1. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    What's Worse: A Prologue or Telling?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Catrin Lewis, Aug 1, 2016.

    This is one of those "lesser of two evils/greater of two goods" questions.

    As it sits, the novel I want to self-publish before the end of August has a prologue. In it, we see something that happened to the female protagonist when she was a child, and it starts several themes that will be important in the rest of the book. I want that info in there. And they are scenes (yeah, two scenes, plural). All nicely shown, not told.

    But the common wisdom about prologues is Don't Do Them, They're Never Needed, blah, blah, blah. And it occurs to me there are a couple of places wayyyyyy farther on in the story where I might be able to work that info in. But it would have to be the female protag saying to someone, "I remember when I was a kid, this happened, and I did this," and so on and so forth. In short, it would be Telling. And all that Telling might well derail the scenes I might put it into. What's more, on the last page I cite a line from the prologue, to bring the plot full circle. No prologue, that line gets cut, and right now I'm at a loss for what to do instead.

    None of my beta readers have complained about the prologue. On the other hand, I rather like my first chapter and wonder if the prologue is upstaging it. I'm so close to the story I'm not sure if it would hurt or not if the reader didn't get this info about the FMC until over halfway through.

    It's kind of late for these kind of self-doubts, but what do you think?
     
  2. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    If it's interesting enough to be the first thing people read then a prologue is better. But the prologue will upstage the first chapter, simply because people will read it first. Go with the advice from readers I guess.
     
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  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Another option would be a flashback--not the character explaining what happened, but just flashing back to the scene.

    Are you absolutely, utterly, totally, completely, without-a-doubt sure that you need this? What would happen if it weren't there? I don't mean if you removed it from the story world--I mean, if you didn't explicitly show and/or explain the scene.
     
  4. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Some people skip prologues, and that's reason enough for me to not use any in my books. If a reader skips yours, does the rest of the book make sense?

    Discovering a character's backstory slowly throughout the book is nearly always preferable to getting it upfront in a big chunk, IMO. Obviously there are exceptions.
     
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  5. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hard to say. The only way to test that would be to send it out to beta readers without it, and see if anyone says, "But I don't get why she's making such a big deal of . . . (fill in the blank)." But I'm no good at getting beta readers to report back on any decent schedule, and it could be months before I find out.
     
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  6. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    That was exactly my experience with betas who read my first draft. That's why I ended up adding a Prologue to my story in the second draft ...which nobody (and I mean NOBODY) who has read it has complained about.

    If your Prologue contains an incident that is crucial for the readers to know from the outset, and its time or setting is far enough removed from the rest of the story that labeling it "Chapter One" disjoints the presentation, then Prologue is the most effective way to frame this.

    I am concerned that this issue boils down not to what's best for the story, but instead it's about pandering to the prejudice of folks who refuse to read Prologues. It's up to you. I know what I've done, and I'm sticking to it.

    If somebody skips the Prologue then gets the wrong end of the stick later on, maybe they'll wake up? I live in hope.
     
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2016
  7. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ironically, the prologue went in to get rid of a flashback. Good joke, eh?
     
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  8. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Exactly. YOU are telling the story. You get to choose how you want to do this. You will keep in mind what your readers should know at any given point, and do your best to set it up so that the right things come out in the right places.

    If you want your readers on track from the start, knowing something that happened prior to the opening of the story, then a Prologue is a great tool. It's a device that has been in use for many many years, for that very reason. It's still being used, and writers who use it are still getting published.

    If you throw things in as flashbacks, readers may well be shocked or surprised or even annoyed that things are not as they seemed at first. If that is your aim, to jolt the reader a bit, then by all means, use flashbacks to change their perceptions of what they thought the story was about. If that's not the effect you're after, then a Prologue works a treat.

    Despite what Prologue-haters try to tell you, it's an extremely valuable tool when written with panache. If some readers always skip a Prologue because they think it's probably not going to matter or will just be an infodump, then THEY are the ones who are making a mistake. Not you.
     
