My Freelance Editing Services
Read about me
My writing tips organized by topic.
Read what others have said about me and my blog.
Connect with me on social media.

Monday, June 11, 2018

How Prologues Actually Function & 6 Types to Consider




In a lot of ways, I'm an atypical person, but one of the ways I'm atypical is that I actually love prologues, and always have. As a teenager, I would be excited when I opened a book that said "Prologue"--years later I'd learn over and over again that a lot of people in the writing industry actually hate prologues! And the first few times I heard that, I was baffled.

I think some of the hate stems from not understanding how they actually function or when to best use them--two things I'm going to cover today.

First, let's talk about some of the reasons why people have said not to use prologues.

1. Some readers (can't remember the exact stats, but I think it might have been half) skip prologues anyway.

2. Story openings are very difficult to write, and by having a prologue, you are having to essentially write two openings--why would you do that to yourself? And you have to win the audience over--twice!

3. Prologues often contain unnecessary information, so you can just discard them. Start with the beginning of the story--chapter one!

I don't know about you, but all of these explanations left me wanting. And none of them felt like good enough reasons to ax prologues altogether (especially the second--if you want to be a writer, you probably won't make it far if you are scared of difficulty). Furthermore, a couple of years ago I perused bookshelves at a bookstore and found loads of novels that opened with prologues. Huh? Haven't I been advised not to do that?

You mean I don't actually have to hate prologues as much as I've been told?

Let's dig into them.

The Most Important Function of a Prologue

You can look all over online about when and why you should or should not use a prologue, and I'll touch on some of that in the types. But in my opinion at its bare bones--when you strip away all the differences between prologues out there--prologues are about making promises of one kind or another to the audience. That is the main function of a prologue.

Like all writing rules, there may be some exceptions to that once in a while, but I'd argue almost always prologues = promises.

Some might say that prologues only relate to giving out information that the audience can't get otherwise. I think it's fair to use them that way, but not all good prologues actually function that way, and even those that do still simultaneously makes promises. The promise comes from giving that information.

Prologues are also often displaced from the rest of the novel in some way--so one might argue that's what makes a prologue. But when I look at prologues, that doesn't quite hold up either. The only function that seems to, is promises.

Now, there are a lot of different promises you can make.

- You can make an emotional promise by communicating to the audience what kind of emotions this story is going to appeal to.

- You can make a promise about what kind of plot this story is going to have. Does the prologue cover an old unsolved murder case that's gone cold? The reader will assume the plot is going to involve that.

- You can make thematic promises about the theme topic or what sort of takeaway value this story might have.

- You can make promises about a type of character.

- About a relationship.

- About worldbuilding, setting, or a time period.

- Or about any kind of draws that your audience picked up your book or genre for in the first place.

- And you can make promises by foreshadowing

But most of the time, the most important function of a prologue is that it makes promises. For some, that might come strictly by providing information. But if you provide information with no sense of promise, it's probably a lousy prologue.

Some of you might be wondering if the first chapter of the story makes promises anyway, why do you need a prologue?

It's true that many, if not most, stories don't need a prologue at all. There are enough clear promises in the first chapter, and enough information in the actual novel, and adding a prologue would make the story weaker.

But for the stories that would benefit, there are a few different kinds of prologues with different functions that you might want to consider when you are wondering about packaging those additional promises (or critiquing someone else's).

Types of Prologues

Theatrical



I've talked in a previous post that in the film industry, there are two types of movie trailers: the theatrical trailer and the teaser trailer. (And what do trailers do? They make promises to audiences about what kind of movie this is going to be.)

A theatrical trailer is longer than a teaser trailer. It conveys the basic plot of the story. It communicates what the story is about. It gives us the setup. Here is an example of a theatrical trailer. (Notice how the setup is clear and chronological.)




Books are obviously a different format, but you can have a theatrical prologue in the same way.

The prologue promises what the plot is going to be about and clues us into the setup.

It simply introduces an overall plot of the story or series that may not be the main focus in the beginning chapters of the book itself--so it's a prologue.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater is a good example of this, and you can read it here.

This is the opening line to give you a good idea:

Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she'd been told she'd kill her true love.

The prologue goes on to introduce us to the sorts of magic the book includes (psychics and fortune-telling, for example). It introduces us to the setting. It establishes a particular lifestyle, or what's "normal" and ends on something (or someone) that changes that normal.

But the prologue continues to come back to the same topic: If Blue kisses her true love, he will die.

This gives us a sense of what this book series will probably be about. But since this is the first book, it's not going to be the sole focus, so the prologue is a good place for the introduction.


Teaser



In film, teaser trailers are different than theatrical trailers. While theatrical trailers make promises to the audience by conveying the setup and introducing the plot, teaser trailers make promises to the audiences by focusing largely on raw emotional appeals.

