1. doggiedude
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    doggiedude Contributing Member

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    Prologue(s) - A great place for an argument.

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by doggiedude, Apr 23, 2016.

    -- "You haven't paid for an argument."
    "Yes I have!"
    "No you haven't"
    "If I haven't paid for an argument... then why are you arguing with me?"
    "I could be doing it on my own time."



    I just wanted to move this discussion over from another thread. Get some varied opinions about prologues in general.

    @Tenderiser - "I really don't understand why you'd keep something in if you acknowledge that it could be deleted and not affect the book?"

    Excellent point and I'm not entirely sure I have a good answer.
    Plenty of stories can be enjoyed without reading the prologue. Many people skip them entirely. So, why bother?
    Everything that follows is my own view (your mileage may vary).
    1) I read for entertainment. If the prologue serves to entertain me, I'm happy with that.
    2) I usually read sci-fi & fantasy. These sorts of novels require all sorts of world building. Sometimes it can be helpful (and enjoyable) getting a different POV to the world than the rest of the story.
    3) A little side story can be a nice appetizer to what's coming. Sometimes a writer has a story that's written very serious but injects humor into it. It's not always initially apparent in the story because of the starting point. A prologue can give the reader a hint to what the tone of the story as a whole will be.

    Side note: This whole question makes me think about a book called - Coyote- by Allen Steele. Somewhere in the first quarter of the novel, an entirely irrelevant side story is presented. In this case, people are cryogenically frozen & traveling in space to a new world. One of the crew members is accidently woken up - for reasons- The next couple of chapters portray this character living out the rest of his life in isolation on the ship because the AI wouldn't allow him to go back to sleep. The entire storyline is meaningless for the rest of the novel. But, I read it. I loved it. It was a fantastic short story within the novel.

    So if our goal is to entertain, what's so wrong with a prologue?
     
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  2. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Prologues can be entertaining. There's someone on the forum with a very lengthy prologue that I think is absolutely fantastic. It left me gagging to read more and it was beautifully written.

    In the thread you quoted me from, in my opinion the prologue isn't entertaining. It was well written, but it felt pointless and unnecessary.

    I think the difference is that the prologue I loved couldn't be removed from the story. It would be a different book without it. Not as good a book.

    Again, in the second case... even its author agreed that deleting it entirely wouldn't affect the story. So I still can't see the point of it. :)
     
  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Unfortunately, I agree with Tenderiser. A good prologue is fine. But good prologues, especially with beginning writers, tend to be pretty rare.

    I think too often beginning writers want to include EVERYTHING in their story, and they use the prologue as a way to meet this goal rather than as a way to give their readers the best possible experience. Back story that could be easily integrated into the body of the novel is set apart and treated as more important than it is.

    So, no absolute rule against 'em. But I tend to squint pretty closely when I see them, especially in self-pubbed or un-pubbed work, because too often they're not justified.
     
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  4. Feo Takahari
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    Feo Takahari Active Member

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    Question: if a story begins by easing into the adventure, is that a prologue, or just Act 1?
     
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  5. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    This is one of my issues with prologues--why not just make them Chapter 1? Even if there's a big jump in time, so what? Just put "15 Years Later" or whatever under Chapter 2's heading. The prologues I like are the ones that are really just Chapter 1s (or chapters 1, 2 and 3 or whatever).

    It's the prologues that aren't Chapter 1, but are simply info-dumps, that are the problem. In my opinion those shouldn't be included in the book at all.
     
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  6. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Funny thing, I was at a talk today from an author who was discussing the first ten pages of a novel and how to get past and editor or agent with it. She asked editors and agents for advice in preparing the talk, and one guy said "If I see anything with a prologue in it, it goes straight to the trash." The speaker acknowledged that this was a but harsh, but pointed out that you have the deal with these kinds of viewpoints and might be hampering yourself unnecessarily.
     
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  7. sprirj
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    sprirj Contributing Member

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    In the film Darjeeling limited the film maker has a prologue. I saw the film both with and without this 10 minute mini film tacked on to the front. And I preferred it with the prologue. I think you have to have a very valid reason to add one, and more than anything it has to be entertaining.
     
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  8. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I think that's a great way to look at it. Like adverbs, prologues aren't forbidden but should earn their place.
     
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  9. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    But if a prologue is the perfect opening for your story—and they do have their uses for starting a story—and you ditch it because you fear some bampot agent is going to throw it away without looking at it? Isn't that settling for the second-best way to tell your story? I don't buy this argument at all.

