More on Prologues cause it's SOOOOO much fun!

Good morning, Miss Snark.

I hope you don't mind me adding to what I'm sure is a daily deluge of e-mail questions. I recently read on Kristen Nelson's blog, and again on yours, that writers should avoid sending prologues when they get requests for partials. No problem. I can do that. My question stems from Ms. Nelson's comment, in which she said she had yet to see a well-done prologue in the sample pages. I went back to my bookcase, skimmed several paperbacks and noticed most contained prologues. My question is this: in your opinion, what makes these so difficult to craft in comparison to say, chapter 18 of a book?

Sorry if this is nitwittery, but I figured after the last J.K. Rowling/Dan Brown-wannabe post, I probably fall pretty far down the food chain when it comes to nitwit posts/e-mails. : )

Oh, and one last thing. I went through the archives again to get tips from the Cover Letter crapometer for drafting my cover letter. I don't remember which entry it was that got this response from you, but it's a gem. It's currently taped up near my monitor while I draft the letter. You said:
"Give me six sentences of less than ten words that tell me WHO is doing WHAT to WHOM and WHY I should give a rat's ass."

Well, I'm glad the Snarkism of the day is helping out! And nary a hand chopped off...es su milagro.

Now, about prologues.

The problem with prologues is that, generally, they only achieve fullness of meaning in the context of the entire book. Some prologues don't do this: they are used for things that can't be explained, for example, in the first person POV of the novel. Those then are just a distraction from the main part of the novel, and in queries and partials, I just want to see if you can write well enough to read past page 10/50/whatever. I don't start thinking much about how the overall novel looks/holds together till I'm reading the whole thing.

The reason prologues are difficult to write is cause mostly you DO NOT NEED THEM. Like crossword puzzles, if it gets harder and harder to figure out the right way to do it, you're on the wrong track. Trust me on this: 6 down is MISSSNARKKNOWSALL

I agree with Kristen on this one, and for those of you who are busily crafting what you think is the the exception to the rule, remember this: I skip them when I read your work. I read the first page of chapter one. If that grabs me, I might go back and see if you've managed to craft the Only Living Prologue Not to Suck.

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 not not the exception to this rule is if you think you ARE.


Anastasia said...

Does "someone who is dead" include someone who is dying during the prologue and becomes dead in the course of the book?

Jen said...

I'm so glad you emphasized this. My first ms I sent to an agent had a *gulp* prologue. She said it was "awful". This just means I'm normal. Thank God. I can join the ranks of occasional nitwittery without actually cutting my hands off.

LJCohen said...

Sigh. My book has a prologue. Happily it's not a dream, about the weather, not about someone who is dead (though it shows a murder), nor does it contain characters we never see again in the novel.

It *could* be chapter 1, but it's quite short--really scene length--and takes place approx a year before the events in the rest of the book and is the pivotal event that sets the rest of the story in motion.

Since the rest of the novel takes place in a short timespan (about 1 month) it felt awkward to place the prologue as chapter 1.

It feels more like nitwittery to put in a scene break with 'a year later. . .'

Sigh. I probably shouldn't worry about this, right? If my chapter 1 catches an agent's interest, we can talk about the prologue later.

OK. Shutting up about prologues now.

Gabriele C. said...

Another bad sort of prologue is Fantasy worldbuilding essays disguised as old chronicles. They don't get any better by the fact that they're often to be found in published books.

Either, an author manages to sneak the worldbuilding and backstory into the main story, in which case a prologue is not needed, or he doesn't, in which case the book ends against the wall and the prologue won't save it.

Termagant 2 said...

I read a lot. And I skip all prologues. I figure, if I really need the data in the prologue, I'll stick my finger in the place I left off, and read the thing.

I've never read a prologue yet that couldn't be entitled "Chapter One".

But then, I'm not an acquisitions editor. Maybe one of them has once seen a workable prologue.


Mark said...

No prologues for me, and according the novels I read short chapters are allowed. I don't hold This against Dan Brown. As the author I can take as many words as necessary to make each sentence, paragraph, and yes chapter, in order to portray the thoughts and message I want convey.

Richard Lewis said...

I just sent off a ms. with a prologue to my agent.

The main story unfolds when the protagonist is 13 yrs old.

The prologue shows her when she's four, talking with her father, who subsequently goes missing, and who is a continous presence in the novel by his mysterious disappearance.

I am the exception to the rule.

