A few weeks ago I posted on the problems with prologues. I admit I’ve seen some awesome prologues in published works. I’ve also seen some great ones written by unpublished writers. Even the best have problems. I remember a prologue set in the past that was so well written and so vivid I fell in love with the place and situation and wanted to know what happened next. What did happen was chapter 1, present day world, with a different voice and situation that I couldn’t care about because I loved that darned prologue setup so much and chapter 1 tore me away from it. Had this been a book instead of a contest entry I would have tossed it in frustration.
Published prologues don’t do that to me. I think part of it is the writers have more experience and knowledge of how to use the prologue to pull a reader into the present instead of leave them hanging. Or they use them for something other than supplying backstory.
One of the best prologues I’ve seen in ages is the one in Infinity by Sherrilyn Kenyon. That is characterization and stage-setting at its best (I promise I get no royalty for saying this) and whether you are a die-hard Dark Hunter fan (and I am) or a newbie to the universe, that prologue works.
Another prologue that left me unable to put down the book started with an unforgettable scene – a woman awakens in a strange bed in a strange house. She is groggy, confused, naked and its obvious her body has been sexually assaulted although she remembers nothing. She staggers from the bed and looks out the window. Below her is a swimming pool with a dead man floating in it. She collapses. And I HAD to read that book. That prologue set up a load of story questions and I could not rest until they were answered.
My third prologue wasn’t a prologue at all. The author skillfully took the events of six months earlier, events that forever changed the hero’s life, and made them chapter 2. Nor did he use something as trivial and ordinary as a flashback. Following chapter 1 where we meet the hero in his normal life and get to know him and understand what we think is his problem, the reader turns to a very short chapter 2 where he awakens from a recurring nightmare. And we watch as he struggles with the emotions that nightmare brings. In the space of two pages we learn his inner torment, what he hides from everyone else, and his motive for doing everything he does on the following pages. It could have been done as a prologue. But letting us get to know him first made the revelation more powerful.
As I said before, I’m not against prologues. But here’s my own personal experience. I had a prologue in one of my manuscripts, convinced it was necessary both to explain the hero’s horrific past and provide an aura of dread behind his first meeting with the heroine. My first letdown came when a critique partner said she had no feeling of dread at all, the events were too far in the past. Then I entered the MS in contests, sometimes with the prologue, sometimes without. Shock city, I got pretty much the same scores and comments either way. So I took the prologue out and entered the MS in the 2010 Golden Heart where it became a finalist. The information I once thought was so vital readers had to know it up front is now buried in chapter 8 as part of the hero’s reminiscing about the past with his brother. Not that important to know about up front after all. My lesson – readers do not need to know the entire history of the universe on page one.