Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Prologues, pro or con?

I've read lots of debates about prologues on different literary sites. I don't have strong feelings either way, and have never been bummed out or felt led astray by a prologue. Children of the Waters is only my 2nd novel, so I'm no expert, but for this book it felt right to me to have a prologue. This prologue hints at what the story is about and is from the POV of someone we only hear from again once later in the book when the letter she writes in the prologue is read. I think it works because the prologue, even though from her POV, isn't really so much about her. And the first main character we hear from after the prologue is the granddaughter, Trish, she writes to in the prologue.

What do you all think? Prologues, for them or against them? What do you think makes a good one?

And as a little taste, here's my uncorrected, unedited prologue:

Time was short. Maxine Kuepper was starting to say things she didn’t mean. Yesterday, she told her granddaughter to Move my dish, when she wanted to ask her to bend her leg. Trish stared, stumped and afraid, yet all Maxine could do was yell the word “dish” over and over knowing that she wasn’t making any sense.

Cell by cell, bone by bone, Maxine was floating away. She didn’t know if it was the cancer or the medication that made her say such things. She was wearing a patch that released heavy doses of relief into her bloodstream, and still the littlest weight on her, like a sheet or the cotton nightgowns they dressed her in, hurt. The nurse promised that when the time came Maxine wouldn’t have any pain. “We’ll snow you out,” the nurse assured her. “Don’t worry.”

Maxine would die the way her daughter did: like a mermaid swimming at the bottom of an ocean of drugs. It was small comfort after all these years to believe that Jocelyn hadn’t been in any pain when she died. Jocelyn. Such a cultivated name for a daughter who would not be tamed.

They were coming for her, Jocelyn and John, her husband, both dead. She dreamed of them so much now that sometimes she could swear they were really here in this room, whispering their secrets to her. They were coming for her. If they weren’t already here, she knew they were just over the other side waiting. And even though she was only sixty years old and her granddaughter Trish was only seventeen, she was ready to join them. But she had one last thing she had to do. She had secrets of her own to tell.

She looked at the Polaroid picture she’d kept hidden for thirteen years. Not even John knew she had proof of this moment. There was Jocelyn, blond and movie-star gorgeous even after just giving birth, holding the baby, only hours old with a cap of thick dark hair. And Trish, smiling wide, skin, teeth and hair white as cream, on the hospital bed next to them. Both girls marked with a stain that couldn’t be washed away.

Maxine wished she had done things differently. But wishes are for the living. She sighed and pain rippled through her as her lungs pushed up against the battlefield of her ribs and the space where her left breast used to be. She raised the pen with the same amount of exertion that it used to take to lift a gallon of milk and began to write.

The nurse said don’t worry. But how could she not? What would they think of her? Would they hate her or would they be glad to know the truth? Probably both. But she would do this one last thing for them. She would make things right. As soon as Trish came home, Maxine would give her the letter.

I should have told you this a long time ago, she wrote to her granddaughter, putting everything that was in her battered heart onto the page so that when the time came cowardice wouldn’t seal her lips. Each word, a lifetime.

Just as she finished, she heard the front door open and close. Or she thought she did. Lately it was hard to tell what sounds were real and what sounds were memories sweeping over her like ocean waves. But if it was Trish coming in, Maxine knew she did not have the strength to see the look on her granddaughter’s face after she read this letter. She didn’t have the strength to answer the question she knew would come no matter how hard she tried to explain: How could you?

She opened the box, put the letter and photo inside, and replaced the lid. After she was gone, Trish would find everything she needed to know. When Maxine was buried, her lies would be unearthed. It wouldn’t be long now. She was sipping life from a glass that was neither half empty, nor half full, a glass emptying so rapidly she could see it in the eyes of the hospice nurses and the few friends who came to visit her at home.

The bedroom door opened, and Trish poked her head in. “Nana, you awake?”
Maxine nodded, thinking For now, and, Please God let them forgive me.


Travis Erwin said...

Just this week I cut the prologue from my most recent novel. It was three pages long and I saved about half a page and moved into into the first chapter. The rest I cut.

I originally thought it was important to set he pace and tempo but after rereading realized chapter one achieved that goal well enough on it's own.

I tend to think if you can avoid having a prologue that is the best tactic.

JC Martin said...

I took out the prologue out of my first manuscript. I incorporated it into my first chapter.

I had read so many articles that said if it doesn't seem to be missed then don't use it, that after reading it over and over again I realized I could have easily placed it in the first chapter and it would work better there.

I like your prologue though. Until I read the rest, I can't really say that it isn't necessary.

Dera Williams said...

I am for them. I don't care what Elmore Leonard says. I was told at a workshop to get rid of my prologue. I tried it and it didn't work for me. It shouldn't be long,just enought to whet the appetite.

Julie Layne said...

I'm neither for nor against. I don't dislike them at all. I like to be intrigued right off the bat, and often the prologue does that.

But here's the biggest question I have--if agents and editors hate them so much, why does almost every book I pick up, especially the most recently published, have one? I can't remember the last time I read one that didn't. Well, that may be an exaggeration, but still. If they are such a faux pas, how are these authors sneaking them in? Hmm? :-D

I'm solving my prologue problem by not calling it a prologue.

Julie Layne said...

I meant to say that I like yours very much! So, call it a prologue, call it chapter one, just don't call it quits. ;-)

I couldn't remember how you described the story premise previously, and reading this brought it back to me quite clearly.

