Friday, September 19, 2008

Q & A 153

What do you think about prologues? Some writers (those who hate "infodump," like Crusie) abhor them; I think they are useful, especially if they describe something that happened in the past that starts off the action in the main story (the theft of a treasure, a vow of revenge, the placing of a curse, etc.) When do they work, and when are they A Bad Idea?

I believe you'll find that, to a person, those who abhor prologues were forced at some time in their lives to memorize the following:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Something something something cours yronne,
I had to lerne that craap in English 3
The first twelve lines at least, and as you see,
It stayed with me, at least to somme extente,
Although I never did know what it meant.

Those who don't hate prologues probably didn't recognize that as the opening of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, which many of us studied in our foreign language classes.

The prologue was introduced by the Greeks in order to help audiences understand the background for their plays. At the opening of a Greek play, a god would be lowered onto the stage and would give a two-hour discourse on cavemen and dinosaurs and a giant obelisk that appeared from nowhere, which were, at the time of the Greek civilization, the only things that could be considered background to anything. Usually the theater was empty by the time the actual play started.

Romeo and Juliet has a well-known prologue. It doesn't help your literary reputation to put down Shakespeare for opening with an info-dump, so most critics will allow that a prologue can work out well on occasion.

If your novel spans six generations of the evil Carstairs family, you don't need a prologue in which some unknown woman (Mildred Carstairs) has sex with Satan. You can simply make that the first chapter. But if the entire novel takes place during a one-month period in 2008, except for one crucial event involving Anabel and the Count in 1811, it might be a bit of a jolt to your readers to discover that Anabel and the Count and the other romantic characters they've come to love and hate in chapter 1 died two centuries ago, and they must start anew with corporate raider Robert Johnston. By labeling the Anabel/Count chapter "prologue," the author reveals that this is an unrelated short story, and the reader skips it.

Interestingly, when an author tells what happened between Anabel and the Count through some ploy like discovering Anabel's dusty diary, rather than showing what happened in a prologue, it tends to be the same people who gripe about prologues who also gripe that an author should show, not tell.

When does a prologue work? Let's say two hundred years ago the Count stole a treasure from Robert Lloyd, who swore revenge and put a curse on the Count's family. Would you rather learn this in dialogue:

Ellen: Why are you such a loser, Robert?

Johnston: Two hundred years ago my ancestor stole a treasure from Robert Lloyd, who swore revenge and put a curse on my family.

. . . or would you rather have witnessed the theft and curse-putting, which seemed unrelated at first, but which you have gradually realized, as Johnston fell into the depths of despair, was profoundly significant?

A prologue fails when the reader gets to the end of the book and thinks, Good book. But what the hell was that prologue? It had nothing to do with anything. It must have been from another book and the printer screwed up.

Future writing exercise: Corporate raider Robert Johnston seems cursed. Write a prologue to explain his run of bad luck.


Robin S. said...

First- I reaking loved your poem...
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Something something something cours yronne,
I had to lerne that craap in English 3
... this being the part that I really started loving it.

Second- I'd say the prologue idea is as good as the writer's ability to create a prologue worth reading.

Two instances that work extremely well - the prologues in Mystic River and in Empire Falls. They just happen to be excellent novels written by excellent novelists.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of the technique Annie Proulx uses in her short story "Brokeback Mountain" in which the first two (italicized) paragraphs actually show Ennis coping *after* the story, and then the story follows?

BuffySquirrel said...

I hate prologues--Shakespeare notwithstanding--because you start the process of learning who is who, and where we are, and what is going on, and then suddenly you have to start all over again, often with a whole different set of characters in a totally different place with entirely different things going on.

So I don't read them.

Mignon said...

Hath in the ram its halfe cours y-ronne, and we had to recite it in Middle English.

No wonder that I despise prologues and refuse to ever read another one.

ChrisEldin said...

This is a timely discussion for me. And very useful.
I used to be in one camp, but now am in the other.

Anonymous said...

I was deeply offended to learn (a few years ago)how many people do not read prologues!Some of my dearest friends fall into the category. But these same people almost always read the epilogue! I, of course, begin "reading" at the flyleaf and usually check the publication history, too. The idea of the story having a backstory is the kind of detail I usually like. Can't think of a "bad" prologue just now, but I'm sure there are many.


writtenwyrdd said...

I love prologs. I think that their being clearly marked as a prolog makes them entirely skippable by those who detest them, but I like them because they can give me a hint as to why this apparently sf book starts out in the apparently normal world and appears to have nothing to do with the backmatter.

What I really hate? Introductions and forwards. Especially ones where you have to read them to understand the story. They stick them in front of a lot of translated or classical literature. I think it's a big fat sign screaming in green neon "this book is totally irrelevant and impossible to follow without a map."

But that's just me. I got an English degree and I hate 99% of all "literature" I was exposed to there; so I either have no taste or my profs didn't. (Actually, I think it was a combination of both.)

talpianna said...

I happen to have memorized the opening of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales in high school, too; and I LOVED it, thank you very much. And Chaucer was easy, compared to Middle English and Anglo-Saxon. Hwæt! we Gar-Dena, anyone?

Instead of Robert Johnston, could we write a prologue about a renowned curator?

I think a prologue is a useful way to get in a bit of important backstory in dramatic form, when most of what happened between that event and the actual starting point of the narration is irrelevant. For example, if the McGuffin is a magical talisman, you can open with a prologue showing Merlin enchanting it, and then start chapter one in the present, with the Good Guy and the Bad Guy racing each other to get hold of it.

talpianna said...


