A Long Thought on Prologues

Around ten years ago I wrote a story that was my first complete mystery novel, the first I had professionally edited, and the first I tried marketing.  It’s been sitting in a computer file since.  I learned a great deal about writing from it, and even more about editing.  And I still love the story.  Since I’m in the middle of a dry period for new stories, I recently pulled this old friend out.  Looking at it from a position of ten years of writing and learning, there are just so many things wrong with this one.  And yet, like the best friend you love in spite of her faults, I still love this story.  So I’ve started playing with it, more to force myself to work with words than anything else, but I realize I’m enjoying renewing acquaintances with old characters.

The first thing I noticed was that  I opened the story with a dream sequence.  Most writers will tell you that’s a symbol of a beginning writer.  After much thought I realized I wanted to impart information about the protagonist’s character, about something that happened to her in her past that now follows her.  And I wanted to do that without giving away current information that would be fed throughout the story.  I chose the clichéd dream.  Reading it I realized I was cheating the reader, dropping them into action, pulling them into involvement with the character, only to yank them back as if saying, ‘Fooled you, it was a dream, you can’t care about this character yet.’

In my current revising, I still want to impart that important background scene, but the dream had to go.  I pulled out my favorite book on writing, Between the Lines, by Jessica Page Morrell, and read her section on prologues and epilogues.  And then I rewrote the dream as a prologue, cutting over half of it out.  Why?  Because as Jessica points out, prologues work best when they are very short.  They also work only when the information in them is vital to the coming story, and yet not part of the story.  If they were integral to the story, then they would happen within the story.  As with this one, I had a specific event that completely changed the way my character thought, acted, and lived.  But my story starts a few years after this event, which is important only because it foreshadows the person she becomes.  Throughout the story the character will respond to an event or act a certain way, and the reader will share that with her, understand why she is who she is, while the characters around her will not.  For me, that adds tension between the characters, but also pulls the reader into the story, allowing them to have something private they share with the protagonist.

I’m not sure if the prologue will meet all those ideas, or even work.  I’ll find that out as I continue to revise.  But for now I like it better than that dream sequence.

So have you used prologues?  Why did you choose that device?  Did it fulfill what you wanted it to?  Any thoughts on prologues?

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