Huge debate: Prolog or Prologue?

Actually, I’ve known writers crazy enough to get into arguments over nonsense like this. Toe-may-toe or Toe-mah-toe? Prologue or Prolog? Seriously? The awful truth is they’re completely missing the point. Either spelling is okay, but using either is not. At least, not in a novel. If you’re writing a handbook for hustlers or a cookbook for caring cannibals, then go right ahead. A prolog may be just what you need. But if you’re writing a novel, there’s a better than even chance that what you put in your prolog/prologue will be ignored by a serious chunk of your readers.

Do you really want to take that chance?

Just for giggles, let’s assume that whatever it is you’re thinking about putting in a prolog is critical information your readers will need to have in order to gain the proper appreciation for where your story is, where it came from, or where in the world it might be headed. Let’s further assume you’re actually a real, live writer who can string nouns and verbs together in a readable fashion. Fair ’nuff? Okay.

So, why not make the prolog material just as readable as the rest of your story? Why risk dumping it off to the side where some readers will zip past it like they do stranded rush hour motorists on the Interstate?

For many writers to whom I’ve offered this alternative, the suggestion is often received not as a useful tip, but as a sad reminder that they haven’t finished writing, and that they can’t simply pour out some historical background stuff in pseudo-scholar mode and get away with it.

That said, one needn’t go overboard the way Michener did in Centennial, where the first 80 pages or so dealt with the formation of the Earth, heaving seas of molten rock, the rise and fall of magma, and shifting tectonic plates, among other things. (Sorry Jim; that part sucked.) All of which merely justified the existence of a cave in Colorado. (I’d have been tempted to go with something like: “Look, Lame Beaver. It’s a cave!”)

When I was working on Under Saint Owain’s Rock with Barbara Galler-Smith, my writing partner at the time, we wrote a prolog explaining the existence of an ancient letter which spilled the beans on someone supposedly a saint. The entire plot rode squarely on the back of this tidbit, but it took place some 700 years before the rest of our story occurred. Fortunately, we had the good sense to recast that bit of data into a very short, but still interesting opening scene. A punchy first line helped a lot. See for yourself:


Llancerriog, North Wales
— August, 1307

Owain cover 2013Sainthood required more than a massive headstone and a dozen village idiots. Finally, Owain — Saint Owain — lay dead, and all Meleri could think was good riddance.

That didn’t mean the truth had to be buried with him. She wrote a letter of confession meant for the Abbot of Sant Dewi’s monastery, and for his eyes only.

Knowing her soul depended on its contents, she listed the name of every villager who had taken part in the affair and recorded, as faithfully as she could remember, the role each had played. When finished, she signed her name and affixed the family seal. All she needed was a safe place to hide the letter. If anyone asked about Saint Owain, she’d deliver it and let the world know the truth — though it ruin them all.

Kindly pardon the blatant plug, but the example is entirely appropos. If the material is good enough to include in your book, why not make it as compelling as the rest and include it right at the beginning? Yes, it’s backstory, but it’s essential, so treat it that way. Hook your reader with it! Make them drool to find out just exactly why it’s important. 

That’s the way to handle a prolog. Or prologue. Whatever.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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3 Responses to Huge debate: Prolog or Prologue?

  1. Susanne says:

    I’ve never seen it spelled “prolog”. That spelling kind of makes me think it’s a new kind of technology to exchange information. One day, if I ever write a book, I will keep your sage advice in mind.

    • joshlangston says:

      In which case, I’ll look forward to your book. [smile] Fair ’nuff? (But, just so you know, the shortened spelling did come about as a computer programming issue.)

  2. Gerald W. Flinchum says:

    Prolog sounds like a new kind of bait? I call it a Preface in non-fiction world, trying to hook a reader.
    Maybe in the fiction world, the bait will just slide off the hook! So skip it.

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