The Dreaded Prologue

by K. C. Maguire

After an amazing writing retreat last week and re-reading some of Nancy Kress’s craft book (Beginnings, Middles, & Ends), I have prologues on my mind. I considered a prologue for my first YA novel (Inside the Palisade), but ultimately removed it pre-publication. I thought my attempt at a prologue for that book was kind of stilted and pretentious. I haven’t attempted a prologue since, which is probably a good idea given the collective wisdom shared by agents and editors at most writers conferences in recent years. But I remain fascinated by the move against prologues, given that they can sometimes do useful things for a book.

Kress points out that prologues can be useful when the reader needs to know something that happens much earlier or later in time than the main story or that is told in a different voice to the main story (a voice that won’t be used again in the main narrative). She also discusses prologues that present documents important to the story like newspaper articles, court documents, or personal letter (Kress, pp 29-30). Written well and used effectively, she notes that they can whet the reader’s appetite for the story. Of course, used badly they can give the reader yet another excuse to put down your book.

The example of a good prologue that Kress uses that always sticks in my mind is the opening scene in the first Jurassic Park movie – and I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if it opens the same way. That’s the scene where the park worker is killed horribly and violently by an animal we never see. It drawers the viewer in for the rest of the story. Why can’t more books achieve that? Why are we so anti-prologue?

The only prologues that turn me off as a reader tend to be long-winded fantasy prologues that go on for pages and have lots of place and character names with apostrophes in them that are at least four or five syllables long. Other than that, I don’t have a strong anti-prologue feeling.

What do other folks think? Are there prologues you particularly like or particularly hate?

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