Prologues – are they ever a good idea?

There seems to be a fair amount of controversy over whether a writer should have a prologue in a book or not. Some think that if the information in a book is important enough to bother including,  it should be in a chapter. They argue that prologues are superfluous and if used, should be extremely short.

Martin Cruz Smith (who I adore), in one of his books, has a prologue that’s one short paragraph. But to me, if a prologue is that short, what’s the point? It could easily be worked into the main story.

I agonized about it, but I wrote a prologue to The Beggar’s Opera. The judges on the panel for The Debut Dagger split over it. Some loved it, others not so much and since I didn’t win or place in that competition, I sometimes wonder if I made the right choice.

But I couldn’t imagine how to introduce the information contained in it otherwise except as flashback, and I didn’t want it buried: I wanted the characteristic that made Inspector Ramirez interesting revealed right up front.

I’ll reproduce the prologue from my entry, below and you can comment, if you like, on whether you would have included it or not,  but I’m interested in what you think about prologues generally. Are they ever necessary? Should the information in them instead be woven into the main narrative? If they are used, is there a minimum or maximum acceptable length? What do you think?

PROLOGUE

Ricky Ramirez’s parents stood outside, speaking in hushed tones with the doctors. His grandmother’s hand felt like wishbones in his small one. Her eyes were still closed and she breathed shallowly. The room smelled of tobacco and anise, mixed with sweat.

             He was surprised more than frightened when she suddenly sat up and pulled his head towards her by the ears. She tugged so hard it brought fresh tears to his ten year old eyes. “The dead will come,” she rasped. “Your gift, as the eldest child.” He barely recognized her voice. She hadn’t spoken for days.

           “What dead, Grandmother? Are you coming back?” Dead people left, and as far as he knew, they never returned.

            “No,” she smiled weakly. She released her grip and patted his cheek with her soft brown hand. “As much as I would like to see you grow up, little man.”

             “Then who is coming, mamita?” He rubbed his sore ears.

             Her body slowly deflated onto the bed. She reached for his hand again.

             “Messengers from the other side. Eshu, the orisha, will send them to help you so you can help them. You will be a policeman, Ricky. I see it in your future. Treat them with respect, as they will you. But never forget this: Eshu is a trickster.” She whispered her last words so quietly that he had to strain to hear her. “This must be our secret: the gods are too easily angered. Promise me.” She squeezed his small hand.

             “I promise.”  

             She released his fingers one last time and her eyes closed again.

             As her hand cooled in his, he knew she was gone, just not where and he started to cry.

* * *

Once he overcame his sadness, the idea of ghosts excited young Ramirez. He wished, at the same time, that his mamita had left him something more practical, like a baseball bat.

              But weeks passed, then months, and there were no dead, no messengers, and no bats.

              His parents explained that his grandmother had died from a rare form of dementia that caused her to believe things that weren’t true. Her legacy, he eventually learned, was one of flawed genes, not sixth sight.

              By the time he discovered he was dying, Ricardo Ramirez was the Inspector in charge of the Major Crimes Unit of the Cuban National Revolutionary Police.

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2 Responses to Prologues – are they ever a good idea?

  1. Brian says:

    I like it. I sort of did two in Mojito – one to introduce my character in a different context – but then again I was writing in first person. I then introduced the situation by merging a real news report with my other main character.
    I think I will stand behind them as they were well received.
    I started rewriting a couple of months ago in third person on advice of my editor and I got about half way through when I realized I was losing the most valuable character development stuff.
    My editor thought it was confusing to go first person of main character, but then have other characters in their own chapters in third person.
    Reading both a couple of JL Burke books in first person (as well as my editor’s best seller) and Robt Crais in first person and with third person used for secondary characters I think I’m gonna go back and work on the 2ndary character parts and to first person.

    Like

    • Peggy Blair says:

      I had my first draft of TBO in first person with secondary characters in third person and it worked fine. I just find that I’m more comfortable with third person. I know that Helen Heller, who is a very good Canadian agent, indicates that authors are usually better at one or the other, not both, so if it works for you, I’d say stay with it. Thanks for the feedback, Brian!

      Like

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