Of course, I coulda called it "Chapter 1--8 years previously"

(BTW, this isn't a tout, but if you want to judge for yourself and take me to task, I just posted this prologue and part of chapter 1 here )

McKoala said...

lj, there may be other ways of doing it - but... 'A year later' is not beautiful, but to me it's 100 times better than the type of 'getting around saying a spade is a spade'l musing that I see all too often in 'literary' novels. Let me offer a sample:

'After the leaves on the trees had browned and fallen and been trodden to mush in the winter's snows; after the tiny birds of spring had chirped their first sweet music; after the flowers of summer had bloomed and blown, then and only then was Jane able to wear her new school shoes without getting blisters. And by then, she had grown out of them.'

kis said...


same here. My prologue could easily have been chapter one, had it not been a mere five pages (most of my chapters are 15-25 pages long). I always just thought a prologue was a first taste, the little bit at the beginning, the appetizer, so to speak. I have never thought they should be set six hundred years in the past, or narrated by a god or some dried-up historian. They should be essentially no different from the rest of the book.

And as I have sent my prologue as part of all my recent queries, I sincerely hope all agents do not follow MS's example. Cause if you don't read my prologue, nothing's gonna make sense.

LeslieB said...

I dumped the prologue in the novel I'm writing now. It actually contained a crucial part of the story, but was in the wrong place. I wanted to get the story off with a bang (and mass murder is an attention getter) but I realized that by cutting out the character development that needed to come before it, I would leave the reader irritated instead of interested. So I moved it to the end of the second chapter and eliminated the prologue.

Anonymous said...

Fewer. Fewer than ten words, not less. Otherwise, of course, what she say, what she say.

eleora said...

I am facing this dilemma with my prologue. It has different viewpoint character, but it is really the hook of the book. If it was skipped, you would be wondering why you need to keep reading. So maybe I'll just make the prologue an odd-ball chapter one.

It does pass Miss Snark's prologue test.

Ken Boy said...

Every time I read something like this, I bang my head on my keyboardddddddd. Oops, sorry. There I go again.

I've tried to delete the prologue from Novel Number 1 (man, I love that title!) a couple of times now, but it keeps popping up again.

I learned my lesson with Novel Number 2 -- no prologue. Er, yet.

Anonymous said...

If the prologue hooks the reader, is it really a problem?

(point taken about not sending it as a sample, but I've enjoyed too many prologues in (fantasy) books to believe they're all bad.)

Harry Connolly said...

My chapter one is only about 350 words--It's a prologue that's trying to pass!

It's actually a framing scene, like the interview that begins and ends LITTLE BIG MAN. I know some people hate that stuff, but that's the story I wanted to write. If I'm going to make terrible, terrible mistakes, I want them to be my own terrible, terrible mistakes.

Anonymous said...

"Give me six sentences of less than ten words that tell me WHO is doing WHAT to WHOM and WHY I should give a rat's ass."
Thank you, Miss Snark for that alone.
And it's: es un milagro but I applaud you for trying to use Spanish beyond school. Free pass for you to Washington Heights!

bonniers said...

Richard Lewis -- I followed your pointer and read your prologue and chapter. It's really good stuff but I see no reason on earth not to call it Chapter 1, Chapter 2. You don't even need to say "eight years before" or "eight years later." You do such a good job of swooping into the older Eldie's world that there's no question where we are or who we're dealing with.

On the other hand, your writing is so good that your agent probably won't care what you call the first scene :)

Sarah said...

Anyone read George R.R. Martin's long and infamous prologues? The joke is that you know the random character narrating the prologue will die a gruesome death. It's become expected. I think they're fun, but then they're also well written, and in scene instead of floating around or giving exposition.

archer said...

I believe that prologuing comes from looking at your screen and thinking "Hey! I'm God!" This means you have to create the whole universe.


THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks ...

Once you get over yourself, things improve:


The decision to bomb the office of the radical Jew lawyer was made with relative ease.

I think Longfellow never got over himself, and Grisham did.

Anonymous said...

I hope an agent or editor never asks me to write a prologe. I almost never read them myself. Why would I want to ruin the discovery of what the story is about by reading a condensed version?

Steorling said...

Besides, who needs prologues when you can make more money with a PREQUEL. hehehe
(I personally enjoy writing all my trilogies backward!)

Anonymous said...

10 sentances of 10 words or less???

"Joe went to the store to buy some eggs" (9 words) He did not like the eggs because they were green (10 words). He did not buy them and killed the shop owner (10 words). He found out later that the proprietor was his girlfriend's father. (10 words)


Unable to differenciate reality from fantasy, Joe murders a grocery clerk in a moment of mental divergence. (17 words). When his girlfriend realizes Joe murdered her father, she hires an expert in torture to extract retribution (17 words). Later, she learns of his condition, but it may be too late for Joe to escape a grizzly fate (19 words).

Dave Kuzminski said...

Of my published books, only one has a prologue. I was concerned that the rest of the story needed something to make the premise more acceptable, if not believeable. In other words, even I didn't accept the initial premise because it seemed to defy logic. Then with the manuscript finished, the logical how and why came to me and I felt it was necessary to share that with the reader. Rather than renumber the chapters, I made it into a prologue since none of the characters were in the prologue as it occurred a century earlier.

It's been selling well as an ebook. Maybe I'm just a hack when it comes to writing, but I had fun writing that book and others.