Storyville: The Pros and Cons of Prologues
Much like the discussion about “Should I get an MFA or not?” the opinions on prologues are divisive. I’ll try to shine some light on the subject today and not only tell you my opinion (with examples), but discuss the merits of having a prologue or NOT having a prologue.
What is a Prologue?
So, first, let’s talk about what a prologue is. It is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “the preface or introduction to a literary work.” Similarly, an epilogue would be “a concluding section that rounds out the design of a literary work.”
What Should it Do?
This is where we’ll start to figure out whether you should use a prologue with your novel. So, what should a prologue do? It should:
- Foreshadow events to come.
- Give back story and history, either recent, or a long time ago.
- Establish a point of view.
- Set the tone and mood for the rest of the book.
Now, what CAN it do? It can:
- Give clues about what’s coming.
- Give historical information and data.
- Feature events that happened a day, week, month, year, or decade ago.
- Showcase distant family members, the protagonist at a younger age, or even an entirely separate place or character that isn’t in the novel at all.
- Ground the mood and genre.
What should it not be? It should not:
- Essentially be chapter one. If you don’t have a good reason for separating this material from the novel, then you should just turn this prologue into the first chapter.
- Be unrelated—no red herrings, material that turns out to be a waste of time.
- The wrong genre, vibe, or tone.
I’ll list some examples below from a classic horror novel as well as three of my own books.
Example #1: "The Exorcist"
One that always comes to mind for me is The Exorcist. In both the movie and the book we start out in Northern Iraq:
The blaze of the sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man’s brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot sweet tea as if to warm them. He could not shake the premonition. It clung to his back like chill wet leaves.
They are on an archaeological dig, and that history, that authority, the amulet of the demon Pazuzu that is found and brought back—it’s setting this book up, giving depth and intensity to the old powers that will affect this vulnerable family. The focus when we get to American is with the girl, Regan, the mother, Chris, as well as Father Merrin and Karras.
Example #2: "Disintegration"
There is no past. My heart was ripped from me in a rush of flashing lights and sticky, yellow tape. There is no future. Vision would require hope, and that stealthy whore eludes me at every turn. So I float in the ether, pasty skin crawling with regret, eyes gouged out by my own shaking hands.
Very short. What this does is set the tone, give you some visuals (some very important clues), and a voice, establishing this is going to be gritty, dark, and weird.
Example #3: "Breaker"
In a city of almost three million people, a white van stands out about as much as a pigeon in a park. White vans deliver flowers, they carry plumbers, and boxes destined for front porches. This white van is unlike the rest; it has been customized. The flooring has been torn up and replaced with sheets of steel, powder-coated with black paint so they won’t rust or show stains. Metal drains have been installed, complete with catches, drilled in three separate places for easy maintenance and cleaning. There are thick metal eyebolts fastened into the frame in several spots, impossible to remove, at various heights up and down the walls. The gas tank is a custom installation, almost double the normal size, holding up to thirty gallons of gas, which means that it can drive for almost six hundred miles, to St. Louis and back, without running out of fuel. It can also cruise the dark streets all night long—for days, even weeks—before finally becoming empty, frequent gas station stops to be avoided. And the windows are tinted black, illegal of course, but hardly drawing any attention, so dark that even standing up next to them, it’s impossible to see inside. And for the driver, that’s a good thing—a very good thing, indeed.
The man behind the wheel is one of those three million Chicago residents, white, middle-aged, slightly overweight, nothing special, at least on the outside. He sits behind the wheel with a singular focus, hand pale as he clenches the wheel, in some sort of fever dream. He is looking for something specific, and his eyes dart from sidewalk to sidewalk—sometimes muttering to himself, sometimes singing along with the radio, sometimes crying alone in the dark. He is on the prowl for a special young woman, a girl really, that fits his singular taste—the right age, the right colored hair, and often, a certain outfit, specific clothes. He’s been doing this for a long time, and while many nights he came home to his family, alone, never having found his prey, there were other nights that he succeeded. On those nights, the van might be seen in Humboldt Park, or on the side of the road on Kedzie Avenue, or now and then on Lower Wacker Drive, the engine running, exhaust pouring out of the back, as inside the metal cage he goes to work.
This will be his seventh victim, the man thinks, as the radio plays Smashing Pumpkins, lyrics flowing into the cold metal space of the van, the killer in me, he hums, and then a turn signal is flipped on, down the boulevards of Logan Square, is the killer in you, he whispers. And even though it’s dark out, a dusting of snow on the ground, he spies four girls walking home—maybe from the library, he thinks, backpacks over shoulders weighed down heavily with books, hats on, gloves pulled tight, faces bright with laughter and discussion.
