Saturday, March 08, 2008

To Prologue or not to Prologue

I like prologues. I think they are a useful tool in writing. When I develop a character in my mind they usually come complete with a history that makes them the person they are when the story takes place. In my first novel, Chase The Wind, I had a prologue that was the entire first half of the book because the story was really about Jenny, not Ian and Faith who died tragically and people cried about. Of course I had no clue then about the craft, I just wanted to tell the story.

I don't always use prologues, only when they are necessary to give some back story that would not come across well in the show/tell part. In Shooting Star I used a prolouge to explain Ruben's history. A story from when he was twelve that explained how he came to be a smuggler. In Star Shadows I did it to give some of the mythology of the planet Circe so the reader would realize the importance of Zander, even though the book was not about Zander but Elle and Boone.

I added a prologue to Forgive The Wind where my hero loses his leg. He lost his leg in a previous book, Crosswinds but it was told from the heroine of that books POV. In Forgive The Wind I wrote the exact same scene but told it from Caleb's POV since Forgive The Wind was his story.

Rising Wind has the most awesome prologue ever. My editor said she would have bought the book on the prologue alone. It described the hero's birth, sat up his future internal conflict and introduced the heroine and antagonist, all on the battlefield of Culloden. I love it when I get it right!

In my current wip I didn't start with a prologue since my hero had been introduced in Rising Wind. Then I realized that the intro was just plain boring. Basically it was a guy looking in a mirror.

Original beginning

“Pride goeth before destruction, John Murray, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
John Murray cast a blond eyebrow askance as his blue eyes switched from his own reflection in the small mirror hanging on the wall to that of his friend. “Quoting scripture again Rory?” he asked. “Did you ever think that perhaps you should have pursued a career in the church instead of the King’s army?”
“You forget, my friend, I have the misfortune of being a second son,” Rory replied, shouldering John aside from the mirror so he could arrange his own brown locks to his satisfaction. “Which means my life, alas, was predestined from the start.” Rory completed his hair and placed his hat at a jaunty angle atop his head. “And since I have no control over my destiny, I will be off to see what she has in store for me.” Rory threw up a mock salute and with his hand on his sheathed saber to keep it from catching on the door, left the narrow room that the two men shared.
“Destiny is what we make of it!” John shouted after him and returned to his perusal of his image. “Or so we tell ourselves,” he reminded his reflection quietly less someone walking by caught him talking to himself. That would not do at all.

It's okay. You find out the important information about John but it doesn't suck you into the story. So I added a prologue of something that happens later in the book. John's turning point and the reason he was such a jerk in Rising Wind. By adding this bit I also gave the reader something to think about. Why did this happen? How? When? Hmmm, maybe I should keep reading to find out.