    The answer to the dilemma is twofold.
    To the writer: "Write a cracking good prologue."
    To the agent: "A couple of sentences isn't going to make a serious dent in your day. You don't want to miss a chance to represent a really good author, do you? If it's not a cracking good prologue after a couple of sentences, ditch it."

    I'm sure agents ditch thousands of offerings (consider the moaning they do about how swamped they are) based on a bad Chapter One. But I don't hear anybody saying that means you should start with Chapter Two.

    Bad writing is bad writing, no matter where it turns up.
     
  10. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Again, though, we're pandering to prejudice.

    A prologue automatically says "15 years earlier." (Or a different location or a character whose perspective you won't get again, etc.) If you have to begin your Chapter Two with "15 years later" that's just as clumsy—especially if the time frame for the story will remain chronologically close and in order after that. Your readers may well expect more time jumps in a format like that.

    A prologue is a one-off, and everybody know it. Its purpose is clear as a bell. The chapter will stand apart from the rest of the story in some way, but it is an integral part of the story.

    .............

    My own solution to the problem was simple for me. I began without a prologue—not because of prejudice, but because I didn't think I needed one. I wanted to create a sense of mystery about where it all 'began,' so I wasn't about to let the secret out of the bag right at the start.

    However, after I finished my first draft (and got feedback) I realised that my readers were feeling confused about the purpose of the story, and even which character's story it actually was. I realised I needed to devise a different opening chapter to set the adventure off in the right direction.

    My new opening chapter took place many years before the main part of the story took place, so I called it a Prologue. It wasn't an infodump or a history. Instead, it portrayed the inciting incident and a primary relationship that coloured the purpose of the story. Without it, readers had been picking up the wrong colour.

    When in doubt, don't write a prologue. Start in the middle of your story. If you need a prologue, write it last. Nothing about your story is set in stone until you publish it. So don't be afraid to wait till the end before you see what your beginning should be.

    If you do start off your writing with an infodump prologue, the danger is that you'll assume 'well, that's that—the reader has all the history now' and just keep going. Later on, when you realise your prologue is as dull as dishwater, you'll struggle to fit all that the essential information into an otherwise completed batch of scenes. The temptation then will be to leave the dull prologue as it is, which can be fatal.

    Better to start off writing without one, unless you really know what you're doing. But don't be steered away from using one, if it ends up being what your story needs.
     
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2016
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  11. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    When I was first starting out as a screenwriter, every single script my partner and I wrote had what can only be described as a prologue, something that happened in childhood or a century before or whatever that the viewer had to see in order to understand the rest of the story.

    As we matured as writers, those prologues became flashbacks and so could be pushed further into the story to a spot just after the question comes up in the viewer's mind: what the hell made him do that?

    And as we progressed a little further, we figured out how to imply those events from the past with a visual element here or a snippet of dialogue there. That's when we felt we'd become real writers, when we found a way around prologues and flashbacks. And in fact, during the 1990s and early 2000s, any spec screenplay that sold had neither.

    With the next novel I'll be tackling (if ever I get Aliens Don't Bend at the Knees finished) I'll be facing this problem all over again because some very important events happen 10,000 years ago in story time, but everything else happens in the present. The ending won't make sense without those past events. Most of the story won't make sense.

    As a result, I'm contemplating using 3rd person omniscient so I can not just skip from one character's head to another, but also skip back and forth in time, too. I don't know if I'm doing the right thing or if I'm simply falling back on old crutches I left behind years ago.

    In summary, I don't know if a prologue is a crutch, a phase writers go through while learning to write, or if they're a valid literary device. Maybe they're all three. Maybe what it all boils down to is a good story, well told and who cares how it comes about and what final form it takes.
     
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2016
  12. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    In the book Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, the book begins with a this happened long, long ago prologue, that you actually revisit rather regularly throughout the book, so maybe it's less of a prologue and more the first in a series of flashbacks, but... who cares. It doesn't matter for the purpose of this example.

    If you only saw the film version of this book, you have no idea what I'm talking about because this prologue and subsequent flashbacks are 100% missing and deleted from the film version. In the book there is a mythologized "creation story" for how the town of Trachimbrod came into being. In the film - and only if you have read the book - there are hints and clues to this missing portion of the story and sadly they make for a very broken version of what should be a deeply beautiful story of magic realism. Without this part of the story, the whole spiel about "the collector" and the character of Lista (played by the beautiful Laryssa Lauret) in the field of sunflowers, like an ancient fairy of the heath, is random and meaningless and only serves to speak about the historical events of the real life Sofievka* and robs the viewer of a deeper myth and deeper story being told.

