Monday, February 7, 2011


It has been said of late that publishers don’t like to buy books with prologues. I can’t remember why; like so many pronouncements from the publishing industry, it carries the aura of someone speaking authoritatively when, in fact, he can barely distinguish shit from shinola. Given the current health of the publishing industry, this is not a great leap of faith.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Adrian McKinty’s much acclaimed Dead I Well May Be. (Yes, I know about the speed with which my wheels grind, but they grind exceeding fine.) The book starts with a prologue that not only sets up the character of Michael Forsythe but explains how this Irish lad came to be in the United States in the first place. Concise, an exceptional example of showing and not telling, and establishes the mood for what is to come.

Apparently the prologue police weren’t able to get to McKinty in his current digs Down Under, as 2009’s Fifty Grand begins with not just a prologue, but a teaser prologue that jumps to well into the book, leaving the reader with anticipation of what is to come, but never hinting at how he’ll get there.

A poorly-written prologue can be a useless appendage, a tail that doesn’t wag the dog, but precedes it. That’s no reason to look disfavorably upon them.  Prologues can also serve valuable table-setting functions, introduce characters and conflicts, and give the reader a taste of the writing before the story starts to roll in earnest.

Who shouldn’t write prologues? People who don’t write well should avoid them like the plague, although those folks probably should not write the rest of the book, either. Prologues should also be avoided by those who wish to adhere to conventional wisdom in the hope of improving their chances of publishing success, though conventional wisdom’s track record of late doesn’t have much to recommend it.

The avoidance of prologues is no more legitimate than the constant and sometimes unreasonable demands to “raise the stakes” to such levels the writer has no believable way of resolving the story. Does it serve a purpose, and not feel like a useless appendage? Leave it in. What the hell.


adrian mckinty said...
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adrian mckinty said...


Dec Burke and I have been arguing about this for years! He hates prologues, hates 'em, thinks you should just march on in there and stop pussyfooting around. He thinks that they are an affectation and bad style.

I disagree. I too hate a lot of dicking around but I have a real soft spot for a prologue that takes you somewhere different or somewhen different from the main story of the book or that just sets the scene for the action. I suppose the one rule about prologues is that they should NOT be more than, say, a dozen pages or so. It should be a taste not a meal in itself.

I like epilogues too but, er, thats a whole other thing...

pattinase (abbott) said...

I will read good writing wherever is turns up. And some pretty nifty writing has been in prologues. I never mind additional insight in the book's themes.

Charlieopera said...

Sometimes a title is as much a prologue as an "official" prologue. They all work ... or they don't. I'm with Patti and Adrian on this.

Dana King said...

I don;t often disagree with Squire Burke, but I think a good prologue does the exact opposite of what he implies. It can take exposition the book can't stand without, but would be awkward to put elsewhere, and present it in a concise bundle, thus getting things rolling far more gracefully than a lot of books I could mention, but won't. (THE DA VINCI CODE, mayhaps?)

Dana King said...

Good point about the themes. As I mentioned with plot above, the prologue can be a nice way to present a neat package to the reader right up front, without having to hit her over the head or jump through hoops to ease it in and hope they don't miss it, especially if you need them to have an idea in order to put a lot of other stuff into context.

Dana King said...

Good point. Your book, SHAKEDOWN, is a good example. It's not obvious what's coming right away, but it's always lingering over the reader's shoulder.

It occurs to me I'm probably making such a big deal of this because I'm preparing a book to go straight to Kindle, and it has a prologue. I was talked out of it when I submitted it to an agent, but I've put it back in. It's nice to get some feedback that says I'm not completely off the mark.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi, Dana --

Love the characterization of publishing pronouncements.

In the book I just finished (Tuesday) an unsuccessful writer named "Timothy Hallinan" sums up his impression of publishers:

"Publishers, he'd learned, operated most of the time from one of three positions:

1. Arrogance about their uncanny sense of the market;

2. Resentful imitation of whatever had stolen the market while they weren't looking; and

3. Blind panic that something was happening to the market that they didn't understand.

"They thought about the Market, it seemed, a lot more than they thought about Books."

I think that holds true even now, four or five weeks after I wrote it.