Aberdeen. Scotland, 1773
A fine mist fell. John Murray could not help but shiver in his shirtsleeves as he stepped out into the damp gray gloom of early morning. A shudder moved down his spine as his eyes fell upon the post planted in the middle of the court yard at Castlehill. The ground around it was trampled, torn, and filled with the muck from the mix of rain and free flowing blood. Ewain Ferguson’s blood. No comfort for him there as his blood would soon join it.
Was she watching? His blue eyes scanned the ranks of his peers, all standing at attention in the despicable weather, all surely cursing his name because they were given orders to rise early this miserable morning and watch his punishment.
Where was she? Surely they would force her to watch since it was her fault he was here in the first place. Surely they made her watch her brother’s lashing as it was his fault that two men now lay dead.
There. He saw her. Standing straight and as tall as her petite frame would allow next to the General who was magnanimous in his show of mercy towards her. She was a woman after all, and nothing more than an instrument in the treachery of her clansmen.
Her hair was plastered down against her head instead of the mass of springy curls that framed her face like sunlight. This morning it seemed darker than its usual reddish blonde, whether from the rain, or the doom and gloom that hung over the courtyard, he could not tell. Her dress was stained dark with blood and the neckline gaped open, torn by him in his haste the night they were together. Of course she would have no way to mend it so it hung open, teasing him, tormenting him, just as she did the first time he met her. She had gotten into his head that day, damn her and all her clan before her. She had no choice but to live with the state of her dress since her hands were tied before her. Even though the distance between them was great he could feel her deep brown eyes upon him. That gave him a measure of satisfaction. A small measure at that but something to hang on to considering his dire straights.
If only they would lash her also. Did she not deserve it? Was not she as guilty as her brothers and her father in the planning and the plotting and the betrayal?
John’s stomach clenched in anger at the thought. No. It would not do to rip her pale, delicate skin. Knowing her as he did he knew that she would rather have the lashing herself than watch it. She would suffer more that way. She deserved to suffer for what she’d done.
“Best get on with it lad,” Sergeant Gordon said. “Dreading it only makes it worse.”
John ripped his eyes from his desperate examination of her face and looked at the grizzled Sergeant who served as his escort. “Aye, lad,” he said in his hoarse croak. “I’ve felt the lash. “Tis best not to think on it too much. The muscles bunch across your shoulders and it makes it much worse.”
John flexed his shoulders as he took the first step into the courtyard. “How can I not think on it?” He’d seen lashings. Plenty of them. General Kensington was generous in his discipline but he was fair. Twenty lashes was the usual sentence for dereliction of duty.
But he’d added another five because of the circumstance John caught himself in.
Let it be a lesson to all. Do not be swayed by a pretty face and the offer of favors. When John considered the loss of his reputation and the damage to his career, the lashes were nothing in comparison.
Still he knew they were coming and with them would come pain. John flexed his shoulders again. The mist had turned into a drumming rain and his shirt was soaked through. He felt goose bumps on his flesh. He hoped it was the cold that caused them, and not the fear.
“I know what you’re thinking lad,” Sergeant Gordon continued as they walked the innumerable steps to the post. “You’re thinking how will it feel? Will I be able to stand it? Will I cry out like a babe?” Gordon was right all on accounts. John felt a newfound respect for the man as they continued the gut wrenching walk across the yard.
Too soon they stood before the post and Gordon attached the hook to the bonds around his wrists. Gordon nodded to a corporal who jerked on a rope attached to a pulley and John’s arms were stretched above his head and he was pulled against the post. His boots sunk into the muck and the corporal pulled again so that he was stretched up onto his toes.
“Let him down a bit lad,” Gordon instructed. “Ye might find yerself in the same predicament some day.” The corporal relented and John was able to place his feet somewhat firmly on each side of the post.
Gordon looked beyond John to the burly man holding the lash. “He won’t be happy unless you cry out,” he said. “The man loves his job for some reason.” Gordon spat into the mud by John’s feet. “Sadistic bastard,” he added. He slipped a piece of wood in John’s mouth. “Bite down on it lad. Twill help.”
John nodded as he placed his cheek against the post. Gordon stepped behind him and ripped away his shirt. “Think on something else lad,” he added into his ear as the cold rain on his bare back let him know that Gordon had left him.
Think on something else…John blinked the rain off his eyelashes and looked towards General Kensington. He heard the sentence being read by Kensington’s aide, a nephew of the General’s with a squeaky voice and bad skin.
“Do you understand your sentence for the crimes you have committed?” the aide asked, his voice breaking on the last part.
John looked at the General and nodded. The General raised his hand. His face looked sad and John knew that the man was thinking about his father. They were friends. It was the reason Kensington had requested John be assigned to him. What would Kensington have to say to his father about all of this?
Think on something else…He knew the lash was coming. He could sense it coiling and gathering. He heard it whistle threw the air.
John looked at her. Isobel. Izzy. It was her fault. He trusted her with his life, with his soul, with his heart and she betrayed him.
He felt the sting of the lash. His back burned as he was slammed against the post.
“One,” the aide said.
Get on with it…
The next one came in the opposite direction. Marking his back with an X. A target. His eyes stayed on Izzy. How easy a target he’d been for her. He’d fallen like a rock into sea. Sunk right into her plotting. Captured by a winsome smile and deep brown eyes that seemed to hold the secrets of time.
The next one landed straight across, the splinted tail of the whip caressing his ribcage and tearing at the skin on his side as it hit against the bone.
John let out a hiss as he kept his eyes on Izzy. Her eyes seemed huge in her face. At one time he’d thought he could get lost in those eyes.
Damn her eyes. Three lashes and his back felt like it was on fire.
The next one struck straight down his spine. The man was thorough if nothing else. He seemed determined to flay every inch off his back in the strokes allowed. John pressed his wrists against each other as pain shot throughout every inch of his body. He pushed against the post, his body automatically seeking escape from the next blow.
Think on something else.
How could he not be tense when he knew it was coming? He heard the whistle of the lash once again. Felt his flesh tear. Felt the blood pour down his back. He groaned and clenched his teeth tighter into the wood.
Twenty to go. How could he stand it? He had too. Crying wouldn’t stop it. Begging wouldn’t stop it. Screaming his anger at the heavens would not stop it anymore than it would stop the rain that washed against his back and plastered his hair into his eyes.
Izzy. He stared at her, blinking against the rain. It was her fault. All her fault. Every bit of

When I get to this part in the linear story I will write it from Izzy's POV. So hopefully the prologue will draw the reader in and keep them reading until they find out why John got the lashes and what part Izzy played in it.

I've heard a lot of differing opinions on prologues. But if it works for the story then I say use it.


  1. As a reader, I dislike 99% of prologues. I almost always skip them because they're almost always boring. However, there are exceptions. The prologue to MASTER OF VERONA by David Blixt is the finest example of a prologue I've ever read.

    As a writer, I haven't had the need to write a prologue yet. If I do, I'll go back and read MASTER OF VERONA to remember how a good one is put together.

  2. As a reviewer, I almost always skip anything labeled "prolog" and as a writer, I've perpetrated prologs only when the purchasing editor insisted. In that case, it's an admission of failure on my part as a writer, and I have to try harder next time.

    If the prolog really is important, label it chapter one and the epilog chapter 12 or whatever the last chapter.

    If there's left over atmosphere type material, write the prequel or sequel.

    Of course the label does exist for a reason. We don't have words that don't mean anything. These story structure elements do serve a legitimate purpose.

    Some very old fashion story forms atually require prolog and epilog as part of the formula, so if that's your story form, then you have to use it. But in general, it's better not to use the label.

    Readers have learned to skip prologs because they have lately been slapped on by authors who don't know how to structue a story without one (or by editors who can't see how to fix a manuscript in time for publication).

    So someone of Cindy's stature and experience can get away with calling the opening a prolog because her readers trust her to deliver the goods. But I really wouldn't recommend it to someone with an unknown byline.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. The advice I've read is that the opening scene should be labeled a prologue if it's significantly distant in the past from the main action. That makes sense to me. I can enjoy a well-written prologue (and I never skip them -- even the boring ones may include necessary information -- I also find authors' nonfiction forewords and afterwords interesting). It seems reasonable that sometimes a distant-past back story is necessary to the understanding of the main action, and sometimes the most economical way to get across that information is to dramatize it rather than work it in gradually as the story progresses. But it does have to be dramatic and engaging to work for that purpose.

    As for epilogues, romance publishers often like novels to include a final scene dramatizing the long-term happiness of the couple, set in the future with relation to the main action. Again, it makes sense to label this chapter "Epilogue" instead of "Chapter 15" (or whatever), to make the time lapse immediately clar.