You think that title is just a provocation, don’t you? Something to get folks riled and then clicking through to my essay. Honestly, I hope people do want to read yet another essay on prologues. But also, I honestly do love prologues.
I’ve been thinking about how many readers say they dislike prologues; how they routinely skip them or even refuse to read them. Are you one of these readers?
I’ve been thinking about how damn near everyone recommends against including a prologue when you’re trying to sell your story. If you’re wondering why prologues have been on my mind, well, I suppose I ought to get it out in the open, right at the top. The newest version of my WIP has one.
In light of that disclosure, you might think I’m biased. But in thinking about prologues—how many say they don’t read them or say not to include one when submitting—I still came to this simple conclusion:
I don’t just love prologues. I actually prefer when stories begin with them.
My Own Shelves
Perhaps we should start with a definition, so we’re all on the same (first) page: A prologue is a separate introductory section of a literary work. Simple enough, right?
My conclusion regarding my preference began with a quick survey of my own shelves. Even I was surprised by how many of my favorite books and series begin with a prologue. Or at least some version of one. Not all of them are labeled as prologues, so for the sake of my survey, I went back to our simple definition of a “separate introductory section.” For me, being “separate” implies that the story itself does not rely on the content of a prologue in order to begin or to reach its resolution. In other words, the story would make sense without them. Often, prologues occur in another place or time than the story’s starting point. Often without the protagonist present.
Let’s look at a few of the examples from my shelves that helped me reach my conclusion. My survey included (but was not limited to):
*The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien—Labeled as a prologue, this is really nothing less than a twenty page dissertation “On Hobbits,” and oh, how relatable they become. All one has to do to understand its importance is imagine having no idea what a hobbit is (not so easy for those of us raised after the books achieved popularity). Tolkien manages to make hobbits so much more than fairies, gnomes, or any other preconception of fantastical “little people.”
*The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb—This series begins with an italicized introduction that isn’t labeled as a prologue. It sets the scene, primarily regarding the political circumstance, which swiftly gives shape to the story’s world. It reads like memoir, and the reader instantly senses that it’s in the hand of an older version of a protagonist we’ve yet to meet.
*The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan—The series-starting prologue features a dystopian cataclysm, from the POV of a character whose identity and relevance is not fully revealed for several books! We have no idea if it’s a glimpse at a distant past or a terrifying future.
*The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie—In which the separate introductory segment, rather than being labeled as a prologue, is brilliantly titled, “The End,” establishing the humorous tone of the entire series in record time.
Let me guess. You’re thinking something like, “Roycroft is WU’s resident fantasy geek, and these are all fantasies. Those geeks love this sort of thing, don’t they?” If you are, I’ll forgive you and say you’re right. Then I’ll counter by saying my shelves also include these favorites:
*The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett—Remember the prologue? The hanging? The girl with the knife? The bloody cockerel and the curse? Spooky coolness!
*The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger—which includes a passage from each of the two protagonists. This introduction accomplishes the difficult task of setting up a very tricky premise, but it also foreshadows the scope of a tragic love story.
*The Tides of War, by Steven Pressfield—which includes not one but two prologues! Both are from a protagonist looking back: the first to give a broad sense of the historical backdrop and the second zeroing in to set the scene for the war in question. Together they establish not just the historical context, but the legendary feel and breadth of the tale to come.
I admit it, though. The majority of my shelf examples are Fantasy/SciFi. And those of you who don’t read much speculative and don’t care for prologues likely remain unmoved (if you’re even still reading). You might still think my claiming a preference is nothing more than a provocation. Or simply outlandish. But what if I was able to provide a unique perspective to help you understand my conclusion, that prologues can make stories better? Enough to become the basis for my preference? [Read more…]