Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Prologues by Tamara Hogan

"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. 
I have committed Prologue,
repeatedly, gleefully and joyfully..." 

Yeah, okay. I realize that I'm risking a lighning bolt on this one. But here in the confessional, I can freely admit that I LOVE PROLOGUES - well-written prologues, that is.

Prologues: love 'em or hate 'em? This is a subject where authors, agents, editors and readers all seem to have strong opinions. Writers on the contest circuit are told that agents and editors hate prologues - or do they love them this year? I forget. ;-)

Right now, a lot of us here at Sourcebooks Casablanca are judging manuscripts and/or books for two of Romancelandia's most prestigious writing contests: The Romance Writers of America's Golden Heart and RITA awards. As a rabid reader, I judge a lot of contests, primarily in the paranormal/urban fantasy/futuristic/time-travel/fantasy/sci-fi/space opera/ 'how many more sub-genres can be crammed into one monolithic, hyper-competitive category' category. (One of my RITA books is a historical paranormal, competing in the paranormal category.) Books in these sub-genres seem ripe for prologues, perhaps in part because of their complex worldbuilding demands.

Having received both of my judging packets - what possessed me to volunteer to judge both contests plus the Daphne with a book being released March 1? - I paged through my judging materials and found the following:

  • 3 of 6 paranormal Golden Heart entries have prologues
  • 3 of 6 paranormal RITA entries have prologues
  • 0 of 2 romantic suspense RITA entries have prologues 
I'm no different. I've gleefully committed Prologue in Taste Me, Book One of The Underbelly Chronicles (releasing March 1 OMG can you believe it???!!). The book starts in my antagonist's POV, where he commits the crime that catalyzes the action in the rest of the book. I'm just about to type THE END on the manuscript for Underbelly Chronicles Book Two, Chase Me. This book doesn't have a prologue. It doesn't seem to need one.

How do you feel about prologues? What are some characteristics of good (or bad) prologues? Though there no easy answers, do you have any thoughts on how the 'paranormal' category of some writing contests could be narrowed down or made more specific?


  1. Sometimes I use a prologue, sometimes I don't. It all depends on the story. I'm told prologue is two chances to grab the reader, two chances to set a hook, etc, but it's also two chances to lose the reader. Mostly, I think a prologue must do what any other opening has to do, with just a tad more potential for creating questions in the reader's mind that will pull her forward into the book.

  2. Wonderful image and post, Tammy! I do love reading prologues, it like the author is letting the reader in on a special secret/added info about either the hero or the heroine before they tell us the story.

    I have written prologues in my historicals--both Medieval and 1870s Colorado--but not all of my books need them. I let the story and the characters unfold and then decide.

  3. Like Grace and CH and you said, they have to have good purpose to be included. Most of my books don't have a prologue because they just don't need them. But in one, I tried writing without a prologue because I was told by writers that readers HATE prologues. Editors HATE prologues. Agents HATE prologues. Even though lots of books of every genre have prologues. And most I've loved and felt if the prologue wasn't there, the stories wouldn't have had half the impact.

    I had a problem with this story. The story wouldn't work without it!

    I kept trying to show the love of two people by "talking" about it later--as back story--to avoid writing the prologue. It wouldn't work. It just couldn't convey the love of the two characters. No matter what, I had to show that passion and conflict in a prologue. I HAD to. And so I did. :)

    And then there are epilogues...

  4. As a reader, I don't mind prologues if they're well done. As a writer, I always use them because my series is complex. My villains are demons who've been around for nearly a thousand years, and the story is hinged on a pivotal event that happened way in the past, maybe centuries prior, so I don't see any way to do it other than a prologue.

  5. I've written prologues for several of my books. One, when I wanted the reader to know right up front the hell the hero had been through earlier in his life, and others simply to hook the reader with something really hot or explanatory. Other times, they weren't necessary. I think it depends on the book.