Here is an example of a teaser trailer.



Notice how unlike the theatrical trailer, we don't really get a clear setup or plot. Sure, we see and hear snippets of it, but the trailer functions off making promises to the audience about what kinds of emotions they'll experience if they watch this movie.

Teasers lack context--that's one reason why they are so short (and why they are teasers). You can't hold an audience long if you don't give them enough context. But the audience knows that if they go to the movie, they will get the context and plot.

Some prologues are teasers. They promise a certain experience and also promise that if the audience reads the story, they will understand (aka, get the context) the event. I did a whole post on teasers here, so I'm not going to repeat everything.

I know a lot of people don't like Twilight, but I'm actually fine with the series. And I'm aware that technically the opening is a "Preface," but I'm going to grab it because it's an example of opening with a teaser nonetheless:

I'd never given much thought to how I would die — though I'd had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.

Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.

I knew that if I'd never gone to Forks, I wouldn't be facing death now. But, terrified as I was, I couldn't bring myself to regret the decision. When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it's not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.

The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me. 

Notice we don't get a lot of context. We don't know exactly what's happening or how the character got here. But the passage makes emotional (maybe even thematic) promises to the audience of what will be included in the story.

Stephenie Meyer's The Host does open with a prologue that is teaserly as well. And so does I am Number Four. We lack a lot of context when we start reading, but it will become clearer as we get into the actual novel.

Dual Draws



Some opening chapters have quite different draws (or promises) than later chapters. A prologue might be a good way to bridge that and help balance the appeals for the audience.

The Greatest Showman is a perfect example of this.

The story really starts with Barnum being a child. He doesn't even come up with the circus until maybe a third into the movie. Filmmakers understand, though, that one of the film's major appeals is the circus. So what did they do?

They essentially opened with a "prologue"--promising the audience a set of draws that can't fit into the actual beginning--because Barnum hasn't made the circus yet.

It's arguably one of the best film openings today.

Here is the opening.




And here is the actual "first chapter."



This is a case in particular where having two "openings" really is a strength. By having dual openings, you can showcase the story's draws on opposite sides of the spectrum. So, within the first 15 minutes of The Greatest Showman you get a taste of the spectacle and the fantastical of the circus as well as the personal and intimate conflicts and relationships that Barnum has.

Use this prologue when some of the powerful appeals don't appear until later in the story, so that you can promise them to the audience right out of the gate.

Christopher Paolini's Eragon might be a a good example of this. In the prologue, we get a sense of battle and other creatures and magic and even dragons, but the protagonist himself doesn't really encounter those things until later in the story. The prologue promises that those things will come.

Alternative Viewpoint



For some stories, the audience would benefit from information or a perspective that the main viewpoint character or characters can't give. Sometimes prologues are in a different viewpoint to give the audience access to that information.

The City of Ember is an example of this.

The characters don't really have access to what the builders of the city knew. So the prologue is used to convey that to the audience.

When the city of Ember was just built and not yet inhabited, the Chief Builder and the Assistant Builder, both of them weary, sat down to speak of the future.

"They must not leave the city for at least two hundred years," said the Chief Builder. "Or perhaps two hundred and twenty."

"Is that long enough?" asked his Assistant.

"It should be. We can't know for sure."

"And when the time comes," said the Assistant, "how will they know what to do?"

"We'll provide them with instructions, of course," the Chief Builder replied.

"But who will keep the instructions? Who can we trust to keep them safe and secret all that time?"

"The mayor of the city will keep the instructions," said the Chief Builder. "We'll put them in a box with a timed lock, set to open on the proper date."

In any case, promises come through the information and context given to the audience (that the main characters don't have and therefore can't give.)

Sometimes the prologue may be different in how viewpoint is actually handled. It might be in second person when the story is in third. In third person with the novel is in first. But the decision should have a point and not be random.

Time Displacement



Use a prologue when you need to include scenes (in order to provide context and promises and/or foreshadowing or information) that take place during a different time than the rest of the novel--when it's out of sequence with the rest of the story. Usually this means that the prologue takes place in the past, but it can also mean future. It may or may not have the same viewpoint character.

Some of you might laugh, but the first chapter of Harry Potter is a good example of this. I'm aware that it's called a first chapter, but go read it again, and you'll realize it's really a prologue in disguise (maybe the people behind it didn't like prologues and thought it would be clever to call it chapter one). The entire chapter takes place about a decade before the rest of the story (also in other viewpoints), when Harry is a baby. It's out of sync with the rest of the novel and we don't meet Harry until the end. It also contains elements of the other prologue types I've outlined here. In fact, like many prologues, you could essentially skip the first chapter of Harry Potter--though that gives you an entirely different opening context since you don't have that information or those promises. (Sort of like starting The Greatest Showman with Barnum as a child.)


