Friday, March 28, 2008
Writing the Prologue--Part 3
So, after all my warnings on prologues, when have I written my own and why? As for other authors, can't we all think of numerous prologues we've read and liked?
All four books in my Hidden Faces series have prologues. (Follow the links to read on my website.) I didn't intend for them all to have one. Each story just worked out that way. This series is written in the first person POV of Annie Kingston, a forensic artist. All its prologues were written in third person from another character's POV--in other words, they were "removed by space." One (Stain of Guilt) was also removed by twenty years' time. All four books could have started without the prologue, but were made stronger by the addition of it.
In Brink of Death and Stain of Guilt, I set up two-part inciting incidents. The crimes, from the POVs of witnesses, are in the prologues. The pulling of the protagonist into the solving of those crimes is in the first chapters. In Brink of Death, for example, the prologue is from the POV of a thirteen-year-old who sees the murder of her mother. Because she's so traumatized, she never does speak much of the crime throughout the book. Annie has to jar her memory just enough to draw a composite of the suspect. I wanted the reader to see the crime and feel the girl's emotional state. And I wanted to set the tone for the book and its intensity. It seems to have worked. Suspense readers tend to love this prologue. It pulls them in. Those who can't handle this kind of intensity see it right up front and know to put the book down. (Putting a book down for that reason is a good thing, I think--I never want to sell a novel to someone who's going to have nightmares as a result.)
The above two prologues are an exception to my "make a prologue short" guideline. Both are seven pages.
The Dead of Night prologue is short--two pages. It's a rant from the first-person POV of the killer. Does the book have to start with it? No. But I wanted that voice right up front, even before my protagonist's. I wanted it to chill the reader, showing immediately what Annie would be up against. Web of Lies is different in that it blends the protagonists from the Chelsea Adams series, written in third person, and the Hidden Faces series, in first. (Don't try this at home, folks. It near killed me.) These variant POVs are kept in Web of Lies. The prologue begins in Chelsea's third--and is very short. Then the first chapter switches to Annie's first person POV.
I can't cover all my novels, but I will also mention Capture the Wind for Me, third in my Bradleyville series (back when I wrote womens fiction). I wrote this book's first fifty pages or so without the prologue, but then decided I wanted to show an additional element up front. In the main story, the 15-year-old protagonist, Jackie, is trying to play "mom" to the family after her mother died over a year previously. I added the prologue of the family at the funeral to highlight the family's grief and that moment of switching from daughter to "mother" that Jackie had to make. I also wanted to establish up front the perspective of the POV. This first person story is told from the perspective of years later, looking back. The prologue establishes the narrative voice of the character, which is older and wiser than the 15-year-old we see in chapter one. This prologue is short and removed in time.
Here's an example of a very short prologue I like--Michael Connelly's The Narrows. (Read it here.) He's establishing character voice and adding intrigue. This again is a first person character looking back after the story's complete. It's pure narrative, no scene. But the voice is compelling, and the questions that are raised propels the reader forward. (And frankly, it's way better written than the opening paragraphs of chapter one.)
As you can see, there are exceptions to my prologue guidelines. I've made a few of my own. Yesterday in the comments some folks were pointing out examples of exceptions they liked. You'll likely find plenty. This series wasn't written to bang you over the head--"never write a prologue!" But I do hope the general discussion of prologues will make you think twice about writing one, and that you now have a better understanding of what makes a prologue work.
Also in the comments it was pointed out that we should study prologues in all literature to see what works and what doesn't. I agree. Much of learning how to write comes from reading. The only caution is to remember that just because you enjoy a specific kind of prologue, perhaps even one that breaks all the "rules," that doesn't necessarily mean you should write one like it. What works in one novel doesn't always work in another. And what one author is allowed to do doesn't translate to all authors. Apply the challenges I've given you here to check if a prologue really does work best for your book--and will help sell it in today's market.