Friday, December 4, 2009

WRT: Rules of the Road - Writing Police, Rule Robots, and Prologues

Never before has the unpublished writer had such a rich trove of resources to help her learn her craft and better understand the publication process. From blog to bulletin board, from agent to editor, from fellow writers, both beginning and seasoned, advice abounds. But how to parse it? What to believe? Should a piece of writing advice be taken...(gasp) literally? Should a rule always be followed? When should it be broken? Sometimes the sheer volume of opinions can be overwhelming.

Beware the Writing Police who wish to dictate. Beware becoming a Rule Robot.

In a regular segment of The Writer's RoadTrip called Rules of the Road, I'll highlight various "rules" as they pertain to writing for publication. Topics will cover such subjects as query and cover letters (including use of rhetorical questions, synopsis length, biographical material, etc), grammar, voice, plotting, POV (that's Point Of View, not Privately Owned Vehicle), dialogue tags, prologues, titles, tropes, show don't tell... etc, etc, etc.

What I want to discuss today is the use of the Prologue in a fiction work.

A discussion on the Blue Boards (Children's Writers & Illustrators Message Board) recently underscored how controversial the subject is, and how much people disagree over its value in telling a story (read it here). Some feel strongly that anything titled Prologue simply invites the reader to skip the material and go straight to Chapter One. Some writers freely admitted to frequently, if not universally, doing this when they encountered the things, avoiding them like the plague or college textbooks. Others disagreed. They opined that if a writer valued the material important enough to include, then it deserved to be read.

Unfortunately, not all readers are so magnanimous. Since the discussion in this case centered on YA fiction, it was helpful to get the opinion of several members of this target audience. Not surprisingly, the majority of the young adult readers indicated they would be inclined to skip a Prologue. Why? Impatience, mostly. There's an overwhelming sense of urgency in teen readership. "Just get me to the action." But it wasn't a universal opinion.

Unfortunately, the answer isn't clarified any better over at the Absolute Write Water Cooler. (For example, see here and here and here.)

Whether you chose to use one or not, it's always helpful to get these insights as you write your stories, structure your books. Wouldn't you want to be aware that your lovely Prologue might not be read?

Does that mean we should never use the dreaded device? Of course not. Many superstar books include one (TWILIGHT comes immediately to mind, and its target is YA). Where they work, they perform an essential function: they separate the main story from necessary material the reader needs. It might also help separate different voices or styles or points of view or time frames.

I too often see beginning writers employ the Prologue to slip in unnecessary backstory. In the past, you'd frequently see this stuff cluttering up first pages, but since everyone knows this is a no-no (right?), it suddenly seems like writers have figured out a way to get around this by moving backstory into the Prologue. I'm not saying all Prologues do this; nor am I saying there is never a need for a Prologue.

In my opinion, it actually matters less that the first pages of your story are marked Prologue or Chapter One or Captain's Log Stardate... What matters is that the material accomplish what all beginning material needs to do: hook your reader. If it doesn't, then it doesn't belong there. Maybe the material can be inserted later, either wholly or in pieces. If it can't, then you need to work on making it capture and hold your reader's attention.

What do you think? Do you have strong feelings about Prologues?

Even worse, has anyone ever "ticketed" you for using a Prologue? Don’t worry. If it performs an essential role (see above), then just rip up that ticket. The Writing Police have no authority here.

Happy RoadTripping.


  1. Great post! There certainly are a lot of contradictory views on prologues and I guess it mostly comes down to personal preference. But I completely agree that for the prologue to work, the content needs to hook the reader and feel necessary to the story.

    In fact, I recently wrote about prologues that work on my website. One that I gave as an example was from ICE by Sarah Beth Durst - it hooked me right away and it directly tied into the story.

  2. I love prologues when they're done well, which means,as you say, when they hook the reader. They're like a door cracked open, enticing you to walk through.

    You're right about a lot of current readers who don't have the patience to grow with the story. Our sound-bite culture doesn't help. A book, like a good meal, should be savored, not gulped.

  3. Wow, flu hit me hard - shivers and shakes from Fri till yesterday. But I'm back now.

    Thanks, Anna. I also loved ICE, which really underscores the importance of those first words. Great website, BTW. Like you, I'm also a devout follower of Maass' BREAKOUT NOVEL. Also like Stein ON WRITING, Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD, and Plotnik's SPUNK AND BITE as a contre deux to THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE.

    Andrea, I think you're absolutely right. With the plethora of information hitting us at any given moment, we've learned to make very quick judgements. Writers, I think, have more patience, are more willing to give an unfamiliar book a full first page and probably a couple pages from within, on top of the jacketflap. But the average casual reader won't be so forgiving. Which is too bad, because, like you, I enjoy reading, the sound of the words and the flow. I tend to read very slowly; my wife, on the other hand, finished MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD in one sitting (took me a week). Ah well...