At the time of writing this, I’m currently editing a novel for the nth time. In doing so, I’ve realised that the prologue has been removed and inserted as many times as I care to remember. This got me thinking – why the heck am I doing this? What is the problem with prologues? Where did this all start?
A quick Google will tell you that the Greeks used their ‘prologos’, literally ‘before words’ at the start of plays. But prologues have continued to play a part in fiction to this day. One of my favourite SF novels, the late and great Iain M. Banks’ Against a Dark Background has one. George R. R. Martin (ex Milford) does it in Game of Thrones. Every Star Wars film does it, especially the prequels which seemed to go bollocking on forever about trade wars (see later comments about bloating). Yet in recent years it seems to be the trend that most publishers hate them. And my inclusion of prologues in Milford and other writing groups has met with derision by some.
I’ve never really got my head around the problem here. I can’t think of any novel I’ve read where I didn’t get to the end and think: ‘That would have been much better without all that rubbish at the beginning.’ SF novels in particular often need scene setting, world building and so on, and a prologue can be a great time to explore the wider universe before honing in on the action. The arguments against say: you just need to get straight into the plot, the protagonist’s problems, desires and arc. But why is this necessary? ‘You are holding your story back!’ I hear someone cry. ‘Well, perhaps because I want to?’ I reply.
Let me offer you up a simile – if you go to a restaurant do you always skip the starter? Do you send the amuse bouche, a light turbot mousse en cocotte with a quails egg, straight back to the kitchen with a surly curl of your lip? ‘Nah, I hate starters. Can’t stand them. Don’t know why they put them on the menu. I’ll go straight to the main please.’ This doesn’t happen. Indeed an amuse bouche is often offered so the chef can show off their skills, let the diners have a taste of what is coming. Yet the prologue can’t serve this purpose? Of course it can, it just generally isn’t being allowed to.
And what about other art forms? We’ve touched on Star Wars, but imagine if Blade Runner had started immediately without the one minute or so of text and the incredible vista of Los Angeles (from, um… last year?), then it wouldn’t have quite the same visceral impact. There are countless other examples where prologues enhance a film. And music – how many amazing overtures or intros wouldn’t have been created if the musical prologue form had been excised from existence? No Shostakovich Festive overture, no William Tell… To spite all the anti-prologuers, Kate Bush includes both a prelude and a prologue to side B of her penultimate album, Aerial. And if anyone dares tells me The Cure’s Plainsong could have lost a few bars before Robert Smith starts to sing, I’m coming for them all guns blazing.
I think part of the problem is publishers think people will get bored with prologues and then won’t buy their books. They’ll be put off by the putative prologue. So writing groups tend to follow the demand. Now bear in mind that of course a prologue A) shouldn’t be bloated (see trade wars above) or B) serve the same purpose as a first chapter would. But excluding both A and B, I think a prologue can be a useful way into a strange new universe. I just don’t think it should be universally damned.
Another argument is that the anti-prologue movement is something to do with the busy-everything-now-social-media-led nature of today where anything longer than a few snippets can’t hold the attention? But I’m not entirely convinced by that either – books by their nature demand lengthy attention spans.
Perhaps we simply go back to the Greeks for the answer. The prologue was meant, in certain plays, to be the Gods speaking – well, no author really wants to be put under that kind of pressure. Well, perhaps someone like Neil Gaiman (another ex Milford) would, but I’m sure he could pull it off with aplomb – pretty certain he has contacts in the empyrean.
Anyway, I’ve decided to stick with my prologue. The novel has done the rounds without for a while now, so perhaps on this occasion the prologue will pay off. Only time will tell. I’ll be the first to let you know if it does.
Epilogue: Do you hightail it straight out of the restaurant? Maybe you have coffee, with a dessert or even petit fours (perhaps both)? Have you stopped reading already? You can now.
Guy T Martland is a writer of things mostly SF and has been known to publish stories or even the occasional novel. He lives on the South Coast of England with his wife, daughter and obligatory writer’s cat, close to where R L Stevenson scribbled down ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. He has a blog which is intermittently updated here: guytmartland.co.uk