one. The weaker the connection to the main story, the worse the prologue is at fulfilling its job.
     
  4. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

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    I'm not sure one can peg what are the proper types (content) for a prologue just as one cannot hammer down what are the proper types/content of novels and the stories, including the structure, they contain.

    I think a similar process can be applied to the length of a prologue. Clear and concise and not containing anything that doesn't offer some important point of characterization or something that advances the plot. Thus, shorter is always better. Three pages is better than five or ten, when three is all that's needed.

    I've never used a prologue in my novels, but have used epilogues. The epilogues sort of wrap things up for the reader, establishing what happened in the aftermath of the major conflict's resolution, in a succinct and efficient, yet entertaining manner. If an epilogue at the end wraps the story up, maybe the prologue should be considered what unwraps, or at least begins the first major tear in the 'wrapping paper', of a novel.

    This debate about whether a prologue should be simply a first chapter, or if it's something that can be skipped by a reader and they can still understand the story, then it isn't necessary, etc., I think are relevant in determining the content and length. I've seen prologues of best selling novels that were confusing and fell utterly flat with me. But somebody besides the author thought they were good (editor/publisher, and didn't turn off a wide audience).
     
  5. acapes

    acapes Sage

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    Indeed, and the prologues I'm thinking of with characters that are never seen again all have deep connections to the story. Sara Douglass' Battleaxe is the only one I can recall right now. Vital, but you never meet that character again.
     
  6. acapes

    acapes Sage

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    I haven't used them either as I just can't be bothered putting off the main story, as it were. I do love epilogues too, that extra glimpse of favourite characters :)
     
  7. acapes

    acapes Sage

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    Only one more prologue comes to mind tonight - the first Wheel of Time one. No reappearances in the first book (technically) but awesome stuff. Sets the tone magnificently.

    (Of course, you could argue that there is certainly a reappearance of the Dragon in the next chapter, but the first time reader doesn't know that right off the bat)
     
  8. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    My WIP has a prologue that is about two and a half pages. It introduces two characters whose stories are very important to the plot but won't be heard from again for several chapters. It also serves as a reveal for the magic system which also won't be explored again for several chapters. Basically, a reader could skip it and still enjoy the story without feeling the loss but reading it would be a better experience, IMHO.

    If a book has a prologue, I read it, out of respect for the author if nothing else. If it is pointless, confusing and/or not important to the overall work, some respect is lost. I have found, however, that nine times out of ten if I don't get pulled in by the prologue, it doesn't happen in chapter one either. Those kinds of books end up back on the shelf, gathering dust.

    If you think you need a prologue, write it. Treat it with as much care as the rest of your work and you should be fine. If someone asks you, "Oh, I skipped the prologue. Did I miss anything important?" And you can honestly say, "No, not in the slightest." then you should probably scrap it. If your answer is, "Well, it won't ruin the book for you but you might have benefitted from reading it." Then you should keep it. Lastly, if your answer is, "It was absolutely vital! The whole experience of the story is destroyed for you because you didn't read the prologue!" Then it should have been called chapter one.

    Just my $0.02
     
    Creed and N.S.Griffiths like this.
  9. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

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    I've read prologues that are really one off POV sections that introduce tantalizing bits of the world and hint at what's to come - and loved them.
    I've read prologs that are little more than a list of what's gone before - and hated them.

    It all comes down, as others have said, to how good the prologue is.

    But in general I'd avoid one that has much exposition in, as to be bombarded by a host of names and dates and numbers in the first few pages is a real turn off.
     
  10. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    That's a great standard. Of course it's harder than it looks because "important" and "necessary" are hard to define-- short of learn-it-or-you-understand-nothing information, that should never be just in a prologue.

    One thing that occurs to me: if the prologue VP isn't the young hero or a glimpse of the villain (which are two solid choices), it's often good to kill him at the prologue's end. (Call it the Game of Thrones touch.) It's a lurch, but it stops the reader from wondering when he'll be back, and if you make him compelling the reader can (you hope) think "Hmm, the writer did all that for a three-page character? How good is the hero??"

    --As long as you deliver on that promise, of course. :cool:
     
  11. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    I'm surprised the anti-prologue brigade hasn't come out yet. I suppose I might as well do their work for them--here are some things I never want to see in a prologue again:

    * The hero's birth. I don't get how this became a thing.
    * Bland setting exposition. Just establish it slowly over the course of the story.
    * Two characters talking in really mysterious terms about something that will be explained clearly two hundred pages later. It's not intriguing, it's tedious.

    I only have three ideas for what you can use a prologue for:

    * Create your narrative problem. If the villain has ruled for three hundred years, you can show how he conquered three hundred years ago, and establish how the unconquered world was different than the world of chapter 1.

    * Create your hero's flaw. Some authors prefer to do this with a flashback in the middle, but there are advantages to laying it out early and giving the reader a sense of exactly what has to be overcome. (This requires an example, so: if Finding Nemo started where the plot actually kicks in, the father would simply be overprotective. Because it shows the deaths of his family, we understand why he's so desperately protective of his one surviving child, and we have some idea of how he could learn to overcome this and give the kid room to grow and thrive.)