    In the case of this book, the film version, which deletes the aforementioned, felt like a broken, pale version of what I was hoping for because the book was fantastic and left me introspecting for weeks. :( In this case, I would argue that the prologue, what it contains, and how it sets up the kind of story one is intended to engage, is not something that can be removed without dire detriment to the overall tell of the tale.

    But.... And it's a big but... The prologue in that story exists for more reasons than just giving me some backstory. It's not there because the writer doesn't trust in me to get the importance of the tell of the tale. It's an integral part of the story. This kind of prologue, as mentioned by @BayView and @Tenderiser is not common, and even less so in fledgling work where the tool of the prologue is still not completely under one's control.

    [​IMG]

    * For anyone who knows about the events of Sofievka, or for whom this has personal significance, please know that I am not saying this isn't important in and of itself. I am mearly indicating that the writer originally wrote a very layered, very thoughtful, very beautiful story revolving around these events, a story that speaks to deeper truths about ourselves that is missing from the film.
     
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  13. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @jannert that dilemma is solved by simply calling it Chapter One. Then you avoid agents and others who will just toss a prologue.
     
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  14. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I'm not pandering to prejudice because I don't have any. :D I don't skip prologues or roll my eyes when I see one or any of that. I just think the majority of prologues I read in unpublished works shouldn't be there.

    I don't find "15 years later" clumsy at all.

    As for your last point, that's the thing: most of the "bad" prologues I see aren't integral to the story. In their case it doesn't matter what they're called: they're bad whether they're called Prologue or Chapter 1. And the good ones, in my mind, are Chapter 1 by a different name.
     
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  15. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I skip them. But I think writers should follow their vision for their story.
     
  16. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Aargh. But it's NOT a Chapter One! That's like calling a shirt a dress because some people don't like shirts.

    The tag Prologue indicates that the chapter will be different in some way. A different location, time period or perspective that you won't see again in the story.

    People who read prologues KNOW that the designation means "different from Chapter One." Different in a way that Chapter One and Chapter Two, which are a more linear progression, don't differ.

    There is nothing wrong with a prologue. Nothing. Nothing. It's just that some are badly written and misused. So avoid the badly written ones, the same way you avoid bad restaurants or silly shirts. You don't stop going to all restaurants or wearing any shirts simply because some of them are bad, do you?

    You don't call them all something else, either, just to fool people.
     
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2016
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  17. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    That was the Royal We! :)

    My point about the bad chapter is that prologue-skippers will skip a prologue in case it might be bad, but they attempt to read a Chapter One, which might also be bad. Makes no sense at all.

    I'd be interested to find out how many writers write bad prologues, but then turn out a wonderful 'rest of the book.' That's the assumption I'm getting from this entire thread, for some reason. That somehow the prologues themselves are bad, but the rest of the writing isn't?
     
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2016
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  18. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    What if you don't want your readers to have to ask that question? What if you want the readers to know right away 'what made him do that?' The story you intend to tell doesn't involve guessing what makes a character do something, but watching how he copes with what you know for sure is a past trauma. Or a non-POV character is deliberately hiding something from the other characters, and you want the readers to know what that is from the start. Or he's waiting for an element from his past to arrive and kick him in the goolies?

    That's when a prologue comes in very handy indeed. You don't want a past mystery to solve. You want to see what happens next.
     
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  19. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @jannert but it might get you past an agent who has a bad knee-jerk reaction to prologues.
     
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  20. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'm not the slightest bit interested in gaining an agent with knee-jerk reactions to anything. If they aren't willing to give the writer's storytelling a chance, thanks but no thanks.
     
  21. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    That's my view too, but I think there are a lot of agents and editors who are that way. I've talked to some whobsat they get so many submissions they basically skim the first page and if they don't see something right away they move to the next one. Sad situation.
     
  22. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I have no problem with them skimming the first page then dumping it. I think you can get a pretty good idea whether the writing is bad or not, once you start reading it.

    What I object to is dismissing the first page without bothering to look at it, simply because of what it's called. That is SO disrespectful of the author.

    I'm sorry. That's a very lazy elimination technique that has nothing to do with what the agent has been given to look at. And I wouldn't want a lazy or disrespectful agent. Would you?
     
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  23. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I for one am not saying that. The Prologue may be written quite well. It's not the writing I question - when I question - it's the purpose.
     
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  24. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, fine. Do question it. But give the author a chance to answer your 'question.' Don't just assume that there is no purpose!
     
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  25. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @jannert I don't want an agent to begin with :)
     
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