We asked award-winning novelist and CBC tutor Lisa O’Donnell to tell us what she thinks about that most Marmite of literary devices – the Prologue. Here’s what she had to say – and she didn’t mince her words …
Prologues – I hate them. I’ve read a lot of novels in my life, but out of the many prologues I have been privileged to read, I’ve liked about five … Having said that, I did write one myself:
“Eugene Doyle. Born 19th June 1972. Died 17th December 2018, aged 38.
Isabel Ann Macdonald. Born 24th 1974. Died 18th December 2010, aged thirty-six.
Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my Birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard.
Neither of them were beloved.”
My debut novel, The Death of Bees. I use my prologue to cover lots of bases in a very few words: It foreshadows the narrative. It sews a secret to the reader’s consciousness, sets tone, but more importantly the reader is now intimate with the narrator, who may or may not have killed her parents. Hook established. Reader owned. But possibly the last prologue I’m going to write – because I really don’t like them.
The Prologue in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is one of my favourites because it’s powerful, it has purpose and it’s short. It doesn’t wear the reader out. The author’s focus is a father with his young daughter on his lap. They are peering at a penguin in a snow globe. Innocent enough imagery, but the daughter, unlike the father, is aware of the fragility of the snow globe. She remembers her father lovingly assuring her the penguin is safe on the inside, but the reflective voice of our narrator already understands there is nothing safe about this world. The prologue hauntingly foreshadows an omniscient voice and a tragic tale, while preparing the reader for the novel to come. In this instance the prologue has purpose. It foreshadows story, creates voice and sets up the tone of the novel, which allows the reader to suspend disbelief and invest in the novel.
I use the word “purpose” a lot when teaching because writers can get lost in a sea of unnecessary narrative devices – the purposeless prologue being one of them … Some of the prologues I encounter in my teaching do have purpose, but many are pieces of exposition in disguise, or a clumsy retelling of material that should simply be part of the novel itself.
Sometimes prologues are clearly the information the author needed to get going on the writing of the novel – rather than the information that the reader needs to find their way in. While I think it’s important that an author has knowledge of the world they are writing and the characters they have created, not all of that ‘knowing’ needs to be on the page. Some prologues are dramatic passages from later in the story, dropped at the front to get the reader gripped – but actually the reader experiences them as pieces of over-written melodrama, and is relieved when they can leave all that behind and settle properly into chapter 1! And there are other prologues which, in the name of attempting to hook in the reader, succeed only in revealing important plot twists – acting as spoilers for revelations that shouldn’t be made until much later in the story.
As you write on, you may begin to suspect that you don’t need your prologue at all. If that’s the case, then it probably means that your novel is doing its job. That being the case, have the confidence to set your prologue aside – if you save your drafts, you won’t actually be losing anything, and you can always restore it if you conclude you really do need it. Maybe you feel your prologue will make your novel better understood – and maybe you’re right. But it’s the unravelling of a well-told story that should make your novel understood, not 500 words of awkward narrative at the beginning.
To the Prologue-devotees out there, I understand your attachment to the prologue. It’s where you began, and beginning a novel is hard. The prologue might have made it easier for you to find your way in – it’s where your novel was born, and I recognise the confidence it can lend. It’s like a security blanket – you can’t let it go because it smells like your novel. But it’s not your novel anymore. Not if you are doing your job right.
If you do want your novel to have a prologue, figure out whether it works by asking yourself these key questions – and potentially even asking them of trusted readers giving you feedback:
- What is this prologue adding to your novel?
- What is its purpose?
- Is it telling your reader something about who they are starting to read?
- Is it telling your reader something about what they are starting to read?
- Is it foreshadowing anything meaningful in the story?
- Is it actually giving away too much about the story?
- Do you think the reader will be able to remember what happened in the prologue once they’ve got fifty pages into the novel?
- If you removed the prologue, has anything actually been lost from your story?
- And if that prologue goes, who is going to miss it?
If the answer to that last point is “the author”, then it’s time to lop it off.
Lisa O’Donnell is a regular tutor of our online Novel Writing Courses.
You can sign-up for our latest online Three Month Novel Writing Course With Suzannah Dunn, here.
Or, for more tips on how to edit your novel you can join a short online Edit & Pitch Your Novel course which focuses on polishing up your novel and putting together a compelling pitch package.