1. Flying Geese
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    Flying Geese Contributing Member

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    [Seriously] Why Do Writers Advise Against Prologues So Adamantly?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Flying Geese, Dec 29, 2015.

    There are probably 500 threads titled, "Prologue! Should I Use One?!" The anti-prologue responses are usually, "I never write prologues, I hate them with a passion" and other absolutes. The pro-prologue responses are usually more passive: "Use it if you feel it within your soul" or "Pray to God and ask him whether or not you should use it. No man can tell you." (I exaggerated a bit there)

    I recently read the prologues of Game of Thrones Books 1 and 4. They were good, a bit slow in the middles, but I definitely continued reading. It's worth mentioning that 5 - 7 chapters into these large works, I still have no clue how they tie into the story at all. I'm just reading what's in front of me and if it's good and the plot is moving, I keep reading. It's that simple -- and I suspect this is how the majority of readers feel, whether they are aware of it or not.

    I stumbled upon an article that stated that the 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues are as follows:

    1) prologue is vehicle for massive info dump
    2) if your prologue has nothing to do with the overall main story
    3) prologue's sole purpose is to "hook" the reader
    4) prologue is too long
    5) "prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story"
    6) prologue is über-condensed world-building
    7) prologue is there solely to “set the mood…”

    The very first question I asked myself was, "do any of these rules apply to chapters of a book in general?" I mean, do you want overly-long chapters, uber-condensed with world-building that's just to set the mood?

    Interestingly, I skipped the prologue in LOTR1 because it seemed awkward. Was I the only one who skipped it? Probably not. But I don't believe that that alone is reason enough to say take it out altogether. I probably haven't read enough books, but I just haven't come across the prologue that made me go, "Oh hell nawl! I'm putting this book down right the f#ck now!"
    If it can be executed this well this often, then why is it such a point of contention?
     
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  2. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    What I was told is this: having a prologue is asking the reader to start from scratch twice instead of once.

    The reader gets involved in the story, then the story suddenly ends...

    And starts over again with what seems like a whole other story which may or may not seem related to the first.

    I've read stories like that and it can be annoying. But I've seen it work, too.

    Also, I have to wonder...

    Is prologue/chapter one really all that different from the first two chapters of a multi-POV story?
     
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  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think prologues are misused so often (for one or more of the reasons from the first post) that it's led to a general anti-prologue sentiment, especially with new writers who may not be totally in control of their craft. (Or old writers who aren't totally in control of their craft!)

    There are no absolutes in writing - if your prologue works, and adds to your book, then Yay! Prologue!

    But because they so often don't work, or don't work for most readers, there may be agents/editors/readers who see them as a warning sign. Something to be aware of - do you want to start someone's reading experience with a red flag?
     
  4. DeadMoon
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    DeadMoon Contributing Member Contributor

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    I like a good prologue, it's like a small glimpse into the past. I think they are very similar to a story that has its first few chapters devoted to different characters "Everyday life" type scenes.

    Big deal of the reader have to get involved in a story again after the prologue, if they has an issue with it then maybe they would be better off watching TV then reading a book in the first place.
     
  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    When a prologue is written because, "I have to explain all this stuff before the story starts," it's a problem. Really, any reason that ends with "...before the story starts." is a problem.
     
  6. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Link for the OP: 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues

    It made sense to include the blogger's prologue virtues:
     
  7. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, there are some pretty passionate anti-prologue people - probably because for certain people in that camp it's a rule rather than an option. Nobody in the pro-prologue camp is going to tell you that you absolutely MUST include a prologue because that's silly and there are plenty of good stories that don't need one. It's called a prologue precisely because it's not the main story. So, we defend it as an option if written properly, but there aren't absolutes when it come to pieces that aren't part of the main body of the story.

    If you want to get pro-prologue people angry and speaking in absolutes - just needle us a bit about how we're always wrong in every case and every publisher is going to throw out our manuscript without even reading it because they saw the word "Prologue" at the beginning. THEN you'll get a bunch of angry prologue writers talking in absolutes (about how there are NO absolutes).
     
