Sunday, September 1, 2013

Entry # 171 - "Pardon My Prologue"

Annapolis, MD - Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - 2013
Recently I wrote a story and I did something I'd vowed I'd never do. After I'd let that story sit for a while, I went back and added a prologue, a brief quote from a Dickens novel. No need to say which one - except that I thought at the time that  it seemed to help make a deeper human character connection. At least it seemed so a couple of weeks ago, but now I am having second and third thoughts about it.

So after a brief Q&A session between my reader-self and my writer-self, I realize I need to come up with some kind of justification for having a prologue, because I believe that unless you're writing the kind of soaring novel, that must give opening background so a reader has a place to stand, or unless you're writing an oddly formatted play that requires one so the audience can get aboard from the start, or unless you're Shakespeare or his sister, a prologue does more harm than good.
Annapolis, MD - Photo Credit - Jan Bowman
What does a prologue do in a short story? Well, I've been in workshops where writers insist on including one and I've found that prologues often pull readers away from making emotional contact with characters and their troubles. A short story is by design a tight fit for focused human emotions. Writers have an advantage in the short form because they get in, connect, leaving a trace that resonates, and then they get out, having left readers looking at something ordinary in an extraordinary way. For me, a prologue serves to distract and distance, rather than draw me into the story. 

Sometimes a prologue serves as a hook to draw readers into the story. Most prologues provide backstory, some of which is not necessary, useful or effective. Excess is distracting. In fact, I suspect that giving readers prologue information before they've met the characters and conflict, flies right past most readers who have not yet gathered enough of the story threads to make use of the information. In general, I think a prologue is not useful because the purpose is to offer information that could be better woven throughout a story. 

So now I'm left with deciding what to do about my little story that has a prologue, sprouting like unsightly facial hair from its chin and I need to decide whether to (a) get rid of it and tweak the opening paragraphs of my story more carefully, (b) condense the existing prologue to one 'threadbare sentence' - a challenging task when dealing with a sentence from Charles Dickens, (c) rethink it, get rid of it, and forget I ever considered it, (d) disconnect it from all things Dickens, and/or revise it so that it is really short, has a hook and 'only' connects.

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - Bay View - August 2013
Readers are bright people. Most don't require a prologue. Few care. And some are distracted and pulled out of story if one is included, so while I still haven't decided what I'll do with this particular story, it has caused me to spend some useful time considering why writers might feel the need to add a prologue to a work of short fiction?

About Jan Bowman

Jan Bowman’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others. Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers. Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, her stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, a Pen/O’Henry award and a recent story was a finalist in the 2013 Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction publications in Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at or
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