On my railing against the rules, I talked briefly about the ‘prologue problem’, and how it probably came into existence – misuse.
I mentioned in that little section that people may have misused prologues due to a lack of clear understanding of their job, and the difference between a prologue, a preface, and a foreword.
Then I moved on to whinge about other things without ever quantifying that statement. So today I’m going to ramble a bit more specifically on the topic.
Prolog and Prologue
Before I get into literature differences, I’m going to take a very brief moment to talk about the importance of spelling.
Prologue – something you will find before a story, poem or other written work.
Prolog – a high-level computing language used for things like AI.
Wikipedia is very naughty on this one because it will try to tell you prologue and prolog are both writing terms, but they no longer are. Prologue = books, prolog = robot overlords.
Another easy one to get out of the way is just what is a foreword.
Forewords are written by someone other than the author to introduce the reader to the text. They should not be a common thing, as they can seem very pretentious if one isn’t careful, at least in terms of fiction.
The best uses of forewords I have come across tend to be in historical works, especially if the foreword is from someone with their own projects derived from or inspired by the piece.
Example: Elizabeth Kostova’s foreword to Dracula. She was inspired by the book to write her own novel, The Historian, and she lived after Mr. Stoker had died. Thus, she gives us a foreword into an older work and shares a little of her own passion for it before we read the story.
Dracula doesn’t need this, it’s a classic for a reason, but it’s still an applicable and appropriate use of a foreword. It’s scholarly.
Forewords also work very well in less imaginary works. A foreword to a thesis on particle physics, by a known expert in the field, lends more weight and credence to the piece. However, I work in the fantastical, so I’m far from an expert on those. (Technically, far from an expert on most things, but I try, darn it!)
In general, a foreword should be scholarly, and it always comes first out of preface, prologue, and foreword.
Prefaces come next if you are using one. Unlike the foreword, a preface is written by the author and is usually not related to the actual setting, story or book.
A prefaces purpose in life is to let the author weep tears of joy and gratitude onto the page without smudging the story.
It’s for explaining why the text exists, how it came to be, and to whom the author wishes to give thanks. It might give the author some space to thank research partners, family and anyone else who aided in completing the work or dedicate it to a loved one.
It might let you know the contents within the book come from personal experience, or in response to some tragedy or joy.
But I shall say it once again to be clear: It has nothing to do with the actual story being told, nothing to do with telling the plot.
We’ve had strangers, we’ve had the author, now it’s time to start the book. And it’s likely it won’t be with a prologue.
A large portion of tales told simply don’t need one because a prologue has a specific job to do. If your story doesn’t need this work doing, don’t use a prologue. Go for chapter 1!
However, if you intend to start by:
Speaking as someone other than the main ‘voice’ of the work,
Starting in a different time period to the main story, or,
Highlighting knowledge to your readers ahead of time that the characters don’t have…
then you might need a prologue.
It must have something to do with the plot, too, in my opinion. Having a prologue of flowery world building, with no impact on the story, is a great way to reinforce the idea people have that prologues can just be skipped.
There are plenty of examples out there of good prologues. A quick visit to the beneficent overmind (Google) will reveal this, so I won’t bore you all any further here.
What I will say is that prologues can sometimes need to have more of a ‘hook’ than a book without one. Some element to snag the reader’s senses, without the benefit of a slow burn.
The reason for this, I think, is that labeling something ‘prologue’, then having ‘chapter 1’, not only extends the text leading into matters truly starting but the mental ‘pause’ we all do when transitioning from one chapter to another doubles that sensation.
I’m all for prologues, probably always will be… but please do use them wisely folks, and know the difference between it, a preface, and a foreword! It might save your life! (Disclaimer: Won’t actually ever save your life.)