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  8. shlunka
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    shlunka Member

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    I find prologues to be setting dependent. If the story is set inside the locker-room of a civilization existing in Andromeda where centuries of civilization culminated into one moment, yes, a back story is needed to set social/cultural contexts. If you're writing about a detective looking for a suspect in 2015 England, then you should probably just ease straight into the story. My opinion, and it's as invalid and generalized as anyone else's.
     
  9. theoriginalmonsterman
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    theoriginalmonsterman Pickle Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Are we talking about prologues or prequels? You guys sound like you're talking more about prequels than prologues. A prologue is like an alternate introductory chapter to a story that goes over information that provides additional information to the main story, where a prequel is an entirely new book that takes before the main stories events.

    Personally I can go either way on prologues. I guess it depends on the type of story your writing. If your story is based heavily on backstory then you should probably include a prologue just to help the reader keep up.

    Prequels are a dangerous terrain. They can be done right, but if you're new at writing it is better to stray away from them.
     
  10. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I think that view limits what a prologue is. But I do agree, a scene that happens in an earlier time is different from a prologue that describes the setting or some other aspect of the story, but it is not necessarily part of the story.

    I've seen lots of books that start with a scene at the end that the story then begins from an earlier time and leads to reader up to that event. Or it can start with something that set the story in motion be it something in childhood or something in a previous era, like a key event in the history of the world the story takes place in.

    Those kinds of prologues are part of the story and as long as they are interestingly written, shouldn't be a problem.

    Prologues that are infodumps are the ones that are most boring. The prologue in Neil Stephenson's Anathem was a horridly boring explanation of the vocabulary used in the book. It was useless in my opinion.

    So I say nix the infodump prologue and just write your readers into your world.

    My prologue is one paragraph and it's a symbolic, not a story element per se. It's the protagonist's thoughts, but it's in a scene not connected directly to the story.

    @jannert's prologue is of an earlier event. She could call it chapter one but you run into the problem of wanting the reader to know that isn't really the beginning of the story that they will be reading.


    To me a prequel is an entire story that occurs in a previous timeframe, rather than a single scene or event.
     
  11. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is the main problem I have found with prologues. But a prologue can be written without this problem. It can introduce a conflict or mystery that is important to the main story. Chapter 1 then picks up where the prologue leaves off, so it does not feel like starting from scratch all over again -- it feels like jumping through time. Or chapter 1 does begin somewhere else, but the reader reads it in anticipation of tying up the loose ends from the prologue.

    The other main problem is infodump prologues. Reading one of those is an investment of time and energy upfront for a delayed payoff. Personally, I find it very hard to remember an infodump prologue even as I read the rest of the story, because it is so hard for information to stick when I have no reason to care about it.

    With that said, I love nonlinear storytelling. Many of my favorite scenes are flashbacks, and a [non-infodumpy] prologue is a flashback upfront. A prologue that flashes forward rather than backward in time can work very well. You can introduce the story to the reader in this form: "This is my current situation, this is the difficult decision I need to make / challenge I need to overcome, and here is what led up to it: [next chapter]" This is convenient if you want the reader to know the stakes of the conflict/challenge within the first few pages, but chronologically, it takes a while to build up to those stakes in the story.
     
  12. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I just started reading Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn and I didn't even notice there was a prologue until now that I went back and checked whether it was Chapter 1 or Prologue. :supergrin:

    What it does is show one of the POV characters do some magic and kind of sets up everything for the first chapter where we meet the Chosen One. Both the prologue and the first chapter start with the same sentence, but come to think of it, I'm not even sure why call it prologue as I think it could've just easily been Chapter 1. It shows events that happen maybe a day before we meet the Chosen One. Maybe the point of it will be revealed later, but whatever the case I can safely say the prologue didn't jar me and since it's a fantasy novel, prologues are kind of a staple in the genre anyway, so prologue prejudice from the publishers' part might also be less severe.

    Now, with Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch we get 78 pages of prologue of the now. After that we make a time jump into the past. Yeah, 78 pages. Of course, she's an established author of literary fiction, so I suppose she could start her next novel with a little drawing of a jumping-jacking frog in the lower right corner that'll look like an animation when you flip the first 100 pages fast enough, but clearly even in literary fiction, authors can utilize these dreaded prologues.