  6. I like prologues when they're intriguing, and push you forward because you want to know how they relate to the main story. But I never use them - my stories are linear, and I've never had a reason to.
    I think editors and agents say they "hate" them becuase new writers often put in prologues for the wrong reason; they're starting the story in the wrong place, at moment that doesn't have enough conflict, so they pin a prologue on the front to add excitement. A well-written prologue isn't just there to make up for the shortcomings of Chapter 1!

  7. I want to include prologues because, like others have said, I write para-rom where usually at least one of the chars (if not both the hero & heroine) are several hundred years old and a particular event was inciting...and took place two hundred+ years ago. Unfortunately, the one time I've trotted out my prologue the voice was so incredibly different than in the modern world, and the chars portrayed so differently...it turned people off.

    So - I like prologues, want to use them, but it's something I've learned has to be (as the Wicked Witch said) "handled deeelicately." (insert Margaret Hamilton cackle here)

  8. I like prologues and have used them often. I think a good one creates questions about the story to come and makes the reader want to dive in.

  9. Interesting to note the stats on your contest judging.... would be interested in a similar comparison in books in prin across the board... I'll have to start paying closer attention! Cool blog!

  10. @Grace - you're right, it all depends on the story. Good point about creating questions. In TASTE ME, the hero and the villain are both incubi. Spending a little time in his head in the Prologue gave me an opportunity to start planting some clues about what's 'normal' and what's not.

    @C.H. - yes, I love prologues where the reader gets some important inside information that the hero and heroine don't get.

    @Terry - oooh, epilogues. Seems like with both prologues and epilogues, you run the risk of turning the reader off. I tend to not be a fan of "and now comes the baby" epilogues - but some readers love them.

    @Anita - yes, I think prologues can be immensely useful when the world you're building, or a character's lifespan, spans milennnia. Sometimes the inciting incident of a story is waaaaay back in time.

    @Cheryl - yes, a prologue can be a great place to supply some critical information that drives the plot, or illuminates the motivation of a hero or heroine. When I'm reading unpublished manuscripts for contests, turning the prologue into a backstory dump is an issue I frequently see...as mentioned by...

    @Joanne. I think if I read as many manuscripts with poorly-executed prologues as agents and editors did, I might grow to 'hate' them, too!

    @Tory, the issue you describe - about a historically-set prologue and contemporary-set Chapter 1 - is also an issue I see rather frequently in contest manuscripts. I haven't seen too many aspiring writers who are equally adept writing contemporary and historical; one voice tends to be more confident than the other, unfortunately showcasing a weakness in the manuscript. Yes, I agree that this is an issue to be handled with kid gloves.

    @Shana - yes, I think a great prologue makes you quickly flip the page to see what the heck will happen next!

    @Catherine, I'd definitely be interested in the prologue trends that others see in their judging packets, particularly for other subgenres. Not being eligible for either the GH or RITA this year, I figured I'd judge paranormal as a last hurrah!

  11. I'm in the boat with Grace. Sometimes I use them, sometimes not! When I read a book, I don't care if it's a prologue or chapter one, I want to be hooked from the first sentence.
    Truth since we're in confessional, here, Tamara! LOL! I wasn't aware there was a controversy over them ... goes to show that I'm learning something new today. Guess that's what happens when someone has to explain what RWA is after I'd sold ten books; and because I went to my first RWA conference after I'd sold fifty! LOL. (shhhhh, I'm writing this while hiding under my desk ... lightning bolts dancing around me)!

  12. @Carolyn, LOL! My membership in RWA has helped me so much - taught me so much. But I think it's a positive thing to remember that there are publishing experiences and perspectives where RWA plays no part. I participated in the Twitter #ufchat last Saturday, and was momentarily thrown for a loop at how openly and readily some participants expressed their complete distain for any whiff of romance that might sneak into their UF. UF romance was called "smut" and "porn." Numerous people expressed clear discomfort with any romantic content in UF. Poor celibate vamps.

