Prologues…Taboo or Not Taboo?

Warning: quite long.

It is, apparently, an old saying that you should not discuss politics or religion.

As society progresses, other topics are added to this list, things that nobody should discuss except with great care.
Some communities have added sports to the list.
Then there are the topics that teachers warn students off from discussing.
There are even jokes: never discuss rulers at a nudist colony.
Apparently, even weather is becoming a taboo topic in some circles.

And there are the serious topics that apply to specific types of groups.

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To some people, it would appear that prologues and epilogues (shortened to a collective “logues” for the rest of this article) are fast becoming a taboo topic among writers…at least among beginning writers.

Everyone has their own opinion of what makes a good logue, or whether such a thing even exists.
And heated debates can occur when one person disagrees with another.

Some people say never to use them.
Others say they can be used as freely as any normal chapter.

Still other people feel they can be used, but that they should meet certain criteria.

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In my experience as a reader, logues should usually be distinct from the rest of the story, otherwise, why bother giving them the label?

There are many ways to separate them from the main story.
A prologue can cover the history that leads up to the story, as in Belgariad’s cracking of the world and recaps from previous books.
An epilogue, likewise, can show the long-term effects of the story’s events, or specific details from a planned sequel.

If the story is written entirely in one character’s point of view, logues can tell that same story, or some aspect it, through the eyes of some other character.

They can even tell a smaller story that has almost no connection to the story at large, so long as some connection exists.
In this, we have the plane crash at the beginning of Clive Cussler’s Sahara and the pounding of the drums on a foreign beach at the end of Jumanji (movies count, too).

Finally, they can include technical details and definitions, such as the terms used in The Perfect Storm, or the Elvish language in Lord of the Rings…though these are often at the back in the form of an “appendix.” 😉

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From my experience as a reader, good logues often fill another criterion, though it is by no means a crucial one.

That is, that they provide interesting information to the reader who chooses to spend time with them, but they can be ignored without confusing the reader.

This may not have been the case when logues were first used.
But with the attitude I’ve found of late that many readers skip the logues, the wise writer might at least consider this angle.

The reader doesn’t care about the thousands of years of history and the cracking of the world, or some woman who is never mentioned again after she crashes into the desert? Or the reader understands the technical terms used on a fishing boat, perhaps even has a career working on such a boat?
The reader should be allowed to skip straight to chapter 1, and still understand the story.

The reader doesn’t care about what happens thousands of years later, to characters never mentioned earlier?
The story should still “end” even without the epilogue.

But for the reader who does want the extra information…good logues shouldn’t waste the reader’s time.

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Now that I’ve laid out my rules, it’s time to break them.

If you write a chapter that fulfills all of these criteria, you aren’t required to call it a logue.
Chapter 1 of The Sorcerer’s Stone was plenty distinct from the story, but Rowling didn’t call it a “prologue;” she called it Chapter 1. Likewise with later books. I think she did call the final chapter of the series an “epilogue,” though.

Some “prologues” are merely a later chapter, sometimes near the end of the book, written in a different perspective.
Opinions vary, but I have to say…don’t. Excerpts happen, but when the book includes them as excerpts, they are no more “chapters” than the author’s notes or acknowledgements. And a spoiler is a spoiler.

Finally, there is the rule of just how critical logues are to the story.
If you want to make your logue crucial to understanding the story, go right ahead.
Just remember that many readers will still choose to skip the logue, and these may be lost and confused in the story. And probably disappointed in the author, with good reason; your job is not to force the reader to struggle.
That being said, one of my stories does have an epilogue that is rather crucial…the story would end on a cliff-hanger without it. The only question is, do I call it an epilogue?

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So you’ve spent all of this effort on the thousand years of history, or the thousand years of aftermath, or explaining just why that crashed airplane was not a deus ex machina.
You want people to read it, to see that part of the story, but you’ve seen so many articles advising against using logues. And you can’t simply drop all of that into the story without a data dump…yet another taboo.
So what is a writer to do?

I don’t know about you, but I know what I’d like to try….
I found this suggestion on another blog–specifically, one of the reader comments on Kristen Lamb’s post: The Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues (comment #30 as of this writing, by Suzanne Lucero)–that prologues could stay out of the book and just be added to the author’s website.
This suggestion doesn’t apply to epilogues, for obvious reasons…but it could be a great way to introduce readers to the story’s world.

So now, finally I and my prospective readers have some idea of just what else I mean to start posting, both here and on my Shattered Waters blog. And maybe my secondary deviantArt account.
Once I sort through my drafts and find something worth posting.

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5 Responses to Prologues…Taboo or Not Taboo?

  1. Well said. In my current WIP, I added/deleted the prologue multiple times. When I signed up with an agent, I expected he’d have a decisive opinion, but not a word was said.

    Should we call this a tempest in a teapot?

    BTW, I like the idea of putting the prologue on the author website, a nice way to market the book.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Wandering One “prologue” | Pioneers of the Shattered Waters

  3. Pingback: The Supremacy of language, heaven, god, and society « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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