From my article for Avalon Authors, on August 23, 2011
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