Mark Terry

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Problem With Prologues

July 24, 2007

I've got problems with prologues. Not reading them. I know a lot of readers bitch about books with prologues. My oldest son routinely skips them if the book has a prologue.

THE SERPENT'S KISS doesn't have a prologue. THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK does. Only one person complained to me about the prologue in PITCHFORK and luckily it wasn't my editor

My oldest son once asked me when you should use a prologue. My answer is one I believe is still reasonable. Use a prologue when you need to include a scene or information that does not occur in the same timeframe or location of the body of the novel.

Which is essentially what I did with PITCHFORK. The prologue takes place during the first Gulf War back in 1991 and it essentially introduces the two main characters and their relationship to each other. Could the book have done without it? Possibly. But otherwise Derek, the main character, wouldn't appear until about chapter 2 or 3 and I wanted to set up the relationship--I wanted readers to "see" the relationship and I also wanted to start off with something exciting.

One of my problems, I noticed today, with some of the manuscripts I've played around with over the years, is that I write a really exciting prologue and then skip to something else. I noticed that over the years on this blog I have posted what are essentially prologues to unpublished or incompleted novels, and in both cases, once the prologue is over the novel jumps to something and somewhere else. The prologues are a way to start off a novel with a bang when the story itself doesn't start quickly, and they're character building. Which may not necessarily be the best way to do things.

According to standard story structure, this isn't a good idea. I guess.

Here's an example. It's a novel I've been playing around with and I put the first few pages here on the blog a while back and this story won't quite leave me alone.

In the prologue, a CIA agent named Monaco Grace is in Kuala Lampur pursuing an Indonesian computer guy who had been working in the U.S. for a security firm affiliated with the NSA and he had stolen a prototype computer chip and given it to the Indonesian government. The US had asked for it back, the Indonesians had said, "What computer chip?" and the U.S. sent Monaco Grace to KL to basically kill the Indonesian guy as a reminder to the Indonesian government not to fuck around with the United States. In the course of that, she ends up protecting the man's daughter, whose father she has just killed.

End of prologue.

I like it. A lot, as a matter of fact. There's all this wonderful action and color and characterization.

Then the story skips basically to China, which is what the novel is about. Monaco is sent to Beijing to determine what happened to one of the CIA's NOCs (non-official covers) who has disappeared.

Hmmm. How are these two related? In fact, they aren't except for character building. And there's a part of me that thinks I should leave it as is because I like it and there's another part of me, perhaps the more experienced professional part of me, that thinks I need either a different prologue or a different story, one that takes place in Indonesia and involves Monaco on a mission there. (Hmmm, two novels for the price of one!)

The fact is, I don't really know. And I'm starting to get a glimmer that this may be a particular problem of my own. In fact, the prologue to THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK was originally written for a different novel which didn't work out. But I liked the prologue and kept trying to write stories around it until I found the right one. And now that I think about it, I've done this a number of times (maybe in ten years I can published a collection of unpublished prologues, hmmm).

So, ultimately, I guess the problem with prologues is that they're sometimes disconnected from the actual story you're trying to tell. And that's (probably) a bad thing.

So I wonder if a prologue about the NOC who disappears might be a better idea. Hmmm...


Mark Terry


Blogger Joe Moore said...

Including a prologue is a tough call. Because of the main character and all her “baggage” in our Cotten Stone Mystery series, Lynn Sholes and I always include a prologue. But we try to make it only a page in length—two at the most. That way, hopefully, the reader will take the few seconds to read it. But as much as I value prologues in our books, I rarely read them in others. I guess it’s just the desire to jump into the story and avoid a slow or sluggish start. I want the here and now, not the before. Cut to the chase.

Of course, the easiest way to get around the problem is to call the prologue Chapter One.

6:23 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I suppose one of the things you can do is just writing the novel, then go back and look at the prologue and decide if it works or not.

I know that in this story with Monaco Grace, chapter one is not action oriented at all. It's the Operations Director of the CIA talking to the Special Operations Director of the CIA discussing whether or not he thinks Monaco, after the way she behaved in Indonesia, is too much of an unpredictable agent to take on the mission in China. The SOD insists that Monaco is high first choice for any short-term mission in Asia, despite the fact that she goes out of the way to protect non-combatants, as she did in Indonesia (a behavior that the SOD suggests dryly in most parts of the civilized world would be considered appropriate behavior, even if the CIA tends not to think so).

This conversation wouldn't be a good place to start the novel. But I feel that the conflict between these two men and the should-we-send-Monaco-debate is going to have significant repercussions later in the novel.

Well, nobody said this was easy, did they?

6:46 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Skipping prologues blindly, as a rule, irritates the heck out of me. Because people do it, I tend towards Joe's solution of calling the prologue Chapter One.

Your rule is a good one. Starting with action can also be another good reason, as you did. With a two-paragraph skim being our brief chance to hook a reader, you practically have to start with action, even if it doesn't fit narrative order.

In Joe Finder's last novel, Power Play, he prologues with a bit of the novel's climax, then starts back a bit with Chapter One. Not only does it create suspense, but it's also going to hook readers who wouldn't be hooked by the character development/setup in Chapter One.

And then you have Konrath's prologues, which are just really damn good, LOL.

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