Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Prologue & Epilogue: To Write or Not to Write

I picked up a few books this summer to read on flights, hotel rooms and just to take my mind off hassles at the end of a work day. Four of the five had prologues. I learned my lesson with this particular writing convenience a few years ago when the prologue of a potentially interesting Regency novel by a well known New York Times best-selling author ruined my enjoyment by giving away the only intriguing element of the plot.

Since then, I have stirred clear of reading prologues and I have ceased to write them.

What is the attraction for writers? It is a handy way to present information that the reader needs to discover without having to weave backstory into the plot.

In the case of the above Regency novel, the heroine’s husband’s disappearance has thrown her into a scandalous position putting her outside polite society. She doesn’t know how her husband has died but, thanks to the prologue, the reader does. Although the writer made an effort to create mysterious circumstances the plot goes dead.

The heroine is in danger. From whom? The reader already knows: the woman who killed her husband. What has happened to the intrigue, the actual reason for reading the book? Gone. Did I finish reading the book? No. Other than the possible mystery, there was no other element to engage me. The prologue had answered the only question with any potential of an interesting read.

The book I’m currently reading also has a prologue. I skipped it. Aside from the full name of a south seas island, everything the reader needs to know is covered in the story. So why is the prologue there? One of the first style elements I was taught in English writing was to avoid redundancy but it seems that basic element is ignored when Word Count is the Supreme Ruler.

I can be persuaded to accept a prologue in some cases. In his latest western for Avalon Books, The Last Outlaw, Stone Wallace offers a prologue that creates questions in the reader’s mind requiring answers and sets up a situation the hero, Cash McCall, must face. This particular example leads the reader into the story and in some ways is not a prologue at all but a “medilogue”. Our introduction to Cash and his dilemma is a scene within this novel, answering no questions but inviting us to seek answers by reading further. Wallace’s skillful handling of this crucial moment, what proceeds it and the final outcome kept me engaged with the characters and the story.

I’m not one to read the end of a book to determine whether I want to read the whole.

An epilogue, much the same as the end titles of docudramas – where the final resting place of the people is presented in white lettering on a black screen – is another convenience. If the ending itself is not satisfactory, the writer seems to be giving the reader an alternative reality, a way of making up for not tying all the loose ends without having to write anymore. I know how tempting this is. As Eugene O'Neill once said, “Sometimes, life ends on a comma.” So be it.

My final word on this subject:

“These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.” – Groucho Marks

7 comments:

Beate Boeker said...

I read prologues because they often hitch up the tension by giving a glimpse of something that will happen later - and because I don't want to miss something vital.
However, I prefer a book that starts with a good hook and without a prologue!

I.J. Parnham said...

As long as the prologue has a hook and it isn’t a throat clearing exercise I don't mind them, a bit like teasers before the titles in tv series.

I rarely use them myself, but in my last western something traumatic happened to my hero as a child and that set in motion the novel's events twenty years later. Explaining that trauma as backstory gave the hero's motivation no emotional power. Sticking in a flashback broke the flow of the story and anyhow I hate flashbacks. So in the end I made a scene out of the earlier events and it became a prologue.

Sarita said...

It's such a hard call. I've read prologues I've really liked. Others, not so much. It depends on the book, I think.

Jayne Ormerod... said...

Prologues and epilogues are story dependant. I do read them, of course, because I don't like to miss anything! But there is NOTHING WORSE than to read a prologue that either like you mentioned ruins the story or has absolutely no bearing on the story at all! They were quite fashionable for a while, but I think they h ave fallen out of favor. Like Beate, I prefer to be dropped right into the middle of the action!

Sandy Cody said...

Provocative post, Leigh. I usually read prologues because I read everything. A few times I've been sorry that I did so because, as happened to you, it has ruined the story by telling too much. In a case like Ian's, though, it can be best way to get the information to the reader. I stay away from them when I'm writing though.

Leigh Verrill-Rhys said...

The example I gave of a prologue that works did a good job of hitching up the tension, giving a foretaste of impending drama as well as set the reader right in the middle of the story. I agree that they are sometimes necessary and I think Ian has set out the benchmark. There has to be a reason other than filling in gaps because it's convenient. And definitely no spoilers.

TDjones said...

I always wonder to should I write them or not. I've been known to skip over them so I don't want a reader doing the same thing to my books.