    Create your Greek chorus. This is actually something I came up with--the chorus is pretty out of favor these days. I still think it has value, though, so at times I've created characters who stand aside from and comment on the main story, giving them a prologue, an epilogue, and various interludes to examine the situation.*

    * "Interlogue" just doesn't sound right.
     
    wordwalker likes this.
  12. thecoldembrace

    thecoldembrace Sage

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    I did a prologue for my first book, mainly to introduce a character that comes in later on in the story and has a major impact. It had the unborn MC in it, but it was mainly between the mother and the other character to give a brief glimpse on how the MC gets his abilities later on.

    I have been told its a good foreshadow by all my beta readers, even the ones that hate prologues. I consider it a win, and I worked hard on making it appeal and grab the reader. So far so good.

    I personally have no issue with prologues in most stories, I like the extra information so long as it doesn't go on and on. It should maintain an air of mystery that gets revealed later on in the story...(preferably by the middle... not the end). It should also have either some interesting dialogue or a small amount of action. These will make it so that the prologue doesn't become an info dump that readers have to slog through to get to the juicy bits of your story.

    My thoughts.


    -Cold
     
  13. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    That might be the best example ever of a theme-necessary prologue. It takes all the risks that many prologues do, starting before the title character's even born. But of course the whole story is about the contrast between that scene and everything that follows. The best prologues choose that kind of contrast, and use the prologue's way of isolating one point to set it up so you can't miss it. The film would have been more crowded if Nemo had had a similar brush with death set just before the rest of the story, and almost impossible if he hadn't been through it at all.

    Another example: The Godfather. This is stretching it a bit because seeing the old Don holding court doesn't relate as immediately to Michael's journey, but we do see the mix of society and mafia power, and we start to understand this is the position that's going to be pulling at Michael's destiny until it wins. Not as flawless a choice as Nemo's prologue, in theory, but it covers the most important need of a prologue: it's done so bleeping well it blows you away.
     
  14. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I tend to skip prologues, or even avoid buying books that have them (not altogether, but, for instance, if it comes down to two I'm considering and one has a prologue, it's a strike against that book just because I know I often don't like prologues).

    I'll make exceptions where the prologues are very well done. Getting to the question of length: if they're very well done, then they can be as long as the writer likes. If it is holding my interest, then five pages or fifty makes no difference to me. If the prologue is not well done (and so many of them aren't) then one page is one too many.
     
  15. Creed

    Creed Sage

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    Nothing about having an interesting POV character at the beginning who never comes back is "cheating the reader." (See below)
    Exactly. It's not about the POV character not coming back that destroys the connection, not at all. The connection between the awesome, tantalising prologue and the main story should be in the content itself. You know, what actually transpires.
    Commenting on that, the best prologue I probably ever read was that of Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson, V.3 of the MBotF. I find its content is incredibly compelling, full of questions the reader would like answers to, events we would like to see the results of, characters we would like to see again, and events that certainly do tell us that "This book is going to be awesome, so hang in there."
    It blends all of the elements discussed above- very well written, very intriguing content (despite the fact that there are many millennia between it and the main plot), and interesting characters (all but Draconus and some T'lan Imass come back, if I recall).
    That said, I did not really enjoy the prologue for Gardens of the Moon, and possibly the most boring prologue I've read was that of Dust of Dreams.
    So Stevie didn't have some great formula or anything (though I think it's pretty clear: Write it well + stuff it with interesting, relevant content + use cool characters who may or may not return = awesome prologue).

    Side note: I personally believe people should read prologues. The author wrote it, why bother with his/her book if you aren't going to read the first few pages?
     
  16. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Hmmm...

    I've done 'splits' - where the prologue and epilogue form a story separate from main tale. In one, the prologue/epilogue features just two characters. In the prologue, the one character is convinced the other character is concealing something important. The second character responds with a story - which is the main story. The epilogue deals with the interaction between the two characters afterwards.

    Something similar is in the works for the tale I'm editing now. That story is told in journal form. I figure I have to include a prologue showing how the long lost journal came into possession of the journal authors son - because the next book in the sequence features the sons adventures, and the journal plays a role. I'll probably have to do an epilogue as well, in the form of a letter, to clear up a thing or two after the journals end.
     
  17. Fyle

    Fyle Inkling

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    Mine is six pages. I have heard such mixed feelings about prologues I am not sure I want to include it. To be honest, I never thought of a prologue being good or bad or necessary or unnecessary, to me personally it's chance to hook the reader (or get hooked) off the bat.

    I think mine works very well because it gives a quick peek at where the main character came from ( which is needed because his background is deliberately vague) and it foreshadows a shocking moment that happens towards the end (without prologue this shock has less of an effect).

    Also, I am with you ascapes, I enjoy those prologues as well from a special one time POV, it gives the author a chance to write from a free POV cause there is no pressure to develop that one time POV and it gives the reader another viewpoint of the story world.
     
  18. acapes

    acapes Sage

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    There's something really satisfying about the good ones, huh? They're almost like self-contained (even when still linked to the main story) shorts or vignettes even.
     
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