    People often go "why don't you start with chapter 1?". Well, chances are, if you're serious about your MS and have settled with a prologue, you've already weighed that chapter 1 option as well and deemed it inadequete. In my opinion, if there's e.g. a time jump or the beginning you've envisioned seems somehow isolated, like it doesn't fit well with the rest of the story but still feels essential, writing a prologue can work. I'd just make sure that said prologue is not fluff, that indeed you need that scene or information to be there.
     
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  13. jannert
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    Why? People have pasts. Stories can have pasts as well. It's not so much 'before the story starts' it's 'before the present story starts.' But the past (b0th story and personal) can have a huge impact on the present.

    It might not suit a particular storyteller to 'drop it in' along the way. Dropping in is fine, if it's what you, as an author, want to do. But presenting the past as a vital scene at the start of the book is also an option. Calling it a Prologue makes the time gap a 'given.' The only reason to call it a Prologue instead of Chapter One is to let the reader know what to expect—so that they're not confused when the next chapter does a time jump and features possibly different characters in possibly a different setting.
     
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2015
  14. Flying Geese
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    Flying Geese Contributing Member

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    @KaTrian 78 pages of prologue should get someone sent straight to hell according to writing "fundamentalists". I know Game of Thrones Prologues are at least 20 pages per book.

    My prologue I added to my MS has yet to be finished, but I found that it served several purposes:

    1) it added depth to Lio's character knowing him 8 years before Chapter 1
    2) It showed his struggle instead of me revealing it through piecemeal thoughts in part 1
    3) it (will) pose a "question" that is one of the central themes of the story.

    All I really care for is whether or not it is part of the story. I decided that it won't be chapter 1 because the gap of 8 year's time is there for a reason.
     
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  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    If the prologue is story, that's not the problem that I mean. If there's story that's set when the book's primary protagonist's grandfather was a toddler, that's fine--that's story. I see no need to label it as prologue rather than Chapter 1, but as long as it's story, the author can label it however they like.
     
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  16. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I have the answer: Chapter Zero! :p
     
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  17. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Since I'm familiar with your story, I think it fits there. Sure, I can see it work without a prologue, I suppose, but considering it's a fantasy novel and the prologue is certainly not jarring, you should be fine. Perhaps all this advise against prologues also stems from the idea that as a debut writer, you have to "do everything right." Minimize the chances of refusal, if you will. We have this fear of editors going through slush piles, obsessively looking for warning signals, and when they see a prologue by a first-time author, alarms instantly go off and they won't even bother reading the first sentence. :eek:
     
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  18. Flying Geese
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    Flying Geese Contributing Member

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    Wow, that's a perfect way to put it @KaTrian ! For so long I've felt just that! That to me is the hardest part of writing fiction ... overcoming that 'block' in your mind that makes you adhere to all of the 'right' rules.
     
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  19. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Actually, you're not far off. I've seen books recently where the prologues aren't labeled at all. Whether this is what the author intended from the outset, or whether this was done to fool the prologue-haters, I have no idea. It just starts. THEN moves on to Chapter One, etc. Funny.
     
  20. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Actually, why not? If the title 'prologue' causes knee-jerk reaction, just don't call it that.
     
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  21. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, there will be haters there, too....!!!
     
  22. Lifeline
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    Lifeline The Dark - not in Wonderland Supporter Contributor

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    *grins when reading through all the answers*

    damned if you do, damned if you don't :D
     
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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 am ever amazed as to why people care about this so much. The number of individual threads on this topic alone within just our forum is gobsmacking.

    There are going to be an unknowable # of things that a corresponding group of readers is going to like, not like, skim, skip, love, hate, and/or refuse to buy your book over. My stories contain sex that isn't behind closed doors or fade to black. I don't care that this excludes certain readers who don't want to read that. I am utterly uninterested in the exhaustive remonstrations of those who sermonize that sex has no place in a "real" novel. Talk to the hand, as we used to say way BITD. Why? Because when I go to Amazon and look for similar books to read, there is no end of choice. Page after page after page of listings. And these books are clearly being purchased. There are whole websites devoted to novels that turn the front burner up to high.
     
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  24. Flying Geese
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    Flying Geese Contributing Member

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    I am not as interested in the topic itself as much as I am why people feel so comfortable giving potentially harmful advice?
     
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  25. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    What makes the advice harmful as opposed to helpful?
     

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