Shauna Roberts said...

I love prologues. (I also love epilogues and flashbacks.)

I thought this prologue was great and it made me eager to read the book and find out the secrets. Write fast, Carleen!

Sustenance Scout said...

CARLEEN, you're amazing. Prologues work when they're well-written and this prologue rocks!! Congrats on sending your manuscript off, can't wait to see the cover, and wow I love the idea behind Stikk.com! I'll be sharing your news with my book club tonight. You know they're all cheering you on! K.

Carleen Brice said...

Travis, Let us know how it works out when your book sells, ok?

JC, Thanks for commenting. I've seen those articles too, but my book actually seemed to call for one. My beta reader even suggested it. Maybe it's a matter of WHEN to use a prologue?

Go Dera, go! You tell 'em and write it the way you want it!

Julie, I have the same question! Everyone seems to be in agreement, but yet pick up a book and there's a prologue. I doubt that readers mind them very much, but maybe agents and editors get tired of reading them?

Shauna, You're the all-around book lover! If it's between the pages, you want it. :) I tend not to mind flashbacks either, as long as they're appropriate to the story and not too long.

This story is written and in the editing process now--meaning my editor is reading a final draft. Will hit the stores in July!

SS, Thanks Karen! Glad you like it! Tell all the ladies I say hello!

Shauna Roberts said...

Yeah, you're right. At least I don't read all the text, front and back, on the cereal box as I did as a kid. :-)

Tayari Jones said...

i dig them. my second novel, the untelling, has a prologue. when i apply for grants or whatever, that's what i sent in.

my questoin is whether a prologue neccesarily has to be matched up with an epilogue. Is one without the other like having one book end?

Ello said...

CArleen - I love your prologue! It does exactly what you need - make me want to read more!

I should admit that I love prologues in general anyway, but yours is excellent. So when do we read more?

Carleen Brice said...

Tayari, I'm going to have to go back and reread your prologue.

Ello, After copyediting I'll post a couple of chapters on my sight. I'll send the word when I do. Thanks for reading!

rebecca said...
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Lafreya said...

I kept my short prologue because I felt there was information the reader had to know before the book began. I think prologues should be short and sweet maybe only a couple of paragraphs, at most a page or two. If it goes on longer than that it probably should be chapter one. I love your prologue I think it does what a prologue should do.

Therese said...

It all depends on the story. For SOUVENIR and REUNION, I needed prologues. For my newest, I don't.

My view is that a prologue is necessary only when it frames everything that will follow. In other words, it has to be essential to the experience of the story.

Yours is dynamite, by the way!

Larramie said...

It definitely depends on the story and yours makes sense here since it lures the reader in to discover the secret along with Trish. Now we simply have to wait until July...

Carleen Brice said...

Tayari, I reread the prologue from The Untelling last night--it's a beautiful piece of writing! No wonder you use it for grants!

Lafreya, I agree shorter is better. One of the considerations for me is timing. If the event in the prologue happens, as in my case, in the past, then it seemed better for it to be a prologue rather than chapter 1. Nineteen years go by between the prologue and chapter 1.

Therese, I can't believe you're already on #3! Good God woman, you're impressive! Now I have to go back and reread the prologue for Souvenir too. Glad you liked my prologue.

Larramie, I agree. As w/all writing rules, it depends on each story.

Kwana said...

Great prologue! I can go either way. I've never written one myself but so many books I read and enjoy have them. BTW love your T-shirt.

Josephine Damian said...

Carleen: I'm totally with Travis on this one, and I write thrillers which is where the prologue is the norm.

You first goal in your opener is introduce your main character (not someone we won't see again till much later on), get the reader emotionally involved with your main character's current conflict, not stuff from their backstory.

So, IMO, prolgues, especially ones that don't directly involve the MC, are a poor choice for an opener.

Carleen Brice said...

Thanks Kwana!

Josephine, You may want to skip my next book. :) Cause unless something drastic changes, that prologue will open the story.

I understand your argument that introducing the MC comes 1st, and this introduces something profound about the MC, which isn't the same thing. We'll see how it plays out w/critics. Watch, all the reviews will bash the prologue!

Demon Hunter said...

Bravo! I love it! I like prologues, especially when they add to the story as yours does. :-)

Lisa said...

I'm fine with prologues and I think this one is totally appropriate (and good!).

There are a list of things I've really gotten tired of hearing from people who'd like to tell the rest of the world how to write. A good writer (like YOU -- what will this be, published book #4 for you?) can judge when the use of a prologue is appropriate, can make good judicious use of the occasional adverb, knows when the passive voice might be effective and can tell and not show now and then. Too many people seem to grab onto the rules without understanding the intent. Whew! Thanks for letting me vent, but I do get tired of people who pontificate about things as if you should never do them.

Can't wait to read this one!

Jamie Ford said...

I used to be against 'em, and now my new book has THREE.

eringobragh said...

In support of the creative process and you as an artist, the most important words are "...it felt right to me..."

Carleen Brice said...

Demon Hunter, Thanks for weighing in.

Lisa, I know what you mean. For every rule there's a reason to break it. But writing students need all the advice we can get, which is probably why some cling to the rules as gospel. Besides, we see so many bad examples of when people break the rules. So, even though I don't agree, I understand where people are coming from.

Jamie, Seriously? 3? Explain please.

Erin, Thanks for the support!

sexy said...