A prologue is defined as “an opening to a story that establishes the context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information.” (Wikipedia)
Think of it in terms of film. Often, the Mission Impossible series and the James Bond series starts with an opening, usually action, where the main character is chasing the “bad guy” intending to capture him or her, or of getting a hold of a document, a thumb drive, or a disk. Generally, the chase fails, which then leads into the story. This technique propels the viewer into the story before the first fist of popcorn is eaten. It is efficient and effective.
It is different in literature. Mostly used in fiction, it prepares the reader for the story they’re about to read by giving necessary information before the start of the novel itself. However, according to Tonya Thompson, “Literary agents looking to represent another best-selling author generally don’t like prologues. One reason is that they’ve read a lot of them. They’ve seen it all for a book’s beginning, especially from authors who take 500 words to describe an approaching storm or use the prologue to do something “different” or “cool,” which usually only results in completely confusing the reader.”
Practically, as my wife and my daughter would say (and they’ve said it to me often and in various ways), they skip the prologue to get right to the story. I argue it is a part of the story, but they tell me it isn’t necessary. Hmmm . . .
I use a different approach in my writing in two ways. First, usually begin my stories with a quote that defines the main character, gives an insight into what the main character is thinking, or the journey of the heart that the main character is embarking on or what the end result of the journey will be. I use the following three quotes in my book, Betrayed:
“You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.”
“Courage doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid. Courage means you don’t let fear stop you.”
“In the solemnity of endings, we find hope in new beginnings.”
The first two quotes describe what the main character, fifteen-year-old Brian, will go through. It isn’t pretty. It is sad and painful, both physically and mentally. The journey he embarks on is a struggle of self and of his heart. While it ends in a satisfying fashion, the struggle to get there is real.
I think that is why Brian has become one of my readers’ favorite characters. He’s genuine. He’s authentic. Readers see themselves, and perhaps their children, in Brian. As adults, we might have grown up with a “Brian.” We might have had a “Brian” as a friend. Betrayed is Brian’s coming of age, his growth to awareness of who he is- for better or worse. As I said, it is a struggle as often life is for each of us.
Which takes us to the third quote. This quote by Anne Scottlin tells us how the book is going to end. No giveaways, but a clue as to what happens to Brian after the journey.
I use quotes because they are short, yet meaningful. I am aware there will be readers, like my wife and daughter, who might not read them. I get that. But for those who do, as the pages turn and as the book finally closes, I hope the reader might say to him or herself, “Oh, I see! That’s why Lewis put that there!”
The second thing I do is rather than give the reader a prologue to slog through, I rearrange the chapters to propel the reader into the story. Using Betrayed as an example, the opening chapter was originally one of the last chapters in the book. The chapter is mostly a reflection of what is going through Brian’s mind as he is about to face those seeking to kill him and his brothers. Brian contemplates death. He reflects on his determination to fulfill a promise to protect his brothers Brett and George, and his acceptance that he might die in the process in order for his brothers to live.
The reader, understandably, reads that chapter and scratches his or her head, wondering how and why this fifteen-year-old kid is not only thinking about his death, but his willingness to sacrifice himself so his two brothers might live. I daresay that I’ve not found a reader yet who only read the first chapter (one and a half pages) without reading the next two or three chapters, or the rest of the book.
That first chapter sets up Brian’s (and the reader’s) journey. The reader might weep a bit. The reader might be disgusted with what takes place, or perhaps the choices that were made by some characters, but in the end, I think a pretty wonderful story is told. I leave the reader with more questions than answers. If a story touches a heart and a head, and if a story starts and ends with questions, that’s all the writer can hope for. The writer has done his or her job.