Informational



Like some of the others, this one can blend in and overlap with the different types, but just to help us with discernment, and because I have a few things to say about it, I'm making it its own category.

Some people say that a prologue is only good if it contains essential information--but that simply is not the case. You could cut off a lot of teaser prologues, dual draw prologues, and even others and still follow the story. (Besides, if half of readers skip a prologue, then you sometimes have to weave that information in another way anyway.) Like I said, you could cut off the first chapter of Harry Potter and you'll essentially get all the information you missed in other parts of the story. This is why I argue that it's promises, not information, that is the driving force of prologues. You can cut off the opening of The Greatest Showman and you would miss out on zero information (what you miss out on is the promises).

But some prologues are strictly there to provide information to the audience, and in some rare cases a prologue might be the only way to deliver that (skip at your own risk). In order to be good though, that information is going to provide promises too (and not read like an info-dump).

Star Wars movies essentially start with an informational prologue--but remember, books and movies are different, and if you write a prologue like Star Wars does at the front of your story it will not be acceptable by today's standards. Lord of the Rings (both book and movie) has an informational prologue--which once again would actually not be acceptable to write in today's day and age in front of a novel. Why? Because it will come across as an info-dump and probably read kind of boring. (Does anyone actually remember the real book prologue to Lord of the Rings? It's basically a long author note about Hobbits.) The Fellowship's prologue on Hobbits worked in Tolkien's time, but it wouldn't get published today. (Because of film and technology, audiences today don't need that much help and guidance to imagine and understand something that doesn't exist in the real world.)

This is one way that I see prologues go wrong. The prologue should almost never read like an info-dump. Instead, think of the information you need to convey and see if you can convey it in a nice scene. An actual scene, with a character and event.

The City of Ember example doubles as an informational prologue. It's telling the audience the beginnings of the city. Notice that it has the audience focus on actual characters having a conversation, and isn't just a big long paragraph of the narrator giving out information.

Sometimes the information itself isn't essential, but is instead significant in some way. The other night I watched The Prestige (cause you know I love Christopher Nolan's writing and seeing Hugh Jackman performing spectacle shows in the 19th century). The opening works as a prologue, but the information isn't necessarily vital to understanding the story. Instead, it's important because it introduces a theme weaved into the movie. With the prologue the audience can watch the film with the idea that the knowledge will be significant in some way. (Notice how the film example doubles as a teaser.)

Here is the opening.



More Types

I'm sure there are more types you could categorize, and I'll have to keep my eyes out for them. And as I said above, many prologues fit into more than one type. But I still think it's helpful to have the categories, because it helps us understand them.



People often don't understand that because a prologue works differently than the rest of the novel--that's why it's a prologue and not just lumped in with everything else--it can't usually be criticized like the rest of the novel.

And because people don't understand the true core of their function (promises), prologues can draw a lot of (inaccurate) criticism from critique groups and others.

I've been to a number of writing conferences where editors have said they always skip the prologue in a submission. I used to think it was because they didn't like prologues--hated them even. Now that I'm an editor, I find myself doing the same thing--and I like prologues. It's not because it's bad. It's because it functions differently. And I'm geared up to be critical of the first chapter. So often I'll skip or just scan the prologue and come back later to take a closer look--a clearer look--when I have a better idea of how that prologue should be functioning in relation to the rest of the work (and the promises it should be making). For example, if the prologue is a teaser, I'll read through it, but often wait until I get more context to come back and edit it. But whatever the case, you should always be looking at the promises it's making.

7 comments:

  1. I, as a reader, prefer the books to have a prologue! Prologues give me an overall outlook of what i have to expect from the story and they put me in the right clime! So, yes! I think they are important!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yay! Another person who likes prologues! Sorry for the late reply--for some reason I haven't been getting notified about all my comments! I've changed the settings now to see if it helps.

      Delete
    2. No problem! I want to say that i am not a writter or a hardcore reader, but i really enjoy reading your articles! I following you three years now and i have learned a lot of interesting things! Not only about writting! The first article i read was The Hunger Games article and you make me understand so many things that i didn't know as a fan of the trilogy!🙂 So from that day i never missed any of your articles!
      Thank you and keep your great work September! ❤️

      Delete
    3. Stathis Mrd,

      Wow, thank you so much! I love the Hunger Games and had so much fun writing those. I feel so loved :) Thank you for letting me know!

      Delete
  2. This is such a well written and informative post. Loved this. I dont hate prologues myself, in fact I kind of judge the book by it. I do agree that sometimes prologues are just fillers (I am guilty of doing that myself.) but I would never skip one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Yes, no skipping for me either! Sorry for the late reply--for some reason I haven't been getting notified about all my comments! I've changed the settings now to see if it helps.

      Delete

I love comments :)