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  9. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    A while back I got randomly anxious about having a prologue in one of my projects - I think I must have read something about people not liking and skipping them? So I did a lot of poking around on websites like goodreads where actual readers are talking about books, and the overwhelming opinion I found was "Why would anyone skip a prologue? I would never do that. Don't people want more story?". I honestly think the common knowledge that people don't like or won't read prologues is bunk. I'm sure there are some of them, but like @jannert said: is it worth pandering to them?

    I do mostly think that revealing backstory throughout, rather than all at once, is the better way to go, but I also tend to think it's better to show than tell, and flashbacks can damage your pacing. And if what happens in the prologue isn't meant to be kept a secret - I'm assuming it's something that motivates her? - then keeping it from the reader until further along seems pointless if not counter-intuitive. You might not want to know everything about a MC from go, but if she spends like half the book acting on things that the reader doesn't know about, she's just not going to make much sense, and when it is revealed I feel like the impression is likely to be "okay, why couldn't you have just told me that?" or something. Do you want a protag who's mysterious, with a secret, or one whose motivations are clear?

    Obviously you know your story best, and I wouldn't want to dissuade you from cutting the prologue if you feel like that's what would serve it best. But imo it's a bad move to cut something no one's complained about just because of misaimed 'common wisdom' that most likely just comes from frustration with bad prologues. From what I can tell, this seems like one of the cases where a prologue is a good fit.
     
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  10. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    For me, the problem with a prologue is that if it's well-written I want more of THAT story and am therefore resentful of having to switch to a different story after only a small bit. And if it's not well-written, well - that problem is obvious!

    I don't think this is a question anyone can answer without having read your MS. Have you specifically asked your beta readers how they felt about the prologue?
     
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  11. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    That is the perfect explanation. Excuse me if I quote that shamelessly in every prologue thread for the rest of eternity.
     
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  12. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    The potential responses from a reader who skipped your prologue and didn't understand your book because of it:

    A) wow, this book makes no sense. Maybe I should start reading prologues;

    B) wow, this book makes no sense. I'm not buying anymore crap by this author.

    I submit that response B) is far more likely. It always comes down to writing what you want versus sacrificing readers. I could write gibberish if I wanted, then no one would read it. A prologue will turn off some, but not all, readers, agents, etc. Given how the odds are already stacked against writers you just have to decide if this is an acceptable potential hurdle to include. If you include it, it goes without saying that it needs to be very well written.

    I do skip prologues, particularly if they're not engaging. If the book doesn't make sense, I don't go back and read the prologue that I skipped in the first place. The book goes in the trash. I've got so damned many books I want to read that frankly it won't bother me a bit to stop yours (using "yours" in a general sense to refer to authors generally) and never buy anything else you write. That's my reaction. If I'm alone, it's not going to matter much to an author. If there are enough readers like me, it could. If you are going the traditional route and there are enough agents or editors like me (and yes, there are at least some) then it could also matter.
     
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2016
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  13. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    ^ That's pretty much my view as a writer. My ultimate goal is to be read and enjoyed by as many people as possible. There are some things I won't do in order to achieve that (like write a misogynistic alpha hero that many readers love) but each thing I do that turns off some readers is pushing me away from my goal. I choose my battles. An unnecessary prologue wouldn't be one I'd pick. So if your answer to "Is the prologue essential [does it matter if it's skipped]?" isn't a resounding "YES!"... ditch it.

    That's my take anyway.
     
  14. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Although I don't want to turn this thread into ANOTHER prologue thread (and you all know where I stand on that issue by now) I think writers need to take on board WHAT. A. PROLOGUE. IS. FOR.

    Not they are usually poorly written, or it's extraneous information I don't really need to convey, or do I want to read one, or it's not really the start of a story, or how could I do the same thing some other way, etc etc etc. Just ask yourself WHAT IS THE PROLOGUE FOR?

    If it's just an excuse to infodump, it's probably not a great idea, right enough. But a boring infodump hurts no matter where it appears in the story. The lesson should be 'try to avoid boring infodumps.' NOT try to avoid Prologues.

    Please, guys. Nobody is telling you that you should write a prologue. Why do I get the feeling that so many folks on here think we should NOT be writing prologues? Who is being dogmatic here? Why can't the choice be looked at for what it is? It's simply the way the writer chooses to structure their story. Like any other structural device. The excuses for insisting we shouldn't use them are getting pretty strange, from where I sit.