Geoffrey gives advice:

Sir -
Ich wishe for ad[v]yce in the matter of fashion and armes. Ys it verrily a mistake to wear a lilyflour in my helm? (Ich have a shylde of golde.)

Mon Sire Thopas,

By seinte Jerome, finallye someone who kan spelle! Messire Thopas, yow seem a man fair and gent, and Y sholde muchel relish for to tellen yowre tale. Ich shalle have myne peple calle yowre peple. As for the lilye? It dependeth how whethir yow wolde ben 'easte coaste' or 'weste coaste.'

Le Vostre G

Geoffrey on the Perle poete (and I do mean "on"):
O, thatte olde colde tyme on the montayne, when we ownede the worlde and nothynge semed wronge! Indede – the makere of Perle was “wyth” me...

Depe did we stepe ourselves in drinke. Thenne – and by the waye ich assume thou wilt kepe this knowledge from dere Philippa! – we dide thynges that wolde make Alanus of Lille his hede explode. We dide thynges that wolde make Peter Damyan spontaneouslie combuste. We dide thynges that are notte even listede in Burchard of Worms. Rim, ram, ruf!

At morwe-tyde, he sayde me, “Thou knowst I am not of the scole of Edwarde II.”

“Me neithere,” quod I “‘Tis nobodies privitee but oures.”

He prefaces the latter post with the classic blogger's apology: "Lordynges, by Goddes grace ich yow biseche that ye forgyven me myn tardinesse yn updatinge myn blogge. In this droughty march, the customes house is unusualie bisy."

Xenith said...

What squirrel said.

There are many, many books I've never read more than the beginning of because they didn't catch my interest in the first chapter. Why an author wants to double their chances of this happening, I have never understood.

As a reader, I much prefer backstory to through revealed throughout the book, bit by bit like a puzzle, until finally it all makes sense :)

But prologues are handy in multi-book series, to remind the reader what happened in the last book that they read 2 years ago.

Tracey S. Rosenberg said...

Talpianna -

People who memorized the opening of The Canterbury Tales and loved it, unite!

(First task: find a better name for the group.)

I dislike when historical novels put in an infodump prologue, but on the other hand, if they don't, then I'm frequently struggling to figure out how the hell everyone is related to everyone else, and the details of why this particular political intrigue and backstabbing is significant. It's tough to balance getting historical background across without resorting to 'As thou dost know, Robert' dialogue. Sometimes it's easier when the author includes a scorecard.

Anonymous said...

When there are a thousand characters and a hundred named gates into a city, I like a map and a list of characters. I won't read more than five new character names on one page. I refuse (and am incapable, besides).

--Bill H.

Julie Weathers said...

On Barbara Rogan's advice I dumped my prologue I loved. Yes, I do take advice from people. It has now been incorporated into a later chapter.

I love prologues, but there are a lot of people who hate them so it's a slippery slope as a writer.

BuffySquirrel said...

I didn't memorise the CT prologue, but I still love it. Can I join?

Phoenix said...

Had to mem the first 30 lines of CT years ago and still remember them. Loved them, too, because I loved the idea of speaking Middle English. But would I have loved them as much if they were in modern English? Doubtful.

As for other prologues, my opinion is that they're fine as long as they're short -- a couple of pages tops. Just enough to set up anything that needs setting up.

As for the opening of Romeo and Juliet, I think of it more like a query letter or short synopsis than a prologue since it tells the whole story of the play in, what, less than 15 lines, with the last two lines throwaways. Queriers could learn a thing or two from old Will.

ChrisEldin said...

Tal--Yeah, but can you do Chaucer in Chinese?

Tracey S. Rosenberg said...

Buffysquirrel - absolutely! I'm sure we can have associate membership categories, and maybe a system of bonus points earned by quoting Chaucer gratuitously at EE.

talpianna said...

Tracey, I hereby declare you a fellow founding member of Pilgrims for Prologging!

I also had to learn (but not until grad school) how to PRONOUNCE Chaucer properly--to as toe, for example.

Chaucer in Chinese? No, but I've read SILVERLOCK.

Linda Howard's time-travel romance SON OF THE MORNING opens with a prologue set in 1307, with the doomed Grand Master of the Knights Templar entrusting the Templars' most precious and secret treasure to the hero. The story then moves to the present, where the heroine's family is murdered by a villain intent on finding that treasure, and she winds up traveling back to the 14th century to meet the hero.

austexgrl said...

I love prologues...I consider them...well sort of know, where the love begins selling his/or her self..and you become enamored...and desire builds....even at my middle age, occasionally that will happen..Even somtime on a blog that will occur. Well, my dear friends, the few blogs it has occurred, for me.... are Mr. Slings blog..and, the Evil Editors blog.

Sometimes, in a really good movie, it is the the credits is sort of a in..The Deer Hunter... or Dr. Zhivago; know what I mean?

talpianna said...

Another good one: A DARK-ADAPTED EYE by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine opens with a hanging; then you read the book to figure out why.

batgirl said...

Another one here who likes Chaucer and likes prologues. (I can fake up a 14th c. pronunciation for Whan that Aprille, too.) My Scots background causes me to read not only prologues but afterwords, acknowledgements, the teaser chapter for the next book in the series, even review excerpts. Because, dammit, I _paid_ for those words and I'm going to get the value of them.

Most of the complaints about prologues seem to refer to fantasy novels, where they too often refer to legends or history that doesn't immediately relate to the main story.
Mysteries use prologues far more, usually to show the murder or the hiding of the body, and I haven't seen much complaint about those, perhaps because they clearly tie in to the main story?