Preposterous Prologues (NaNo Day 7)

Prologues. The bane of my writing existence (and the best thing that happened to NaNoWriMo).

It is my personal philosophy to never, ever, ever insert a prologue into any of my stories. Why? Prologues are generally useless, unnecessary, and boring. Yet with half of the stories I’ve started and/or finished, a prologue exists! (I’ll get to this in a moment. There is a reason why I start with the prologue and end without it.)

Let me reiterate. Prologues are bad. They tell information that could be shown in the story (useless), they give character/world background the reader doesn’t need (unnecessary), or they’re just plain boring. Or all of the above. There are only a few circumstances in which prologues are good, but I’ll go over those in a bit.

I’ve found that most prologues, once they’re written, are completely and totally unnecessary to the story. In every story I’ve managed to write a prologue for, I promptly deleted it in the next draft. Prologues are generally either to reveal something about a character’s past, or to set up the story world. In my (humble) opinion, neither of those is needed. The first takes away the challenge of digging up the character’s backstory as the plot progresses. The second generally contains details that can be shown, and writing them all in a prologue is telling.

Both of these types of prologues are set in the past, and prologues set in the past usually tell instead of show. It’s telling the Hero’s Big Secret, or How The World Came To Be (I really, really dislike the latter, by the way), or How The Hero Ended Up In This Situation. The last one is usually the Inciting Incident, and should be presented in the first chapter. As for the first one, that takes away the Big Secret about the Hero. If it’s something only the villain knows, a prologue detailing it takes away the Villain’s Big Revelation–especially good for use in the Black Moment. If we already know everything about the Hero and the Villain’s shared past, then who cares? The Moment of Truth will be meaningless and dry.

The only reason I can think of to use a prologue would be to set up the story and give it context. If, say, the prologue occurs in the present and the story occurs in the past, and the point of view character is telling his story to someone else, the prologue can be a wonderful conduit. Even this, however, can be done horribly. If it’s just the character sitting down to tell his story to be preserved for all his posterity, well… I’d skip it.

Now, I’ve seen this device used brilliantly in some of David Eddings’ books (Belgarath the Sorcerer, anyone?). He uses it to show us why Belgarath would write down his life story. Since we, as the reader, are already acquainted with Belgarath and friends, we know that Belgarath would sooner chop his own head off than write an autobiography. The prologue to this novel shows us exactly how this commenced. Plus, since the prologue is intended as a “what happened after The Quest Ended” for the Mallorean, it also shows us what the other characters are up to.

All this is not to say you should never ever have a prologue. There is a time and a place for such things, of course. Many successful books do have prologues. But when in doubt, get rid of it.

Cometh now the hour to relate prologues to NaNoWriMo!

NaNoWriMo is all about getting the words, not necessarily writing a good story. Therefore, a prologue is just the thing to get those words in! Have an idea of the Hero’s backstory? Make it a prologue! Want to set down every detail of the world your characters live in? Stick it in a prologue! Get words! Win!

Then when December comes, slice mercilessly through your manuscript and take out everything that isn’t necessary–I bet that’ll include your prologue.

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About merciatremblac

I'm a junior in college, creative writing major, currently living in the mountains of North Carolina with my best friend for a roommate.
This entry was posted in NaNoWriMo, novels, process, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Preposterous Prologues (NaNo Day 7)

  1. So weird… Looking back the two novels I consider ‘complete’ began with prologues. The first one kept its prologue right up until the last draft when I killed it along with another 37k words (that was a crazy month). The other has kept the prologue, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it was just a cheat to get the words in… That novel was last year’s NaNoWriMo.
    Hmmm… more work required on that one!

    • Hehe. Yeah. I know the feeling 😛 The reason I wrote this blog post, really, was because I wrote a prologue for this year’s NaNo and–er–wanted to justify writing something so horrible. Plus, with a certain writing curriculum (One Year Adventure Novel, if you wanted to check it out), many people on the forums want to know if they can include everything they know about the Hero in a prologue, or if they can write down the entire world history of their novel and stick it at the front of the book. Everyone thinks he (or she!) is the exception to the rule, which really makes it a bit difficult. 😉

      Good luck, by the way. 😀

      • Gosh; that must history can, especially in a fantasy, can make a novel all by itself! In fact, that’s happened to me too. o.O I really should go back and check that out; see if its at all worth the drive space is currently hogging.
        And I will check out One Year Adventure Novel, ta. 🙂

      • Oh yeah. Have you ever read Belgarath the Sorcerer? It’s basically Belgarath’s life story intertwined with the entire history of the country he lives in (he’s 10,000+ years old, yeah?).

        😄 You should keep the prologues, though, if it’s the world’s history. Just don’t use it in the novel–it COULD come in handy one day!

        OYAN is pretty cool. Are you in public, private, or homeschool? Or in school, at all for that matter? ‘Cause it’s a high school writing curriculum, but I know there are a couple adults using it. It’s pretty awesome.

      • I haven’t, but now I’d quite like to. You’re the second person to mention it to me which is normally enough to send me at least to have a look.

        The prologue for the other novel I’m keeping; its turned itself into a series of books just from trying to make sure I got the history down, but I like that aspect as it gives huge insights into how the main character grew to be how she is by the time you reach her for the ‘proper story’ which is probably 350k words in or something stupid like that.

        Oh and I’m not longer in school. I wanted to go back to uni for another degree, but there’s not really been time so I’m working. But I figure if OYAN is something that’s readily available I can still check it out and benefit from it. -I’m not one to turn my nose up at learning.

      • Sweet! Do you happen to know the name of the other person who mentioned it? I probably know him (or her!).

        Aha! I wish I could write a 350k story. I’ve never had enough material for that length. Kudos to you!

        Ooo. What did you major in? I’m in college right now, freshman year, and I’m still not entirely sure what I’ll be doing–probably writing or English. On that same note, I think you’d really enjoy OYAN. There’s a ton of material to go along with the curriculum, and there’s an online forum, and online webinars, AND an annual summer workshop in Kansas. Pretty nifty.

      • Hmmm, I wish I could remember now. It was another blogger I was reading posts of, but if I can bring the name to mind I’ll let you know for sure.

        I studied Geology. Something of a weird choice since I’m not doing anything to do with it now but it seemed a great choice at the time. In fact its the sort of thing that could have taken me to the US which makes me slightly irritated that I’m stuck in the UK. Not that its terrible here, though if I’m going to take advantage of OYAN, I guess its only going to be the online stuff. D’oh!

      • Incidentally… I wish I HAD done something like English. A friend of mine did a couple of years after me, she did an MA and now she runs a publishing house. Cool, innit? 😀

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