He slows down and tracks them as they slowly peel off, one by one, until there is just one girl, headphones on, a bounce in her step. Long, dark hair hangs out the back of her black knit hat, tied up in a ponytail with a pink bit of ribbon. A smile eases across his face and he pulls over to the side of the road. He leans across the van to roll down the window.
“Excuse me, sweetheart?” he says. She doesn’t hear. He tries again, louder. “Miss?”
She stops walking and peers into the van, her eyes dulling, no longer a sparkle behind them. Whatever smile she had a moment ago disappearing.
She slips off the headphones. “Yeah?”
“Sorry to bother you, but I’m lost. I’m looking for North Avenue, and I got turned around. Am I headed the right direction?” he asks, pointing south.
She steps toward the van but then stops. “Yes, that’s the right way. Just down about ten blocks.” She turns her head to the left and then the right, biting her lip, taking a breath. Her friends are no longer on the street. A few cars pass by, but it just looks like a father talking to a daughter, a scowl sliding over her face.
As the girl scans the street, the man looks her up and down greedily, and smiles again. “One more thing,” he says, waving her closer. “Real fast—come here, I can hardly hear you. Bad ear,” he says, tapping his head.
She thrusts both hands into her coat pockets, looking for something it seems. The girl smiles again as she takes a step forward. Now she’s leaning on the van as exhaust shoots out the back, white noxious fumes filling the air.
“Sure, mister, what is it?”
As the man opens his mouth to speak, the girl pulls her right hand from her coat and points a white plastic cylinder of pepper spray at him. She pushes down her finger and drenches his eyes, his face. As the poison shoots into his mouth, the man sputters and screams in pain.
“Fucking pervert!” she screams, darting down the street, through a metal gate, and into the safety of her apartment building.
He scowls, wiping his eyes. Reaching into a cup holder, he grabs a bottle of water and flushes his eyes.
When he can focus again, he eases the van forward and stares at the apartment complex. With blurry eyes pasting a fog across his vision, he makes a note: 2206 North Kedzie.
He won’t forget.
Much longer. What this does is show you a character, and a danger, that will hover over the entire novel. But this is NOT the protagonist. He will never have another POV moment. That doesn’t mean he won’t show up again, but this is in his head, his heart, and it sets the stage, gives us some clues, and prepares us for what is coming.
Example #4: "Incarnate"
As I stare across the never-ending whiteness that is my arctic prison, I realize that while I seek isolation at times, the work requires me to interact with the locals—we each have something that the other party needs. And out here in the frigid wilderness, the night creeps in, expanding across several months, making my life, and duty, that much more difficult. I’m not getting any younger, and the cabin I live in, while ringed with several layers of protection, is not going to keep me safe from my work.
I have to seek out my neighbors, this tricky relationship we have—my way of helping them to cross over, them giving me what I need to keep the shadows at bay. To the naked eye, I am an elderly man, at the edge of town, constantly chopping wood, planting strange bushes and flowers when the ground isn’t frozen, a smile and a wave as hunters pass by with their kill. Inside this ancient flesh, I’m something else entirely. Soon, the village will be buried, the passes closed by chest-high snowdrifts, roads erased, nothing entering, and no way out as well. It’s a good time to regroup, to heal, and prepare for the long night, as the woods will come calling soon enough.
My name is Sebastian Pana, and I’m growing tired, but there is much to do as winter approaches, never truly going away, always lurking, my life held in my shaky, freezing hands every time I step outside. There are so many ways to die here—the cold, the wet, the animals hungry at the edge of your vision, the isolation, starvation, drink, the traditions, and loneliness as well. I have few friends, and that is on purpose, but I am still human, for the most part. I long for companionship, as much as I seek out warmth, and enveloping peace. When I push out into the endless void, it is with a bright light, on the end of a long, sharp stick.
The veil is weakening, and they’re pushing through. I fear it won’t be long now.
Medium length. What this does is establish a place and time, a history, the encroaching danger, and the ticking time bomb of the long night that is descending upon this arctic village. It gives you some details, but most of this is in an abstract moment of reflection. This is not the first chapter because it’s not set in scene, very few concrete details—mostly emotion, introspection, and fear.
The bullet points and examples here all serve the same purpose—to provide you with some details so you can decide if a prologue is right for you. The authority, history, distant past, and different POV of your prologue can set up your novel in a profound way, so that when you hit the first chapter, you’re off to the races, full steam ahead, with some breadcrumbs and clues to help guide the way.
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