Before I get started I’d just like to tell you about how blogging works. Blogging is the gerund of the verb “to blog”, which is itself a portmanteau of the phrase “web log”, and it describes an activity in which individuals of the species Homo sapiens sapiens record their thoughts online for others to read. What you are about to read is an example of this.
There, I think I’m ready to start now.
I’ve only read about three fiction prologues in my life. And the only reason I’ve read those is because for the first one I didn’t know anything about prologues, for the second I was thinking “well, they can’t all be like that” and for the third one I was thinking “OK, you’ve got one last chance”. After that I stopped reading them.
The reason I stopped reading them was because they didn’t add anything. They just got in the way of the story.
I can see the thinking behind including them, of course; they are a way for the writer to dump a large amount of exposition on the reader up front, so that the reader is up to speed with whatever the writer wants him to be up to speed with once the story gets underway. A way for the writer to explain that the Horse Empire has outlawed the colour red, or that Hyperglobomegacorp has bought the Isle of Wight and is using it to intensively farm human embryos for food, or that a hak-groglurr has two penises, one of which is on his back. The things in the narrative that are not generally accepted as being part of the world in which we currently live.
I have three problems with that, though.
Firstly, information dumps are boring. They tend towards “tell” writing; show the reader what you mean instead. It’s much more interesting.
Secondly, any half-decent writer should be able to include all necessary exposition as part of the main narrative (I don’t remember I Am Legend or The Road having prologues to explain the events that had led to a vampire apocalypse and a common-or-garden apocalypse respectively). I understand that if you set a story on one of the eight moons of Riskibumseks IV then you need to explain something about this utterly alien environment, but do it as a natural part of the narrative – I don’t want to have to read a non-fiction book in order to understand a fiction book.
Thirdly, one of the first things you learn when you start writing is to begin the narrative in medias res. That’s a pretentious Latin way of saying “in the midst of things” (remember, if there’s a Latin term for it then you know shit just got real), whereas prologues are by definition about something that happened before the interesting things that make up the main story.
Let’s have an example. I read the prologue of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo only because I felt that I had to, as I was reading it for a reading group. It was about a man who received a pressed flower on the same day every year. It didn’t introduce anything of any interest or value, the flowers weren’t mentioned again, and by the time I got to the end* and learned (after having guessed almost immediately) that the flowers were being sent by the missing girl I’d completely forgotten about them and didn’t care anyway, as they weren’t part of the plot.
Warning: the previous paragraph contains spoilers.
Why would any author want to put content between the cover of the book and the start of the narrative that is less interesting than that narrative?
Well, my mind’s made up: I won’t read a prologue, and I’ll never write one.
PS You’ll probably have noticed by now that the first paragraph of this article was a deeply satirical observation on the value of a prologue. I think you’ll all agree that I am amazing.
*It wasn’t technically the end, it was just where the plot was resolved; the book inexplicably carries on for another fifty pages after the story is finished
This post is also published on the Tunbridge Wells Writers blog.