Avoid Prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.

–Elmore Leonard

Three Days Earlier…

We’ve all seen this, especially if we’ve been watching television lately. The show opens, we get hit in the face with some high-impact, high-drama scene and then, after just a couple minutes of this, right at the height of the intensity, the scene goes black and we see white-on-black text declaring, “Three days earlier…”

This is a flash forward, and it’s a plot device of which I have grown very weary. Frankly, I’m sick and tired of seeing this on TV and I am sick of reading prologues in books that slam you with action, drop a cliffhanger on you, and then chapter 1 shifts you to the “real” action.

An agent once told me that if you find yourself needing a prologue in order to start your book in the middle of the action, then maybe your book doesn’t start at the right place to begin with.

I feel like the folks writing the TV scripts have just gotten lazy. If you take the high-drama introduction out of the episode then what you typically see is a very long, drawn-out period of exposition. This long, drawn-out period can take up to half the episode to “catch up” with the flash forward in the prologue.

To me, this just comes across as lazy writing. Rather than figuring out an appropriate place to start in the plot, and mixing in elevating drama with the necessary exposition, they just punt and take the most exciting scene from the episode and throw it in as a prologue.

While you can make allowances for the fact that TV and books are two entirely different audiences, I still see this problem in books and I’m sure you have too. You start reading the prologue and it’s filled with drama and excitement and then it drops off at a cliffhanger, a cliffhanger that isn’t resolved until a third of the way into the main part of the book.

The bottom line is that if resolving a cliffhanger revealed in a prologue is your reader’s only motivation to get through the first third of your book, then as a reader, I feel disrespected and may not bother to continue with the last two thirds.

Not all prologues are bad, and in some books I have seen them serve a very valuable purpose and enhance the overall experience. On the other hand, it is  very easy to spot a prologue that is used as a brace to prop up a weak point in a plot or to cover for the fact that the story starts in the wrong place.

Moral of the story? Use prologues with care, they are weapons in the writer’s arsenal can be used with surgical precision or can be mishandled and used like shotguns, blowing gaping holes in an otherwise great story.

 

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