Friday, March 22, 2019

To Prologue or Not to Prologue

Which writing advice tropes do you follow, and which do you ignore in your books and short stories? 

by Paul D. Marks

Before I get to this week’s question: I did a post for SleuthSayers, the other blog that I write for, that’s very personal to me. The post is “Sometimes The Big Sleep Comes Too Soon”. And it’s something a little different. More personal. But something everyone can relate to. Friends. Friendship. Regrets. Mortality. I lost two friends recently, I talk about them there. I don’t usually tout another post here, but this one is close to my heart and I hope you’ll check it out. Thanks.  


And now for today’s question:

There’s all kinds of writing advice tropes. People tell you to write what you know, don’t use flashbacks, don’t use the word “was” or “is”. No prologues. Don’t use adverbs. Don’t open on the weather. Don’t end on a preposition. Don’t use a thesaurus. Stephen King says, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” I find that sophomoric – and yes I got that from the thesaurus when I really wanted to say absurd. But it’s not a word I would use generally. The thesaurus is a great help. Of course – I also tend to use ‘of course’ a lot – you don’t want to get those hundred dollar words when a two dollar word will do. But the thesaurus is extremely helpful in helping you see things a little differently. But then he’s a lot more successful than me so maybe he knows something I don’t.

I follow or ignore any particular writing advice, depending on the story I’m working on. It’s not that I set out to be transgressive and break rules as an act of rebellion. I just do what works best for a particular story. I’m going to focus on one of those elements here: prologues. Personally, I find this one especially annoying. I like prologues…sometimes.

I’ve heard all the advice about not opening with prologues. And I think that might be good advice sometimes, but not all the time. And people who stop reading when they see the word “Prologue” might be missing out on some good stuff.

In my novel White Heat I open on chapter one – no prologue. Things get moving right away when a potential client comes into private eye Duke Rogers’ office with a job for him. In the sequel, Broken Windows, I start with a prologue.

If the prologue is simply to give backstory and exposition then maybe it’s not a good idea to open with it. But if the prologue opens on action, as it does in Broken Windows, which opens with a woman climbing to the top of the Hollywood Sign and jumping to her death, then it’s a different story. This prologue, which doesn’t involve the main character, hopefully intrigues the reader to want to find out who she is and why she jumped. And, once we get into the main story in chapter one, how she ties into that story.

In my World War II homefront mystery that I may have mentioned here previously, which will be coming out in, I think, 2020, I have both a prologue and an epilogue. I think they’re both appropriate to that story because those two sections take place in the present, whereas the body of the story takes place during the war. So they set up the action with characters that are related to or were in the main story. But they’re not exposition dumps. I think they frame the story and give it a certain perspective that just opening in the war years wouldn’t do.

Back in the day, when I was doing a different kind of writing, there was a producer who said if he saw ellipses in a script he would stop reading. Maybe he had a good reason for doing that. On the other hand, he may have missed out on some pretty good scripts, maybe even something he would have wanted to produce. Being so rigid, whether it’s ellipses or prologues – or other things – limits your possibilities. The key is whether those things work in the context of the story.

So that’s the bottom line for me. There are rules. And sometimes rules are made to be broken. As long as what you do works, go for it and be true to yourself and your story.

What do you think?

And now for the usual BSP:

The third story in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series, Fade Out on Bunker Hill, appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. If you like the movie Sunset Boulevard, I think you'll enjoy this story. In bookstores and on newstands now:

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Good advice, Paul. Whatever works.

DP Lyle said...

Excellent, Paul. This is a question that often gets tossed around at writers' conferences. Rarely with any consensus, however.
End of the day---if it works, it works.

GBPool said...

Though I have never used the word "Prologue" at the opening of a book or short story, I have basically used its identical twin in a few things. Sometimes it sets the stage for what is going to happen, but it usually is a perfect tease to get the reader interested in what comes next. TV shows have used it for decades and it still works, even though one particular TV series (NCIS) uses almost the same tease week after week - that's the one about two innocent people stumbling over yet another dead military guy. But if your story works with one, use it.

Susan C Shea said...

Great points, Paul. I'm with you!

Craig Faustus Buck said...

Rules are meant to be broken, indeed, Paul. Good thoughts. I, for one, don't like prologues, but that doesn't stop me from writing them. I just call them Chapter 1 and let the naysayers quibble.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dieter. That’s definitely my philosophy too.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, DP. As you say, if it works, it works. That’s all that really matters.

Paul D. Marks said...

That’s a good way to put it, Gayle, its identical twin. Sometimes it’s just a matter of semantics, so I have to wonder why the word alone turns people off since often Chapter 1 is basically a prologue by another name.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Susan, for your comment.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Craig. I’ve done that, too, called what really should have been a prologue Chapter 1, mainly because I didn’t want to turn off people with the word “prologue.” But lately I’ve been using it when appropriate.

Ellen Byron said...

I despise rules. They make me feel less-than. If you're any kind of decent writer, you should be able to work and what doesn't. Now that Stephen King's of a certain age, I wonder if he's still so anti-thesaurus. As I get older, not only does it provide me with word alternatives, it helps me recall a word when my aging brain can't bring it right to mind!

Paul D. Marks said...

Good point about recalling words our aging brains can't quite cough up, Ellen :-) . And definitely, we should be able to tell what works and what doesn't and people who are too rigid, well......