Today’s post is a guest post by Lucas Aubrey Paynter, the author of Outcasts of the Worlds. The author has written a post about prologues, and I thought it offered an interesting perspective. I have nothing against prologues, but I know many people who won’t even give a book a shot if it has a prologue. For all those who are absolutely against prologues, I definitely recommend your read this guest post.
In Defense of the Prologue
Entering the world of writing, I had come to discover along the way that there exists an underlying disdain for the noble prologue I wasn’t previously aware existed. Perhaps I haven’t read enough of the right things, enough material that had the sorts of prologue that got the device to be so maligned, but here it is, as I understand it:
The prologue as a device is often used badly by new and amateur writers and is (apparently!) a consistent trait in works that depends more on an appeal to emotions than actual good scripting.
So let’s get the obvious out of the way: what is a prologue? Dictionary definitions aside, a prologue would seem to exist as a preface to the work, as a piece of the story that’s somewhat apart from it but has an overall place in it.
I would argue that despite being labeled as chapters, the openings of many of Rowling’s Harry Potter books are very much prologues. The structure of the books as a whole focus on Harry, but many of these first chapters discuss characters whose actions have affected Harry’s life or world without him being present at all. They serve the larger story, but otherwise exist apart from them.
Similarly, I would examine Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, where each film opening with a prologue that, again, compliments the narrative but functions apart from it: the first film gives primer for Middle Earth’s history, the second provides an alternate view on a major event in the previous film, and the third is the backstory of a character that would not necessarily lend itself as well to the main story because of its chronological distance.
That should establish the “what” nicely; next we ask: why is a prologue? Aside from being grammatically awkward, why do we need/want prologues?
Nella, a contributor to chezapocalypse.com had this to say on the prologue of Colleen Houck’s Tiger’s Curse as she began her opening salvo of ripping into the text:
Guys, no books needs a prologue. NO. BOOK. I promise you we will get to chapter one and we’ll all look back on this prologue and think Why. WHY? This could have been at most a flashback, at best, DELETED. There are no stakes yet, no connection, just set up, and set up we don’t need.”
Disclosure: the book I’ve written has a prologue.
To state no book needs a prologue suggests that every book that has used a prologue has never used it well. As stated prior, I’ve encountered a share of book whose first chapter (sometimes first several chapters) read much like a prologue, where a span of time separates the protagonist’s formative years (where some key events have shaped them or will be called back to) to the present time where the main story begins.
A rose by any other name, as it were.
I will now shamelessly bring my own work to the table. It will happen only this once, and I will speak in general terms as odds are good that you haven’t read my book yet.
Outcasts of the Worlds has a prologue, yes. The opening event occurs several days after the story starts and, when the fourth chapter is reached, it picks up after the events of the prologue. My intention was three-fold: one, to introduce the protagonist of the story and establish something about his character more quickly than the first chapter itself allows for.
Second, I place a degree of faith in the reader to connect the events of the prologue, the three chapters between and the place we find ourselves in chapter four, and to bring it all together. Ideally, the events that played out were striking enough that this works, though I’ll concede this is all subject to interpretation.
Third—and I feel this is the most important part—the prologue in Outcasts of the Worlds is a promise to the reader. This may not apply to every book out there, perhaps not many at all. As the title suggests, Outcasts is a story spanning multiple worlds, but the first chapters begin on just one: Earth, and a ruined Earth at that. Starting the story in a grim, post-apocalyptic place sets a tone, and one that I don’t want to have dictating the reader’s expectations for the entire book to come. The prologue promises that the characters will reach another place, and sooner rather than later, and asks the reader come along for the ride.
So endeth the self-citation.
A prologue should function to generate interest and create intrigue but the problem with relying on it solely for these functions is that, as Nella states, there are no stakes yet.
Dire situations and prophetic dreams may be interesting on principal for their own merits, but demand attachment that can’t be forced. This isn’t to say danger and death are inherently out, but rather they shouldn’t be the sole focus of the prologue chapter. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, for example (yes, the book, not the show) does soon kill many of the characters it opens with, but it does so in a way that establishes the world in which its set, and establishes a facet of the larger plot to come. It’s an event that works because it couldn’t have occurred in the same way around the main characters, and because it establishes a greater certainty about the White Walkers than the main text allows, precisely because so many people believe them to be myth. The reader is given the privilege to know better on the outset, and thus has more reason to pay attention when the matter of the Walkers are brought up.
I’ll wrap up here, but I would like to close by advising readers to consider the function and purpose of their prologue carefully. I was still writing Outcasts of the Worlds when I discovered this discontent to it (I believe I discovered it during a time I was looking into finding a literary agent) and considered whether my prologue could be outright removed, or blended into the first part of chapter four, and felt that in both cases it either could not or it would be a disservice to the narrative if I did.
Whether I was right or wrong is of course a matter of debate, but readers and writers alike will have to find out for themselves.
About The Book
Author: Lucas Aubrey Paynter
Genre: SciFi Fantasy
Beyond the remnants of Earth lie many worlds, connected by pathways forgotten and invisible. They were left by the gods and have been found by Flynn.
A confidence man. A liar. A monster. Flynn has seen himself for what he really is and has resolved to pay for everything. Even if it means spending the rest of his days locked in Civilis, a tower prison for society’s unwanted – “half-humans” gifted by the fallout of nuclear holocaust centuries past.
Jean, a prisoner in the neighboring cell, has different ideas and despite himself, Flynn finds himself joining her daring escape. After rescuing her friend Mack, the three flee Civilis as Flynn pieces together the hours before his capture and finds himself drawn to an abandoned facility where a rift to another world opens at his nearing.
Together they will venture farther beyond the stars than humanity ever imagined, find others like them that will never belong, and tangle with forces both ancient and immortal. They stand alone, hated and scorned – and the last hope of making things right in a cosmos gone terribly wrong.
Lucas Aubrey Paynter holds a Creative Writing degree from California State University Northridge—which looks really good when one talks about how they want to write for a living. A fan of engaging storytelling in any medium, he spent years developing the worlds, characters and conflicts that Flynn and his company encounter, before settling at his desk and writing Outcasts of the Worlds, the first part of a much larger tale to come.
Currently residing with his wife in Burbank, California, Lucas enjoys reading in a variety of formats, potentially overanalyzing character motivations and arcs, and the occasional good, stiff drink.
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