It’s connected to the last post, for obvious reasons, but deserves its own little slot. Conventional modern wisdom on writing, especially within the crime genre, seems to be chipping away at various components of the fictional landscape. For example, you’re not supposed to use adverbs. Which is fine if you think “whispered” is a synonym for “said quietly”, but it isn’t. Nor is “leaning in” or “lowering your voice”. Sometimes people just say things quietly. (You should hear me, for example, when I read someone telling me not to use adverbs). They’ve been around a while, you know? It’s probably you that needs to justify picking up a pen, not the adverbs justifying why they should flow from it.
But I’m – possibly – in a bad mood, so let’s move on. What I’m most concerned about is the ton of shit advice you can find about how you shouldn’t use prologues. What a waste of time, people seem to think. Just call it ‘Chapter One’, or cut it. Why are you slowing me down? What is this – why am I not being launched into the middle of the action? And so on. (I’m not talking about you, incidentally). But I like prologues, and so I thought I might as well blog about some of the perfectly acceptable situations in which you would choose to use one, regardless of the fact you will then be villified for doing so by brainless idiots who should really be killed.
1) Prologue as flash-forward
Your book doesn’t start with a bang, so you might want to develop the characters a bit first. In the meantime, the prologue gives the reader a taste of some terrible situation they’re going to find themselves in later, and the more convoluted and ‘impossible’ it appears to get out of the better. Fight Club starts this way; Palahniuk calls it ‘chapter one’, but that’s really just semantics. If you think it would diminish the overall story to call it ‘prologue’ instead then you’re an odd person and no mistake. And must presumably hate the film. And many other films and books. And yourself.
2) Prologue as loop.
Like Scream, basically: a microcosm of the plot played out before the main story begins. In a crime novel, it might be a ‘previous victim’ scenario. Lots of cool uses for this, not least of which is a bit of initial excitement (it’s a flash-forward, to an extent) and foreshadowing. At a basic level, this says: a) this isn’t the main character; b) this is the main bad guy; c) the bad guy is pretty scary, and the main character is going to have to deal with this. I’m a low-brow guy: think of Serenity (which, if you haven’t seen, you fucking well should) and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s little pointy-finger nerve twist/seppuku riff. How hard is he? Well, we’ll find out.
3) Prologue as flash-back
Some key event in the past. Think of the beginning of Cliffhanger (which, if you haven’t seen … well, that’s totally up to you, to be frank). Examples within crime fiction are too numerous to count. The prologue here is giving you bits of background information on the plot, which will become variously relevant as the book goes on. Why not include this as backstory? Firstly, because conventional wisdom derides backstory anyway, so you honestly can’t fucking win. More importantly, because backstory is usually told, and showing tends to be better, and you may not be able to tell. And – while we’re at it – why not tell Chapter One as backstory too? And then Chapter Two? Carry on that way and we can all go home, can’t we. (Which makes me think of this).
But most importantly of all, why should you? Which leads us on to…
4) Prologue as punctuation.
Very few people have a go at chapters, do they? Section breaks tend to escape unscathed too (although people will sometimes have the whole ‘should it be a chapter break?’ conversation). And nobody sane – absolutely nobody sane – ever has a genuinely-felt pop at full-stops and commas. The lesser-spoken truth is that we all know the white space in a book can be as important as the words: because it’s part of the rhythm, and it helps to communicate to a reader how you want the text to be read. Why have a break between Chapters One and Two at all? It’s punctuation, that’s why. It implies a pause – signals a disconnect. And that’s exactly what a prologue does too, only the rules are slightly different. It tells you it’s separate from the main narrative – doesn’t share the same beat as chapter-to-chapter breaks – but connected enough to justify inclusion, and sooner or later you, as the reader, will work out why. That’s a pretty special type of punctuation to have at your disposal, and it really does seem a shame to throw it to the floor and stamp on its beautiful face out of spite.
None of which is to say you should include a prologue in your novel. But please, for the love of Christ, don’t listen to the people who say you shouldn’t. Do what works. And include one in your short stories by all means. In fact … well, you know. Do it for the sake of it.