Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Prologues

Sarah LaPolla is a literary agent that runs a helpful blog called Glass Cases. She tends to give a lot of solid advice revolving around story elements without getting preachy, which I appreciate. She clearly states her opinions, tells you why, and leaves you to make your own decision. 

A little over a month ago now, she wrote about prologues.  Apparently the rant started on twitter and spilled over into the blog.  Calling it a rant does it disservice however.  The reasons behind her hatred of a the prologue are well reasoned. 

That isn't to say I agree with them all.  While I may see her point, there is one driving fact that I cannot get over: Readers like prologues. 

The more I learn about writing, the more I am seeing that there are really two camps literary consumers.  The first, and smallest, is those people who are very serious about the craft and minutia of writing.  A vast majority of these people make up the traditional "gatekeepers" in the publishing industry.  They are generally very knowledgeable when it comes to literature, and have writing almost down to a science.  Publishers, agents, and professional critics are probably a part of this circle.

The other camp, the larger of the two, is comprised of the lay readers.  The people who simply love a good story.  They generally know what works when they see it (and, conversely, know a stinker when they see it), but it is unlikely they give a whole lot of thought to the craft of writing. 

On the issue or prologues, the opinions seem divided by camp.  The gatekeepers generally dislike prologues.  They are not efficient.  They could be more creatively applied.  They are, on average, superfluous and droll.

The readers generally like prologues.  Not all prologues, but prologues as an idea.  Epilogues too, while we're at it.  Sure it may dull the "art" aspect, but it seems that, in general, the casual readers appreciates these additions, even if they aren't strictly necessary. 

This isn't to say that they can't be done well or poorly in the absolute as either side is concerned.  We're talking more about generalities here.  Perhaps my own viewpoint is a bit biased though.  After all, I am a heavy fantasy consumer.  And in fantasies, prologues seem ubiquitous.  They serve very well as a way of drawing you into a world.  Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings... they all have prologues.  And none of them are particularly "artsy" prologues.  That is, they probably break many of the rules that Sarah cites.  Yet, they succeed with readers.

Now, nothing against Sarah (based on what I've read at her blog, she would be a wonderful agent), but this is the problem I see with the "gatekeepers."  They sometimes get too focused on the art and craft side of publishing and forget that we're selling to readers.  The poor agents that have to stab at submissions on a daily basis have narrowed down their judgement protocol to certain "craft" criteria.  If you do this or don't do that, your manuscript will get tossed.  That simple.  That's the only way they can survive.

Yet, even the gatekeepers admit to being baffled often by what actually sells.  There just aren't any solid predictors.  Prologues exemplify this.  While having a prologue may make your agent cringe, it might also make your reader smile.  This is the paradox.  Incidentally, it's also an issue I largely avoid by being independent.  To detriment or boon?  Your call, dear reader.  How do you feel about prologues?

In my writing, I have always started with Chapter One, assuming the book is going to start there until a prologue asserts itself in my process.  Prologues have never come until later.  Generally, they happen organically for me.  I hit a point where I wish I'd let the reader in on something, usually back story.  Usually a scene that I think is cool and can draw a reader in.  A scene that I would like to read.  Maybe it's lazy though.  Maybe I'm still just too new at this, and there are much better ways to integrate that information.  I guess we'll just have to see.   


Anonymous said...

Personally I like prologues and epilogues. I especially like epilogues because when the story ends I want to know what happens next. I don't just want to hear "they lived happily ever after" I want to know that the story continues, even if there isn't another novel.

As you mentioned, prologues whet your appetite. They get you interested in what you are about to read. You get excited with the teaser and want to find out what is on the next page.

Cutting them out for the "art" aspect just seems dumb.

Matt said...

Hey! :-)

Agreed on the epilogues. If the novel is good, I definitely want an epilogue even if it's just a cute way to say good bye to the characters. I think the key is just not to use them as a crutch for poor story-telling.

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