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Many of you know about my visceral hatred of prologues in novels, and you may be wondering “Hey Madeline, why are you so unhinged about prologues? Seriously, what’s your deal? We’re trying to cut Brenda’s birthday cake in the Kroger break room, not listen to another one of your stupid opinions.” Well I’m glad you asked!
Prologues are a crutch that authors use when creativity and coherent story telling elude them. To see why, let’s take a stroll down my lovingly curated menagerie of prologue archetypes, and point out why they should go away.
Let’s start with the classic “Star Wars Crawl.” These prologues are here to give us essential background information, without which we will be babes adrift on the ocean. You can’t follow Rhalgrar’s motivations without being told ahead of time that Beast Wanderers instinctively hate Rune Casters or whatever. A common theme in this rant o’ mine is that some of these tropes work better in movies, where time is limited and omniscient narrators aren’t really a thing. But in a book you have plenty of time to demonstrate how the Accountant Clan feels about the Actuary Clan and vice versa. Dumping it in a prologue makes me feel like I’m reading a wiki about your universe rather than narrative fiction. Far better to mete out this information through the interactions of the characters as it becomes relevant.
An even worse version of the above is the “Pet World Building” prologue. In these artisanally crafted time wasters, the info dump doesn’t exist as a necessary preamble to get the reader up to speed, but as a place to put all the superfluous world building details our author can’t not tell us about. This is where we learn about far-away lands that do not appear in the narrative, or ancient wars that have no real impact on present events. Sometimes I feel like I’m playing a game of Red Rover, trying to break through pages of geographical and historical descriptions to get to the plot on the other side.
Not all prologues are non-narrative info dumps. Sure, they’re all terrible, but each one is terrible in its own way. One of my least favorite is the “Flash Forward.” Someone is murdered in the opening pages, and then you turn the page to see the words “ten days earlier.” Every time I see this it drains me faster than a fire extinguisher at a gender reveal party, and leaves me in a state of indifference for the next couple of chapters. You just told me there’s been a murder! If you wanted me to care about the protagonist’s struggle to find a babysitter on the weekend, you should have started with that. Instead I already know what the main crisis of at least the first act will be, and I’m just waiting to get there.
Just as bad is the “Flash Back.” The most egregious, and surprisingly common, subcategory of flash back prologues is gratuitous childhood trauma. I’ve read books that kick down the door with rape and child battery in the first few pages, and then pick up the main narrative with the protagonist trying to get a job in an Italian restaurant or pick out an outfit for the school dance. This kind of writing can only have shock value; it’s not going to make me feel anything for the characters, especially since I barely know who they are. If I haven’t had time to care about the victims of abuse first, the abuse is just torture porn. That’s the worst kind of torture, and the third worst kind of porn. Lately I’ve come across some truly awful (i.e. extant) examples of the flash back type, so I’ll showcase a few of those for you now.
Our first example comes from The High Fiving Awesomers: A Vendetta Against High Fives and Awesome, by Mathew P. Barkevich. In the prologue, the author of this very book defends their writing choices to an editor. It’s all very meta, which normally I would enjoy, and it does seem that Barkevich is in on the joke. But it’s not a good sign when you write a fictional editor ripping your writing style to shreds and I end up relating to her more than anyone else in your book. I guess technically she’s not an editor, she’s a partner in the law firm that fires our author insertion MC for writing a legal investigation in the style of a hack writer. In the report that’s in the prologue that’s in the book, someone actually wrote “You’ll see, it’s in my report.” I almost don’t hate it, because it crosses the line twice, or maybe three times, but it’s still a prologue. It still gives us no useful information except that Barkevich can deftly convince us to hate their own prose. I award it zero high fives out of awesome.
“Me and an assortment of people suffering from mental illness and veterans without homes comprise the bulk of library patrons.”
