QUIBBLES & BITS

For those who live in the States HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY

This week my Quibble is called:

THAT DIRTY WORD

No, no, not that word. I’m talking about

PROLOGUES

Some readers hate ’em [or say they do].

My dictionary defines prologue as "the preface or introduction to a literary work." Does that mean that if/when I write a prologue I’ve written a literary work? Cool.

Another definition is: "An introductory or preceding event or development."

And that, my friends, is what I believe a good prologue should be . . . and most of the time they are. But, somehow, the prologue has gotten a bad rap. It’s a dirty word.

What I hear – a lot:

"I skip prologues."
"I don’t think you need ’em."
"Why can’t it be Chapter One?"
"I read a prologue that had nothing to do with the book."

That last quote is valid, IF a prologue has "nothing to do with the book." But I can’t believe a professional author sets out to write a prologue that has nothing to do with his/her book [or a book that has nothing to do with his/her prologue]. So WHY does the prologue have a bad rep?

I pulled a few books – at random and I didn’t cheat – from my bookshelf.

John Grisham’s The Firm doesn’t have a prologue.

Clive Cussler’s Raise TheTitanic has one, except he calls it a "Prelude."

Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides has a Prologue that ends thusly:
I will tell you my story.
Nothing is missing.
I promise you.

Tess Geritsen’s Body Double has a Prologue. Skip it and you’ve missed an important part of the book.

Harlan Coben’s Tell No One has no prologue. But it’s not Chapter One, either (that starts on page 11). The prologue that isn’t a prologue isn’t headed by any title. Clever Harlan.

And last but not least, Gordon Aalborg’s The Specialist. No Prologue, but Chapter One has a subtitle that reads:
Tasmania                                           
[Where there be devils]
Clever Gordon!

Once upon a fairly long time ago, I wrote a Prologue for FOOTPRINTS IN THE BUTTER. The Prologue took place at a high school reunion dance. Shortly thereafter, one of the reunionites gets thunked over the Footprints_inthe_butter_1 head with a miniature reproduction of "The Thinker." Chapter Two has Ingrid [my sleuth] discussing the murder with her friend Cee-Cee [who at age 60+ is still sleeping with her ex-husband, a cop – that way I can bring the cops in without bringing the cops in :::grin:::]. Ingrid talks about the people at the reunion dance and their motives and Cee-Cee responds. My agent asked if Cee-Cee "knew these people." My answer: "She does if she read my prologue."

The Prologue became Chapter Three — what I fondly called my "flashback  Chapter." And yes, I had to rewrite the Ingrid/Cee-Cee scene. [To your left is the large-print edition – Trade paperback in the US, hardcover in the UK,]

Today I’m schizy about putting Prologues in my books. As a mid-list author, I can’t afford to lose one potential reader, so I tend to write my prologues under the guise of an introduction.

Here’s a [short] intro to my next book, THE LANDLORD’S BLACK-EYED DAUGHTER, a "paranormal history-mystery romance."

                        6, April, 1766

            Seated beside the open coffin, the watchers waited. They waited
to see whether Barbara Wyndham’s body moved. They watched intently while
mourners trailed past. Blind belief said that if Barbara’s body began to
bleed, ‘twould identify her murderer.
            There was some question as to whether Barbara had suffered a
seizure of the heart and fallen and hit her head on a rock. Or had she been
struck by some unknown hand?
            Seven-year-old Elizabeth Wyndham watched with the watchers, but
her mother remained motionless.
            "Mama," Elizabeth whispered, "are ye sleeping?"
            "Your mother sleeps evermore, my Bess," said Lawrence Wyndham,
lifting his daughter up into his arms.
            Elizabeth pressed her tear-streaked face against his shoulder.
At the same time she wondered with a twinge of fear how it would feel to
sleep evermore.

Is that a prologue? Sure it is. It’s a "preceding event" — a thread that runs throughout the book. But I "cheat" by heading it with a date [rather than "that dirty word"].

The other day I found an interesting prologue. It’s on my pillow. It says: "Do not remove tag under penalty of law."

It’s a very successful prologue because I want to know more. Like, why?

Over and Out,
Deni

9 thoughts on “QUIBBLES & BITS

  1. JDRhoades

    I’m not sure that prologues necessarily have a bad rep among the general reading public. The only place I’ve ever heard anyone say “I don’t read prologues” is the recent discussion on DorothyL and even there it didn’t seem to be a majority opinion. Some of the posters seemed to fins it downright eccentric.

    Reply
  2. Lorraine T.

    Yeah. I read a book yesterday that had a prolog, and it was the first time I even noticed there was one and that was because of all that flack on DL. I open the book and read what’s there, whatever it might me.Lorraine

    Reply
  3. JT Ellison

    A great post, Deni. I had a long conversation with a couple of major hitters at T-Fest (Lee Child and Robin Burcell, two of the coolest people in the world) about this, and in the end decided to drop my prologue. They made excellent points about finding more effective ways to incorporate the information into the body of the story, and after a lot of thought on the plane home, I found myself happier with the new scenario. I certainly won’t rule it out for future books, but their advice was so spot on that I’m happier without it on this one. Happy 4th, everyone. Prayers for our astronauts on their forthcoming journey today!

    Reply
  4. Pari

    Okay, well,I’m one of those people who don’t like most prologues. Sure, some are marvelous, but most of the ones I’ve read seem to be written by people who — as J.T. alluded — might have a much better way of integrating the info into the body of the book.

    Readers have all kinds of idiosyncratic preferences. I don’t expect others to look for the same things I do in a book.

    Thank goodness there are authors who can meet all of our different needs.

    Reply
  5. David J. Montgomery

    This is something I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while now…

    I’m one of those people who doesn’t like prologues. They’re often superfluous and nearly always annoying.

    If it’s necessary for the book, make it Chapter 1. If it’s not, leave it out. I think prologues are one of the weakest ways to open a novel, and unless it’s done exceedingly well, is likely to turn-off readers.

    Reply
  6. B.G. Ritts

    As Dusty surmises, my spot in the general reading public doesn’t see a Prologue (or a Date/Time for that matter) before Chapter 1 as a problem. Like Lorraine, I open the book and read. If the book doesn’t ‘start’ with Chapter 1, that’s just the way the book was written — kinda like some authors write cozies, and some thrillers, and some historical romances. Then there are all those who write that heavy-duty non-fiction stuff — they have Forewords, Introductions, and I found one with ‘A Personal Statement.’ I even found one mystery with a separate Introduction, Prologue, and Date section before ‘the book started’, but another by the same author had no preludes at all.

    It amazes me that it matters. I guess each person has an inclination toward what they think is appropriate, but why should someone tell an author that s/he didn’t write his/her book acceptably? I just see it as a ‘take’ on the book by the author.

    Reply
  7. Bill Cameron

    Oy. Prologues.

    I start reading at the beginning. If the book captures me, I keep reading. If it doesn’t, I stop. The last thing I would ever do is let the word “Prologue” be the thing that stopped me just because it happened to be the first word on page one.

    Reply
  8. Allison Brennan

    I like prologues, what can I say? I like them when they take place in the past, give me a hint of character, and are short.

    I don’t like prologues that are a gazillion pages long.

    I tried to dump each prologue in my books but because they were a pivotal moment in time that changed the protagonist forever, I wanted to show the action rather than threading it in later.

    In my WIP I have a character as a child pulling the wings off a butterfly. It’s much more effective to show it then talk about it later.

    Reply

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