    Prologues exist. They have existed for a long time. They are a perfectly good way to start a story, provided they are well-written. Folks who want to write them should have a good reason for doing so, same as they should have a good reason for doing anything they write. Writers are free to not write prologues. Readers who want to skip them are free to do so as well. Why is all that so hard to accept?

    Anyway, I've said my piece, and I won't be returning to defend it. But geez....
     
  15. Dr. Mambo
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    Dr. Mambo Active Member

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    Any time a writer is considering making a change to a story, he/she only needs to ask one question: If I make this change, am I serving the story?

    We're in the business of telling stories. We are obligated to tell stories as best we can in as clear a way as we can. We are not obligated to fit our stories into "criteria boxes" that publishers or lazy readers expect us to. There's already enough mass produced material available to the public that checks all of the usual boxes.

    If you believe your prologue is important to the story and makes it a better story or a clearer story, then you keep it. Simple.
     
  16. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Am I misreading the OP? It seems like this thread started as a prologue thread... not something anyone needs to turn it into...

    Again, unless I'm reading the OP, I think this is exactly the question that's being asked.



    No, but someone is asking us whether she should write a prologue... I'm not sure how we can attempt to offer opinions on this question without discussing what we see as the relative merits/disadvantages of the structure.

    Because people are expressing their honest opinions in response to the question being asked?

    I know it can be frustrating to have a minority view that few seem to agree with. But I'm not sure the answer to the frustration lies in telling people not to express their opinions...
     
  17. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Can you really determine what best serves the story without considering the likely readers of that story?
     
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  18. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    This is the key thing, I think.

    To me it's bizarre to completely set aside a tool just because it might be easy to misuse it.

    That's interesting. You'd skip a prologue that's not engaging but still read the book? I don't get why you wouldn't put the book down right there. Why give the prologue a pass on being boring but give the rest of the book a shot? How often do you skip a prologue but enjoy the rest?
     
  19. Robert Musil
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    Robert Musil Contributing Member

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    Yeah, I never understood the hatred towards prologues either. It seems to come from a place of "know your audience, and if they don't want prologues don't include them", but it's hard to extrapolate from that to "never write a prologue, ever."

    Of course I'm also the type who takes some sort of perverse pleasure in reading introductions, author's notes, editor's notes, translator's notes, etc. so maybe I'm the weird one.
     
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  20. AASmith
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    AASmith Contributing Member

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    I think these are rules you can break. Frankly some things need to be told and frankly some prologues are very good. Are they necessary? of course not because there are a bunch of ways to go about a back story beside using a prologue. I think they are okay if you have a length first half and you want to get the reader excited about the rest of the book. I have never attempted to use one with success though
     
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  21. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't have a blanket objection to prologues without exception. I do object to:

    1) Big chunks of backstory rather than story.
    2) Asking the reader to get absorbed in one character and set of events, and then breaking off and expecting them to try to get absorbed in another character and set of events
    3) Setting a low level for required reader interest and engagement for any reason, and especially at the beginning of a novel where you're most at risk of losing the reader forever.

    Prologues quite often fail on all three grounds. The only prologue that I've ever seen that didn't fail on any of these grounds was the prologue for In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden.

    @Catrin Lewis, I think that you're better off communicating this information AFTER your reader is invested in your character. Whether that means a flashback, the character telling a story, or (my preferred option) bleeding the information out bit by bit in context.
     
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  22. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, I said I wasn't going to come back, but I'm changing my mind. I'll try again. I don't want people to keep their views to themselves. However I feel entitled to express mine as well, and point out what I think are flaws in their arguments, same as they do to me.

    What really bothers me about this prologues issue is the notion that because writing a prologue requires effort to get it right—we should just dump them. Readers don't like prologues because they think they're not necessary or will be bad. Agents don't like them because they've read bad ones. So don't bother trying to write good ones. Just do the easy, crowd-pleasing stuff that the 'majority' wants (according to some, anyway.) Just call it Chapter One, and the bad writing will disappear.

    If folks can't see how this attitude forces writers into an increasingly small box ...well, I don't know what else to say, really.

