The Problem with Prologues

If you’ve read 60th Hour, you may wonder why the first chapter takes place twenty years before the rest of the story. In a book that focuses on time, why have that outlier right at the beginning of the book?

The astute among you (who read the title of this week’s blog post), probably already guessed the answer. The first chapter was originally the prologue. In the draft version of 60th Hour (back when the working title was still Final Night), the story opened with a prologue recounting events during the Siege of Lavay approximately twenty years before the start of chapter one.

I like prologues. Some of my favorite fantasy books over the years have opened with prologues. They remind me of the “teaser trailers” for movies. The author gets a chance to intrigue the reader about situations which will be explained in more detail in the rest of the narrative. So naturally, when John and I wrote 60th Hour, we included a prologue.

Then I attended a writer’s conference and met with an editor who had reviewed the first ten pages of the novel. The editor and I had a very productive discussion about the manuscript. He told me, among other things, that fantasy novels should not include prologues because a lot of readers skip them.

While I found much of his other advice to be useful, I scoffed at that particular statement. Of course, fantasy readers read prologues! I always read them. Who ever heard of such nonsense? All right, I’ll admit that maybe everyone doesn’t read “Concerning Hobbits” at the start of LOTR, but that’s not a typical fantasy novel prologue.

When our rpg group met that Friday night for gaming, I remarked to my friends about the ridiculous advice I received regarding prologues.

“I never read prologues,” one of my fellow gamers told me.

I thought he was kidding.

“What do you mean?” I said, once I realized he was serious. “Suppose they are part of the story?”

“I don’t care. I never read them.”

Then someone else pointed out to me (either that same night or later) that ebook software is sometimes designed to start the reader at chapter one of the story, skipping over all the material before. The reader may not even know there is a prologue.

Needless to say, John and I were then faced with a difficult choice about the prologue for the novel. If we kept it, readers might skip it and miss important plot and character exposition. If we deleted it, I would have to spend time incorporating all that plot and character exposition into the remaining book without disrupting the existing narrative.

Or I could simply change the name of the prologue to chapter one and renumber the other chapters. Guess what I chose?

Of course, even the third choice presented problems. Suddenly, the novel contained a twenty year gap between the events in chapter one and chapter two. Would readers find that confusing?

So, I added “parts” to the novel. Part One took place twenty years before the end of the calendar. Part Two started three weeks before the end, etc. It felt a little clunky, especially since Part One was only ten pages long, but it seemed the best way to overcome the problems.

I guess the moral of the story is: listen to your editor. Or your gaming buddies. Or both.

But I still like prologues!

Susan 8/7/20

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