Is your prologue hook, line or stinker? Ali Bacon considers the chances

Prologues - why not jump right in? 
Prologues in fiction are popular with writers, though less so with readers, and I am of that very ilk. There’s nothing more likely to raise my hackles when I pick up a book than a few pages headed PrologueBefore, Then, or In the Beginning. And regardless of the fact I have read many good books with prologues, there’s always the suspicion that here comes something not strictly necessary, something holding up the story we’re about to step into. So why take the risk of putting your reader off on page 1?

Let’s think about the nature of the conventional prologue. First of all why is it there?  
1)     To create atmosphere and suspense – my mystery takes a few chapters to set things up,  let’s flag up what's coming or get a bit of creepiness/excitement in at the start.
2)     Because it’s in a different timeline – if the reader is going to understand the plot they need to know something that happened a long time before (or possibly after) the main sequence of events so let’s get it in right at the start (and if it’s something dramatic so much the better).
3)     Wow factor – whatever my book is like, I have given it a humdinger of an opening .

Image credit*
With the possible exception of 3 (improve rest of book, please!) these are all valid ways to open a novel, so what’s the problem? Partly it’s the issue of ‘promise to the reader’ i.e. expectations are set by the title, book cover and opening pages.  If the prologue is too far from expectations set by title, cover and blurb, it has failed to do its job of hooking the reader in. Conversely if the prologue is a marvellous hook but isn't backed up by the opening chapter, that will  feel like a let-down. 

A prologue needs to have impact but not so much as to overshadow everything that comes next. A particular dislike of mine is a prologue where the character carrying the narrative (first person or third) comes to a sticky end. This of course serves up a bucketful of atmosphere and in a detective mystery provides the 'inciting incident'. But excuse me, I’ve just spent several minutes investing in a character who isn’t going to appear again.
I recently encountered this in Sarah Perry’s marvellous, The Essex Serpent which opens like this:
 " A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under a full cold moon... 
... the gulls lift off one by one, and the last gives a scream of dismay."
Great writing actually (this is a tiny snippet) but clearly this is not going to end well, equally clearly this not going to be the main character. So why oh why …?

Luckily I persevered because it’s a great book, but I think I would happily have begun with the next chapter where we meet the intriguing Cora and her doctor. She after all is the one who matters

I blame the school of 'show not tell' for the popularity of prologues. If there’s information we need to impart early on, we don’t have to tease it out through a whole scene and overlay it with description and drama. My recent sojourn in the land of short story judging has made me a huge fan of clarity, of a line of exposition (shock horror!) to set the scene. ‘It was the summer of 1916’ is so much more refreshing than a paragraph of emotion-infested weather and a picnic on the lawn. You can have the picnic by the way, just tell us when and where we are!

But I digress.  One good thing about prologues is that they are short - or shortish. (From which my cynical self infers the author is worried about holding things up for to long!)  I can also let you into the secret. In the Blink of an Eye had a prologue ( of the ‘flash forward’ variety) which simply grew too long to be a prologue. The longer it got, the more I saw it wasn’t an adjunct to the book  but part of the whole, its keystone in fact. It became the first chapter . It grew some more. The end of it became the last chapter. Dare I say epilogue?! 

So can the P word always be avoided? Maybe not, but there’s a lot to be said for making sure it’s needed and keyed into the narrative rather than something prefatory.  Just this week I was at a talk by best-selling  thriller writer Gilly MacmiIlan. An audience member asked her how she knew where to start her stories, to which she replied she started with the bit that affected her most deeply, even if she had to ‘fiddle with the timeline’.
I can report that the opening of her forthcoming novel, which she read out, is riveting.  I’m pretty sure it isn’t called ‘prologue’.

Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction. Her new novel In the Blink of an 
Eye, about a Scottish artist who assists with the birth of photography, will be published by Linen Press in 2018. 

Ali with photographs by Hill and Adamson, subjects of her new book 

*Image credit: By Gustave Dore - Gustave Dore, Public Domain,


Lynne Garner said…
Intersting post.

I sometimes feel the prologue is the bit the author should have cut but didn't have the heart to.
Bill Kirton said…
I take the point, Ali, and agree that prologues are very often an irritating, off-putting (and frequently unnecessary) adjunct. It made me reflect on the 2 occasions I've written one - in my first ever (rewritten umpteen times) novel, The Sparrow Conundrum, and the (relatively) more recent Alternative Dimension. Both books are supposed to be funny and, having thought about them briefly, here are my excuses.
In the Sparrow it's there precisely because the 2 characters who drive it will make no further appearance in the book. After a teasing opening paragraph, I wrote: 'In fact, they’re both mere statistics in this story. Derek is the first of its many casualties. He and Tony just happened to be there when it began, so they deserve their moment of fame before they disappear completely'.
The first chapter of Alternative Dimension (necessarily) carries some expository material so I promoted/demoted a self-contained episode from the body text to prologue to act as a taster of the sort of things that would be happening once the essentials had been established.
I guess that some might say 'If you'd been anything of a writer, you'd have rewritten the "exposition" to make it more hilarious', but they would be failing to take account of my idleness.
Umberto Tosi said…
As with the rest of writing, rules fade into dust when examined, but there are useful patterns as you point out in this case. I have little patience with prologues, but some engage me. Whatever works. Often it's better for the author to include a prologue, but not label it as such. Just kick it off with "Chapter One," with may or may not be expository. Thank you for a thought-provoking post!
AliB said…
Thanks for your comments, people. I have probably overstated the case. My dislike of prologue so stems from time on a well-known peer review site where grisly and mysterious prologue so got me down. . At a recent writers' meeting we decided one book really did need a prologue to give a kick-start. Exception, rule etc etc but it looks like there are plenty of people like me, do good to be aware.
I often feel like this about prologues too, in fact when I beta read my son's first novel I was alarmed to find it had a prologue, and I was quite prepared to tell him it should be a 'normal' chapter instead. However in that case it turned out that the prologue described an event that didn't really fit into the story, except that it was essential for the reader to know about it in order to understand something that happened further on. (I don't think I've expressed that very well though!) So I felt that it worked after all, which was a nice surprise.
Kit Domino said…
I have little patience not only with prologues, but also with epilogues and often find myself asking "why?" If the information is important for the reader to know, surely it should be included as part of the main story, not as often seems the case to me, little bits of add-on that the author felt necessary and didn't know how to weave into the text.

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