Got prologue? (Why writers might need it even if readers don't)

Author/editor Ray Rhamey in Prologues: Yes or No over at Writer Unboxed today:
As an editor, I have never liked prologues. As a writer, I’ve never written one. As a reader, I skip them. Yet they keep appearing on my Flogging the Quill blog for criticism. I post the opening lines of the prologue plus the opening lines of the first chapter. Just about all the time, the chapter opening works best.
Rhamey polled a cross section of agents and got a pretty resounding thumbs down on the prologue. Most agents find them unnecessary at best and at worst, lazy and distracting. There's some excellent advice on reality checking the necessity factor. Kindly pragmatist Nathan Bransford gently suggests "the easiest litmus test is to take out the prologue and see if your book still makes sense." Less patient Miss Snark is quoted: "Signs your prologue sucks: it’s about a dream, it’s about the weather, it’s about someone who is dead, it’s about someone who never appears again in the book. The first sign you are not the exception to this rule is if you think you ARE."

I don't disagree with any of that, but like 99.9999% of craft discussions on the great writer time suck that is the interweb, this discussion is about what agents need from writers, not what writers need from writing. In my humble opinion, agents not liking prologues is not a good reason for writers to avoid writing a prologue; it's just a good reason for not showing your prologue to agents. The underlying philosophy is that anything you write that doesn't get published is a waste of time, and that's absolutely untrue.

Not everything needed by the writer for the writing is needed by the reader for the reading, but the first thing the reader needs is a writer who fully understands the book. It's another use for the great airplane safety lecture metaphor: put your own mask on first, then render assistance.

I've sworn off starting books with prologues for all the excellent reasons stated in the post, but I always start the writing process by writing a prologue. A wise editor once told me that a prologue is "the journey of the book in microcosm." There are things I need to figure out up front, and a prologue -- even though it never makes it into the finished manuscript -- helps me gather my thoughts and anchor my vision. A tone is set. Imagery is called out of the mist. Characters make themselves known. A steering mechanism is fixed. As I work through the ms, I cherry pick passages from the prologue and weave the essential stuff into the story. The nonessential stuff remains forever in a big bucket of outtakes with a lot of other stuff I needed to explore for my own benefit.

That said, in structuring a recent book, I realized I did want to keep the prologue intact. So I changed the word "Prologue" to "Chapter One." Problem solved. (So often the simplest solution is the most elegantly efficacious.)


Jeanna Thornton said…
Just experienced... omitting the prologue. Your post is right on!! Learning everyday!! jink
Way back when, I had a prologue to my novel. That changed between Drafts 1 and 2. The irony is that both the agents I met at the UH pitch workshop requested my manuscript based on the first fifteen pages or so of the novel, which at that point did include the prologue. It was actually a very heartwrenching decision to trust my gut and the wisdom of my workshop group and cut out the very pages that had garnered two full-requests, but in the end, I think the book is going to be that much stronger. Of course I worry that I've gone the wrong direction for those agents, particularly the one I most want to work with, but in the end, I have to do what I think is right for the book and not what will satisfy an agent. Still, it was really scary to cut those pages, particularly when they'd already garnered so much enthusiasm.

Will let you know if the strategy worked . . .