Next, consider The Rogue Among Us by Lou Dittrich. This is a classic example of telling rather than showing. Our perspective character Anne tells us how her relationship is with her step mother. It would have been nice to see that relationship in action, but by the time we see them have any meaningful interactions a few chapters later, there isn’t much to indicate how well they get along. Then Dittrich hits us with the punchline. A “rogue” shows up, and we get a few paragraphs about the story “everybody knows” about hunting the dangerous, savage, and presumably extremely sexy rogues. You know that scene in Atomic Bride Issue Seven where Dr. Scientist says to a room full of other qualified scientists “As you all know, here is how our faster than light technology works.”? This is that trope, but without even the pretext of narrative flow. I’m not trying to be mean. Dittrich didn’t invent this trend, and they’re not wrong to copy ideas that are clearly tolerated by the industry as a whole. They are a victim, just as much a victim as I am for reading this sexy werewolf infodump. Just as much a victim as you are for sitting through the froth-gulleted ravings of an elderly hack with too many opinions.
“Tricia put the tray of food onto my desk and scanned the room attentively before spilling the tea.”
Where was I? Ah, yes. Faking It For the Holidays, by Bethany Monaco Smith. We start out with the old “13 years ago” opener, and see Sam’s perspective as he gets friend zoned in a hay loft. Simp Sam promises never to date the woman he loves because she doesn’t want to ruin their friendship, and I guess he learned early never to value his own feelings or leave a relationship that’s causing him pain. Some guys just can’t take a hint. Mark my words: the first draft of this story involved Sam subordinating his needs to Kaila’s convenience until eventually he snaps and starts posting slurs on Gettr. Lucky for us, Sam gets a reprieve, and it only takes a decade and change. But before you feel bad for him, Sam does make this promise fully hoping that Kaila will someday forget about it. What a winner. This prologue isn’t bad at setting up the characters, assuming Kaila being emotionally oblivious and Sam being a lying weasel was intentional. But it’s still unnecessary. Smith could easily show us that grown-up Sam has been in love with Kaila from afar their whole life. That’s, like, thirty percent of the history of romance novels. You can just paint that one by numbers.
“First we pinky swear on it. Then we exchange our special handshake.”
Lastly, I want to talk about Family Sucks by Jesse Stimpson. I really want to. This one is just a chef’s kiss of bad prologues. Pretty often on this blog I read something so bad that I end up unironically loving it. I don’t know if that adoration comes through when I’m complaining about how this or that author couldn’t successfully complete a census form, but just know that this one is something special. The narrative purpose of this prologue is to set the tone and the danger level, in a world full of vampires. This is accomplished by showing us the gory dismemberment of a cute family out for ice cream. And without spoiling too much, none of these people is terribly important. I don’t think any of them show up again until almost the end of the story, leaving me to wonder for an entire book why Stimpson made me watch some randos get bit up by some vampires in an alley. I would read a chapter, stop, ask myself “did the vampires wait outside the ice cream shop?”, and read another chapter. Then I would stop again and ask “were they, like, the bad vampires? Do we know them?” This is not the feeling most authors want their readers to have, but I have learned to enjoy it, because someone has to. Bottom line, this prologue left me knowing less about the story than if I had just skipped straight to chapter 1.
“There was a sudden splashing sound, like a speed boat cutting through calm waters. Jada’s skirt went from dry to wet.”
So how do we avoid writing prologues, and secure for ourselves the most coveted of accolades: my approval? Show don’t tell is pretty vague advice, but it can certainly help us in this case. If there is something the reader needs to know about the setting, ask yourself why they need to know it. That will give you a clue as to when the information should appear in the narrative. If a character has a tragic backstory, give us a chance to like them before paying the backstory out as it becomes relevant to the story. Are you building to a key plot point? Put it after the rising action so we can get a feel for how important it is. This stuff isn’t always easy, but it will make your writing better. And more importantly, I won’t have to skip the first few pages of your book with an ugly look on my face. Hopefully this explains why I am the way I am. If not, then it would make for a great prologue to the story of my life.
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