Purgatory Ridge: In Praise of the Prologue

winter01People get angry over prologues.  It’s weird.  They seem either to love them or to hate them.

Me, I love prologues.  Looking at my own work, I realize that almost every novel I’ve written has opened with a prologue, though I don’t always call it that.  Boundary Waters begins with Chapter One, but the whole scene is, in reality, a prologue.  Blood Hollow, the fourth book in the Cork O’Connor series, begins with a three-chapter scene, a long arc structured to read like a short story.  Purgatory Ridge begins with a section titled November, 1966.  It’s a prologue.

A prologue can be a powerful technique for grabbing a reader’s interest.  It requires no set up and no immediate resolution.  It must, of course, be significant to the story in some way, must somehow tie deeply into the narrative, otherwise it’s a cheat, and unsatisfying in the end.  One of my favorite prologues occurs in Dennis Lehane’s novel Gone Baby Gone.  It’s a brief but compelling portrait of a woman who, clearly, has something to hide.  Her secret isn’t revealed until almost the very end of the book, but when the reader understands the connection, left dangling for three hundred pages, it’s a marvelously satisfying resolution.

winter02So I began Purgatory Ridge with a prologue, a scene in which a great ore carrier sinks in a horrific storm and the sole survivor is left grief stricken.  That character doesn’t reappear for several chapters, and the part the sinking plays in the storyline isn’t revealed until several chapters after that.  But when the reader finally understands the connection, a great deal of the underlying motivation for the story falls easily into place.

I don’t understand the objection to prologues.  If you want to write and give me your own perspective, I’d be happy to carry on a discussion with you.  If you’ve got examples of prologues that don’t work—preferably none that I’ve written—I’d love to know what they are, and why they don’t work for you.

In the meantime, I’m going to hold to this literary device.  The book I’m working on now, a great Cork O’Connor novel titled Vermilion Drift (due out probably in fall of 2010) opens with a prologue that’s less than a page long and is, believe me, compelling as hell.

3 thoughts on “Purgatory Ridge: In Praise of the Prologue”

  1. > I don’t understand the objection to prologues.

    My objection to Prologues: 90% of them are simply Chapter One.

    Many authors with whom I’ve worked (and many more that I’ve read) seem to think that Prologue = the First Scene. That isn’t so. Chapter One is Act 1, scene 1 of the story. A Prologue is more foundational. Its action should spread underneath the entire story.

    Ever read Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing? Point #2 begins:

    “2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.”

    While I think he is over-stating the case, his advice warrants consideration. I think he’s oversiimplifying in stating that a prologue is only backstory. It usually is, but a Prologue done right is more than backstory. It’s set-up. It is foundation.

    Purgatory Ridge’s Prologue is a true Prologue. The events therein are the foundation of the entire book.

    Could the novel work without it? Yeah, probably. But it adds so much to the story that its absence would be sorely missed.

  2. By the way, Purgatory Ridge was the first W.K. Krueger book I ever read. It was the one that hooked me, and it’s still one of my favorites of all your books.

  3. I think a prologue might best described as a “teaser”, a bit of bait to grab the reader, set the stage just a little, and, as Kent suggests, drop something in whose significance won’t be apparent until well into the story. Chapter one starts the story–no teaser: the curtain is up and the play has begun, so to speak. I’m with Kent on this.

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