    Unless you refuse to read or write prologues on any grounds—in which case, fair enough, your loss—why not focus on what makes a good prologue?

    There are bad ones out there, no mistake. But writers should learn to avoid the pitfalls and learn to write good ones and apply them appropriately—just like they learn about any other aspect of writing. I really don't see why anyone should have an issue with that.

    There seems to be a tendency right now to chuck any writing tool that folks perceive as difficult to master. A string of adjectives dilutes meaning ...so let's not use any. Adverbs are annoying if they're overused, so let's cut them out entirely. In fact, dump all -ly words, just to be on the safe side. Dialogue attributions are sometimes melodramatic and silly, so we either won't use any at all, or we'll just use 'said.' Passive voice is terrible, so we'll go through with our word search programme and eliminate all instances of 'was.' Some prologues are boring infodumps and some aren't even needed at all, so let's not write prologues.

    If folks don't see what I'm driving at, I kind of despair here. We need to learn to write well, not dump tools till we're left with a pair of blunt scissors, a stubby pencil and a Spongebob Squarepants sharpener. That's the bottom line. For me anyway. Don't write bad prologues. Write good ones.
     
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  23. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    But for me, as a reader, even a good prologue (ie. a well-written one conveying important information in a vibrant way) is bad, because I find it too jarring to get absorbed in this tiny little bit of story and then get jerked into a whole different time/place/set of characters in Chapter One. To some extent, the better the prologue, the more annoying I find it because it's really interesting and then it just ends and I have to leave it without a satisfying ending. I'm not really sure how someone could write a prologue that wouldn't annoy me for that reason.

    I'm not really a rule-following writer, but I do really try to write what I'd like to read. And I don't like reading that includes prologues. Not because they're badly written, but because they're prologues.
     
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  24. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    More often than not, I put the book back on the shelf. In the past, I've skipped more and gone ahead and read the book. If I still have any of those books, I will be able to provide an example. I read the first couple of pages of a book in the store. There have been times when a book that looks otherwise interesting has a prologue that I don't like for one reason or another. On more than a few occasions, I've flipped through to chapter 1 in the store and read the first couple of pages. If those pages sold me on the book, I'd go ahead and buy it and just skip straight to the first chapter when I got the book home. There have probably been more times when I've put a book back on the shelf.

    This is an issues primarily, but not exclusively, in fantasy. I'll read any genre of book, and there are some genres in which I rarely encounter prologues. Those authors manage to write their stories without one. For some reasons, fantasy writers seem to feel an almost compulsive need to have a prologue, and the reasons that most fantasy writers seem to want a prologue when so many others do not are precisely the reasons that lead to bad prologues (e.g. dumping backstory on the reader). Fantasy has been better about this in recent years - I'm finding more books that don't have a prologue, or that have an engaging scene of some kind (the latter of which could just as well have been chapter 1, but that's another debate)). Apart from infodumps, my disappointment with well-written, engaging prologues is, as @BayView said, that by the end of the prologue I'm interested in the events of the prologue and when the author shifts time/place/characters to Chapter 1 it's a let down. Alternatively, there may be an engaging prologue that then leads directly into the main story, in which case I wonder why the author didn't just call it Chapter 1.

    I do think, as people have said above, authors should write what they want to write. There is far too much out there for me to read everything. Prologues are one of a few ways I pass over a book early on. It's a culling process that keeps my to-read list to a realistic level. It's a way to skip past works that I know from past experience I may not enjoy as much as something else. Do I miss good books that way? I'm sure I do. But there are so many good books I'm OK with that.
     
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  25. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Yes.

    There was one book a few years back (and this is anecdotal; n=1), and I can't remember the name of it, where the prologue was actually very well done and engaging and I was so disappointed when it ended and the author jumped a few hundred years into the future and continued with other characters that I put the book down and read something else instead. I ultimately went back to it, I think, but it was many months later. I remember thinking that the prologue was this intriguing, absorbing promise by the writer that went out the window in Chapter 1. The author never picked the prologue up again - it was basically just a dramatized scene of backstory, but so well done that I wanted to continue that story and not the one the author was switching to in chapter 1.
     
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