On writing

To prologue or not to prologue

If you’ve read this blog before you will know that I’m not a big fan of prologues.

A good prologue gives you information that is not part of the main story but that is important to know. It is often set in a different time to that of the main novel, usually earlier, and it generally has a different protagonist. The classic prologue that comes to mind is Tolkien’s explanation of how the one ring to rule them all came about. (I’m thinking the movie version here.)

Another use for a prologue is as part of a series, where it’s a precis of what happened in previous books. I might add that most of my favourite series don’t have prologues and don’t need them.

Unfortunately, many people who write fantasy novels seem to think that their story isn’t a real fantasy if it doesn’t have a prologue, so they put one in, when really what they have written is chapter one of their novel and they should just have started the main story earlier.

Their prologue deals with events that happen to the person who is the main point-of-view character of the novel. These events often happen only days or—or even in one case, minutes—before the story proper. They’re often narrated in a distant, omniscient voice. If you read the prologue at all you just skim it, then you turn over to chapter one and start reading it and bang, you’re right in the middle of the aftermath of what happened in the prologue.

Don’t get me wrong. I like a story that starts in the middle of the action, but even a story that begins with action needs a place where you, the reader, can begin. That’s usually at the start of chapter one.

I believe that you should be able to read a whole book without the prologue and still understand and enjoy it. The prologue should add further information and enrich the story, but it shouldn’t be part of the story. Going back to Lord of the Rings, the story of the making of the ring had nothing and everything to do with the story of how and why Frodo and company set out to destroy the ring. That’s the ideal prologue.

In my latest novel I thought I had written—horrors—a prologue. It was set prior to the main story. It was told from a different point-of-view, and the narrator was first-person while the rest of the story is third-person. What happens in the prologue is the trigger for the whole story. You could read the story without it, but you read it differently because if you read the prologue first you knew what was going on and why things had happened.

So be it. If my story had to have a prologue it had one.

And then just a little over half-way through the story the same first-person narrator pops up again. It wasn’t conscious. More a, “Hey, here I am and I want my turn now,” type of writing. Three-quarters of the way through back he pops in again. This time he joins up with one of the protagonists and travels with them for the rest of the book.

So he’s not a prologue any more. I’m not sure what he is yet.

One thing I do know is that he has a totally different voice to the main character. If you pick up my story and start reading it based on that non-prologue you may not like it when you get to chapter two, because it’s a totally different story.

I haven’t quite worked out how to deal with that yet. Or whether I even need to.

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