Agent Kristin Nelson always has something interesting to say on her popular "Pub Rants" blog and her February 3 entry, Why Prologues Often Don't Work, is no exception. It's the kind of piece that sets off all sorts of dialogue in writing communities and before you know it, everyone's wondering: "Should I ditch my prologue altogether?" "Should I just re-lable the prologue 'Chapter One'?"
I'm always surprised when I hear anyone say they generally skip prologues. It's not like the prologue is in any way an extraneous part to the main text, like acknowledgments or an index. It's a part of the story, something the author wrote with the intention of being read as a part of the story. And I can't say I've ever read a prologue in a published novel where, afterward I've thought, 'Well, she didn't need that!' Where would Martha Grimes' mystery series featuring Richard Jury - I have a crush on him - be, without those prologues showing the murderer committing the crime? In fact, of my own 15 published books, of the 14 that are novels, 10 contain prologues and I've never once had an agent, editor or reviewer say a prologue was unnecessary or should be re-labled as 'Chapter One.'
I think that without realizing it, when people rant against prologues in unpublished work, it's not the prologue that's at issue per se; it's that many authors simply, whether the beginning of the book is Chapter One or a prologue, don't know how to start a book in the right place. That may sound like splitting hairs, but it's really not. Most agents say that they reject something on the order of 95% of all submissions. For the "it's the prologue that's the problem" argument to work, as if without that one pesky thing the book would be publishable, I'd need to see statistics showing that the percentage of books with prologues that are rejected is greater than 95%.
As I say, it's not the prologue specifically. It's the more general umbrella problem of bad beginnings. Before I got formally into freelance editing, I used to say that all writers suffered from one of three basic problems: bad beginnings, saggy middles, unsatisfactory endings, and that the first was both the most common and the most detrimental - who's going to still be around to see how brilliant you are if you don't shine at the start? But it wasn't until I did start working with clients that I began to see how true that was.
And the problem is never whether there's a prologue or not - on the contrary, sometimes I come across a manuscript that would benefit from the addition of a prologue! No, the real problems with bad beginnings can come from any of a number of issues:
Waiting too late to get around to the call to adventure. If the book is 250 pages long and it's 100 pages before the inciting incident - how's that for an awkward phrase? - occurs, the reader is right to wonder, 'And why am I reading this?'
Backstory dumps too early on and/or stop-action storytelling. Do I need to know all this right up front? Can't it more artfully be spread out with as much as possible delayed until later on when I've actually developed time to care? Do I need to know ever single detail or are you only sharing it because you know all this about your characters?
Duets that begin with the wrong singer. You're book is written from two or more points of view. Why are you starting with the least interesting/charismatic of those characters?
Now you've depressed me. Many books, by their very subjects, are serious or sad. It's one thing, however, to start a book with a moving scene and quite another to start it with a downer, the sort of thing that makes the reader question, 'Do I really want to go along for this ride? I've got my own problems!'
Throwing the reader out of the story. Occasions where the reader is left going, 'Huh? Why did this character say/think/conclude/do this? It doesn't make sense. I'm not buying it.'
Distracting mechanical errors. No one's going to reject a book because you misplaced a comma or somesuch but a preponderance of errors does get distracting and keeps your work from shining to best advantage. One thing that has surprised me, working on other people's books: how front-loaded to the manuscript mechanical errors are. You'd think since that's the part of the book that's most frequently gone over repeatedly, that it would be the cleanest, but that's not the case. Perhaps a tunnel vision sets in? Regardless, I'm not saying every unpublished author needs to go out and pay a copy editor, but unless you're one of those lucky souls for whom the mechanics of writing are second nature, be sure to make acquaintance with someone who does have that quality and ask them to proof your work before submitting.
Obviously there are exceptions to everything and other items that could be added to the above list, but tempus is fugiting. Bottom line: Don't spend your life worrying about "To Prologue or Not to Prologue" - worry about how to turn your bad beginning into the best beginning it can possibly be, no matter what you choose to call it.
So how about you? What's your take on all of this?
Be well. Don't forget to write.