False Starts? Bait and Switch? World/Character Establishing? Mood Setting? What is a Prologue and Why is it there?
When I read a book, I usually skip all the “business” in the early pages and jump right to the table of contents and click on chapter one. I almost never thumb through an e-book. That’s what I did yesterday when I began reading this new book–I clicked on chapter one. You know what? Chapter one was a boring information dump about the main characters and their families. There were so many people introduced (it was a party after all), that I got a bit lost. Had it not been for the promos I’d seen with the catch phrase, I wouldn’t have known what other characters to focus my attention on. I have a strong desire to abandon this book because it is uninteresting.
This morning, however, I opened the book on a different device and noticed that I missed the prologue.
The prologue gave a much rawer look at the MCs, sharing their tense relationship in just a few words. Then there’s a bombshell. However, because I read chapter one first, I felt duped. The energy from the prologue to the true beginning of the story is so different–jarring–although, the prologue has made me want to keep reading to learn how the MCs got to that point. It feels like a long, long road, though. *sigh*
That’s the thing about prologues. Historically, they are used to share a pivotal moment in the MC’s history or establish a fantasy world. Janice Hardy’s website Fiction University has a great evaluation of prologues: Pondering the Prologue: Keep it or Kill It?. In the case of the book I’m reading, point three applies:
“3. It’s an event that happens later in the book, but you’re teasing with it at the start because you’re not sure your first chapter has enough oomph to grab readers.
Keep or Kill? Kill the prologue. These teasers are usually exciting, but since the reader has no clue who the characters are or what the context is, there’s nothing to connect them to the story yet. So the scene often comes across as kinda boring. It also tends to give away something in the story and steals all the suspense up until that moment. I’ve never seen this device work in any book, movie, or TV show, but people keep trying. Make your first chapter sing and save this scene for when it actually happens in the story.” Janice Hardy, “Pondering the Prologue,” blog.janicehardy.com. December 2010.
One of my favorite bloggers writes: “Only include a prologue if that upfront understanding will increase the tension in the story. After all, a story with higher tension is one the reader won’t want to put down.” Jami Gold. “A Prologue will Help Our Story When… .” http://jamigold.com/ . July 2013
This prologue meets Jami’s requirement, yet also holds true to what Janice warned against–the first chapters lacks “oomph”. I would love to see the correspondence between this author and her editing team. Did they suggest she ditch the prologue? I would have suggested to kill it and beef up her characters to make these early chapters more interesting; however, the prologue is the crux of this book. I suspect it is a scene from the climax (I’ll have to come back and let you know if I was right), and the third act will be them working out their differences for a happily ever after. *yawn*
“Am I thinking of using a prologue just to hook the reader? (If “yes”, then ask yourself why you can’t do this just as effectively in Chapter 1 anyway. Do you need to brush up on your technique for creating suspense and conflict? Does your plot need revising? Are you starting your story too early?)” Marg McAlister. Foremost Press. “The Prologue-When to Use One, How to Write One.” March 2014
Here’s what I think: This story starts too early. The author has “cheated” me with a false start, pulling a later scene and plopping it down at the beginning to draw me in. There are times where I’ve enjoyed this kind of presentation because the energy and tone never waned. Here, not so much. When I write, I usually am inspired by a vision of a point close to the end and work backwards from there. When I read, I like to be an active participant in the events of the story. With such a telling prologue, I’m drumming my fingers, waiting around for the “good stuff” to start.
One last bit of food for thought from Writer’s Write: Five Best Ways to Include Prologues. A prologue can be used as an opening scene if it “is integral to the whole story, but not immediately obvious.”