When I was first published, in 1994, everyone I talked to—agents and editors—had an opinion on prologues. Essentially, all the opinions came down to: “Don’t write them.”
The late Elmore Leonard even placed it second on his famous “10 Rules of Writing” list: “Avoid Prologues”.
Your readers don’t need two beginnings, I was told. Any backstory that’s important can be worked into the main part of the novel. Just get in there and start with the main characters in mid-action—don’t clutter things with prefaces and prologues. It’s old-fashioned.
Sometimes, you want to set a mood. Sometimes, you want to set the reader in the centre of your world in a succinct and sudden way, or foreshadow a coming threat. Sometimes, it’s just the best tool you have in your toolbox for the job.
One of my favourite prologues of all time remains the one that opens Catherine Gaskin’s book, A Falcon For A Queen. For years, that book sat on my bookshelf and I’d take it down and read that prologue—just the prologue—with anticipation, waiting for the proper rainy day to come when I’d be able to curl up with no distractions and just sink into that story, because I was certain it would be amazing, just from this beginning:
There are places in the valley where I will never go again; there are paths up its glens where I will never direct my pony’s steps. The faces, the voices, the names meet me there, and they do not go away. Regularly, of course, I must cross the path through the graveyard to the kirk, where those names are chiseled into the stone. But the spirits do not lie there; for me, they do not lie there. They are the restless ghosts—those who loved—wrongly, wilfully, with passion, without reason. They all wait for me, everywhere in that valley, but especially in some places, to which I do not go. Ballochtorra begins to crumble on its height; the rains and the snows take their toll of the roof, the ice creeps in to break chinks in the walls. The ivy is taking possession; very soon it will need the knowing eye to distinguish what was newly built, in the pride of wealth and ambition, from the very old. The rooks gather in the ivy-grown trees and on the battlements. And forever, ceaselessly, my eyes search the skies for the sight of a falcon.
That was all. Just a small, perfect prologue. And yet it completely entranced me.
Sadly, when I finally got around to reading the book, it didn’t live up to my expectations, although Catherine Gaskin’s The File on Devlin more than makes up for it, in my view, and I still adore this prologue on its own.
For my own part, of the thirteen books I’ve written so far, six have prologues, although only two of those are titled “Prologue”. Two (in Every Secret Thing and Bellewether) I titled more creatively (or sneakily, depending on your view), as “Beforehand” and “Portal”, while the other two (in Named of the Dragon and The Rose Garden) pretend to be ordinary first chapters, but were actually written as—and function as—prologues.
I doubt they’ll be my last. I like the form, no matter what the fashion of the day might be, and as a writer I am stubborn enough to let every book decide what shape it wants to take, and what devices it sees fit to use (with my apologies to Elmore Leonard).
What are your thoughts on prologues? Do you read them or skip them? Love them or hate them? Or have any favourites to share?