All the Prologues, passed…
The latest casualty in our culture’s war on inefficiency is that red-headed stepchild of prose, the prologue. Once a perfectly acceptable—if rarely employed—literary device, prologues have, apparently, become such a terrible time-waster for impatient readers that many skip them altogether. Likewise, many professional agents and editors make no bones about the fact that including a prologue in your sample package is a fast way to be served a form rejection letter (or, at the very least, read with condescending eye and copious grumbling). Where all this anti-prologue sentiment arose from, I can’t say, but I find the apparent ubiquity and sneering virulence of it more than a little disturbing.
For those of you not in the know, dictionary.com defines a prologue as ‘a preliminary discourse; a preface or introductory part of a discourse, poem, or novel.’ The Greek word prologos is built of the root words for before (pro) and word (logos)—thus, a fore-word, or antecedent of the tale to follow. Prologues were often standard devices in theater, from ancient Greece through the Elizabethan age, and usually took the form of a single actor stepping on stage to address the audience directly regarding the story they were about to be told. These prologues served many functions, from informing the audience about back story to commenting meta-theatrically on the need for the audience to use their imaginations in order to escape the confines of the stage itself. The most famous example of a theatrical prologue is probably the one that opens Shakespeare’s Henry V, wherein the actor playing the role of Chorus invokes ‘a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention,’ laments the literal and logistical limitations of stage performance (‘Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?’ I daresay Shakespeare would’ve wet himself at the thought of using CGI to set his scenes…), and finally enlists the audience’s imaginative aid in telling the story successfully, like J. M. Barrie urging his Peter Pan readers to declare that they do believe in fairies, they do: ‘‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings…turning th’accomplishment of many years into an hourglass…’ It could be argued that ol’ Billy Shakers didn’t need that prologue—most of his audience probably knew who Henry V was and that he beat the pants off the frogs at Agincourt; and likewise, that his audience—nobles to groundlings—didn’t need to be reminded that they were just watching a play and that their imaginations must fill in the supposed background to the dramatic action.
But shit-canning that prologue would rob us of some mighty words, wouldn’t it? We could excise it, or skip over it on the page, or show up five minutes after the curtain rises—but why would we want to? By skipping that prologue, we’re only cheating ourselves. Finer words invoking the power of the imagination and the ability of narrative to transport us have never been written.
Now, I can totally understand a migraine-haunted agent’s or editor’s impatience with yet another prologue tacked onto yet another sample package from the slush pile, especially when nine out of ten of those prologues will end up being completely useless, offering non-sequitor summaries of the activities of characters who won’t appear in the remainder of the book, actually forming part of the main narrative, without any temporal or spatial distance (thus not really being prologues), or just being a big, fat, clumsy info dump where the back story is laid out with all the artfulness of a telemarketing introduction. No doubt, agents and editors who specialize in certain genres see more of these than others. Epic fantasy writers, for instance, loooooove prologues—they just wallow in them. I’ve seen on more than one fantasy-centered internet writer’s forum questions such as, “My 1,500 page fantasy novel has four prologues. Is that too many?” Such excesses indicate that a lot of modern wanna-be writers really don’t understand what a prologue is for, or how to use it respectfully. We’ll get to that in a minute—but first I’d like to carry on with the problem we face: the blanket dismissal of the prologue.
As I said, I can understand a professional agent’s or editor’s frustration, because they’re buried in slush, day in, day out, a lot of it is absolute dreck. What puzzles me a little more is the indifference of everyday readers. “Prologues?” many of these readers say when asked, “I skip those. Isn’t that just extra stuff? Meaningless twaddle? Like a long credit sequence in a movie that’s best skipped through on the DVD?” Needless to say, this attitude troubles me.
Are these folks really telling me that if they pick up a new novel by one of their favorite authors—an author who has delighted them, excited them, beguiled them with story, time and again—they will skip that author’s carefully chosen and artfully composed opening simply because it’s labeled ‘Prologue’? Really? “I know you labored over this five-hundred page book I’m about to read, Beloved-and-well-established-author-of-mine… but I’m going to skip right over the two or three thousand words you carefully, painstakingly chose to open your newest magnum opus because you had the temerity to type ‘Prologue’ above this first paragraph. I’m skipping that shit and turning pages until I see the words Chapter One, because that’s where the story really starts—authorial intent be damned.” This is akin to people who want movies bowdlerized to remove nudity and foul language, regardless of context; who would countenance an abridged audiobook simply because it’s cheaper than the unabridged version; who accept panning-and-scanning of widescreen films in lieu of letterboxing when even our TV’s are widescreen these days; the sorts who (oh, these people really get my goat) are content to watch big screen epics like Apocalypse Now or Lawrence of Arabia on their five inch smartphone screens at the airport and think they’ve ‘seen the movie.’
Look, people, it’s just this simple: if you’re going to pick up an author’s book and read it, you need to read the whole goddamned thing. I’ll give you a pass for skimming over sections that might feel slow (Dear George R. R. Martin: I don’t really give a shit about Sansa. I always skim her chapters. Kill her or make her interesting, please). But completely ignoring a book’s opening just because it wears the ‘Prologue’ label is simple laziness, not to mention a little insulting.