  13. I can take or leave prologues, but I do like for them to set up something pivotal in the book and not just be a short first chapter. You got me to thinking about my own books. I had to go and look to see just how many of my 23 published books had a prologues. 9 of them! That surprised me. My guess would have been about 5. Hmm,I must like prologues more than I thought I did!

  14. Tamara: More education needed ... UF?
    And I've had relatives who call my "rather tame" cowboy romances, "those trashy books that Carolyn writes!" Betcha dollars to donuts they read them!

  15. Although I've written a couple of prologues, I must admit, as a reader I frequently skip over them-- especially those attached to mystery or suspense.

    What makes me skip? Too often, I feel like the author is just delaying getting started. When it comes to mysteries, the prologue can be summarized in one sentence: someone(unknown) for reasons unknown, did something horrific(in gory detail) to someone (unknown.) It's totally gratuitous.

    I also skip when the prologue is obviously backstory--which is odd on my part because I will put up with a lot--a lot--of backstory incorporated into the body of story. I'll allow the author to digress as often as she needs to. I guess I just need a hint about how the backstory pushes the story forward.

    I do read prologues when the author says, in effect, here's some information you're going to need if you want to understand the story in context. (Think Star Wars."Long ago in a galaxy far, far away...")

    I also read prologues when they don't feel like prologues at all. They feel like the start of the story--because that's what they are. The events might be separated in time and space from the body of the story, but they are the precipitating events.

    All of the above is completely my opinion based on my reactions. Not one word should be taken as a guidance on the "right" use of prologue. :-)

  16. @Amelia - prologue-wise, so far I'm 1/2. I wonder how long it will take until I'm anywhere near your published book count? You (and the other CasaBabes) are an inspiration.

    @Carolyn - sorry for using an acronym without expansion or explanation! Urban fantasy. My debut, TASTE ME, is being marketed as an urban fantasy romance.

  17. I don't feel that strongly either way. If it's well written and grabs my attention then...great. If it's boring and feels more like a speed bump... then no.
    I have, however, heard several agents and editors talk about how much they don't like them. I try to stay away from them in my books because of their "hot button" nature.

  18. @Mary Margret, I have to admit that Deb yanked me back from the edge of the cliff on TASTE ME's prologue, where I initially went into - yes - very gory, deep third person POV detail about my villain's crime. (In my first two contests, I was asked if I'd mistakenly submitted a psychological thriller or a horror novel to a romance writing contest!) Leaving more to the reader's imagination is definitely more effective.

    @Sara, I can imagine how much I might come to dislike prologues if I, as an agent or editor, had to read submissions or slush that resembled my own early revisions!Thank god for editors.

  19. Tamara, uh-oh. Sorry if I got too near your, or anyone's toes.

    Although my taste agrees with Deb's, we must remember that the gory, enigmatic prologue device has been used by such luminaries as Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz.

    Who am I to tell them it doesn't work?

    (But if you want the truth, I skip their prologues too.)

  20. Depends on the purpose and if it's necessary. I'm reading a YA book right now that has a prologue. The prologue takes place the day before Chapter 1 and is in the heroine's 1st person POV. I can't figure out why it's a prologue and not just Chapter 1. Makes absolutely no sense. So in that case, no, I didn't like the prologue. I thought it was merely a mislabeled Chapter 1. But if it sets up the story, but doesn't fit into the book, then yes, prologues are fine.

    That said. I hate hard and fast rules in writing. I think there are always reasonable exceptions.

  21. @Mary Margret, no toes stepped on at all! ;-)

    @Olivia, I also hate hard and fast rules, and sometimes conventional wisdom is flat-out wrong, as you and I know first hand. Who says rock start heroes or heroines don't sell?

  22. I do like prologues and epilogues (oh the shame). I write them and read them. Of course I started writing them before I knew there was any controversy about it. I tried at one point to take it out but since I write historical there often seems to be a scene that is needed to set up the rest of the story. Fun topic!

  23. I now use a short 'history of the world' prologue for my books. I have many readers who have never read fantasy before, and it helps my readers ground themselves in the world. Thoughtful post, Tamara!