See, in prose, this is what a prologue should do: it should set the scene; it should tantalize you with a taste of what’s to come; it should foreshadow tragedy or plant seeds for triumph; it should, in essence, act like the first bars of a radio friendly pop single or the invocatory strains of a symphony by introducing the themes and motifs of the story to come in miniature, before then plunging us into the narrative proper. In short, prologues are narrative foreplay. Why on earth would you want to miss out?
Consider: Tim Powers’ brilliant supernatural espionage novel Declare (think John le Carre channeling H. P. Lovecraft) opens with a first-rate prologue describing the terrifying aftermath of some British commandoes’ encounter with a djinn atop Mount Ararat. We are not told what, exactly, has happened, or even that a djinn is involved: all we are offered is third person limited prose following our hero (who we don’t know as our hero yet) as he flees down the mountain, encountering mad-eyed, bloodied, terrified men wandering in the darkness. In a book that has two parallel stories unfolding—one in the ‘present’ of the early 1960s and one in the ‘past’ of the 1940s—we come to learn about midway through the book that the scene depicted in the prologue is a lynchpin moment of our hero’s life: the horrible end of a promising early career, the seed of his later re-activation and the main narrative of the story. Thus, the prologue of Declare does precisely what a prologue should: it raises questions, it whets the appetite, and it promises some very unpleasant events to come. This promise guides us through a very carefully-modulated ‘slow burn’ opening third of the book. Without the prologue, we might get impatient and think that nothing of import will happen; with the prologue, we absolutely know that something enormous will happen, we simply don’t know when; and since we only got a glimpse of it, we want to understand it; a question has been raised that needs answering.
(This, incidentally, is one of my favorite reasons for employing a prologue: as both a writer and a reader, I generally prefer stories that unfold in a ‘slow burn’ fashion, only exploding and picking up heavy momentum about halfway through. By sharing a tantalizing glimpse of the chaos to come, or perhaps offering a dead body or stolen artifact as a catalyst for the story to follow, a writer can essentially make the reader a promise, and earn from the reader a little more patience.)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opens with an episode labeled Chapter One that is, in form and function, a prologue (I myself have stooped to this; hoping to fool agents and editors by labeling my prologue as a first chapter; I don’t think I’m fooling them, and I find the necessity to do so rather questionable). In Chapter One of Sorcerer’s Stone, the reader bears witness as Dumbledore, Minerva McGonagall, and the towering Hagrid deliver the newly-orphaned baby Harry to his foster home on Privet Drive, and speak in veiled terms of all that is to follow—namely, the prophecy of Harry’s greatness, and the apparent death but probable endurance of he-who-shall-not-be-named. In Chapter Two, the narrative will become comfortably limited (though still in the third person) and follow Harry throughout the rest of the series. That opening chapter is more or less the only time in seven books and 8,000 pages that we, the readers, experience anything that is outside of Harry Potter’s specific purview. It is divorced from the rest of the narrative by time and space, and even told from a distinct viewpoint. It hints at what is to come without spelling it out, and it whets one’s appetite for the epic Bildungsroman that’s about to unfold. These are the primary functions of a prologue, whether it’s called Chapter One or not. It could be argued that it tells us nothing that we do not learn later—but honestly, isn’t that glimpse into the wizarding world, long before Harry has even been introduced to it, rather welcoming? A sort of aerial shot of the forest before we’re plunged down among the trees? Once again, we could skip that little preface—but we gain nothing except a few minutes of reading time (Ah! Blessed efficiency!) by doing so.
I would also like to point out that a prologue and a forward and an introduction are all distinctly different animals. A prologue is part of a narrative (usually fictional, but it can be employed in narrative nonfiction); a forward is usually a commentary by a third party on the work about to be read, (for instance, Writer Smith offering a forward full of praise for Writer Jones’ new collection of short stories; or Journalist Mayer’s forward for Journalist Trumbo’s new book-length collection of geopolitical essays); and an introduction is an introductory note written by the author of a work about the work you’re preparing to read, that is not necessarily a part of the main narrative of that work (this is employed most often in nonfiction). Yes, writers of fiction have written brief forwards to their works of fiction, just as third parties have written introductions for newly published editions of older works—but generally speaking, these remain three separate literary forms with distinct functions: the narrative prologue (to set the stage), the prefatory forward (often by a third party), and the discursive introduction (usually by the author themselves, commenting upon the work you’re about to read).
My point is simply this: while it is true that there are some artless, snore-worthy, cringe-inducing prologues floating around in the world, suggesting that the prologue has no place whatsoever in fiction (or narrative nonfiction), that all prologues should simply be skipped and ignored entirely, strikes me as similar to saying that since clumsy Chinese cooks often overuse ginger, all ginger should henceforth be proscribed in all cuisine. Judge each work on its own merits, please, and show a little faith in the writer who decided that his or her opening needed to be a prologue and not simply a first chapter.
All that being said, I give you permission, constant readers, to skip forwards and introductions in works of nonfiction if you’re so inclined (although I usually read them). But, I absolutely forbid you forthwith from skipping over prologues in works of fiction or narrative nonfiction. You’re cheating yourself, you’re insulting the author, and you’re heaping undeservedly dismissive scorn upon a perfectly respectable literary tool, shunting all the prologues of the world into a vile and inescapable literary ghetto for the sins of a poorly-wrought minority. You wouldn’t approve of treating people so; why on earth would you accept it for a poor, innocent conglomeration of words that wants only to titillate you and urge you onward via some strategic literary foreplay?
Rant done. I invite feedback. What say you all? Prologue yay, or prologues nay?