Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Dark Power of Prologues

I’ve wondered for a long time whether I like prologues, endure them, or hate them. And I’ve finally made up my mind. They are a force of darkness and must be stopped.

Case in point: a brand spanking new book by one of my favorite authors.

I followed all the usual steps when reading a sequel to a beloved book (i.e., rereading the original to be able to accurately remember the perfect bouquet created by the mixture of words, plot, and characters). Then I picked up the new book, feeling its weight, the smoothness of the paper, and the possibility it represented. I opened the book, with excitement filling my soul, and read the prologue.

What followed was not what I expected. I set the book down, looking at it as though it had bitten my puppies. Paced near it, worried it might jump up and swallow me like some creature in the Aliens movies. And, as a lifeline, I called a friend who had recently started the same book, begging her to read it quickly and tell me whether it ended well.

I am against reading the ends of books, or even the back covers if I can help it. They give too much away for me to be interested in taking the journey. I especially don’t like when a friend says, “You’ve got to read this book” and then precedes to tell me the entire plot. I might be finicky, but if I don’t have the chance to discover the story’s journey on my own, it’s unlikely I’ll ever pick it up.

And that’s what the evil prologue did: it told me the end of the book and I didn’t like it. I didn’t have the context or the chance to go there with the characters, because I already knew what was going to happen. And I hated what was going to happen.

So, I took some time reading other things while my friend read the book (I even enlisted another friend to read the book, too, so that I would have two perspectives on the ending).

On Saturday, my friend called and said, “Now, you’ve got to ask me very specifically what you want to know.” (Hey, good friends know us well, wonkiness and all.)

So, I asked very specific questions about the ending (not everything, just the one thing I felt I knew from the prologue). And I was right. And I lost it. Actual tears about fictional characters and an ending I didn’t want happening to them... or me.

(Now, in my defense, it is one of my favorite books with my favorite characters and I’d just come in from mowing my lawn in 80 degree heat and 90 percent humidity. Depleted might best describe me at that moment... or I’m a crazy person. Special thanks to the friend for not pointing that out.)

I ranted to my friend. She wanted to tell me more, because she said there was absolutely a reason for the ending. But I wouldn’t be appeased by that, declaring that it was a terrible ending regardless of anything else in the few hundred pages. My friend allowed the rant (and very wisely/kindly didn’t bring up the fact that in one of my own books, I killed one of her favorite characters... which I have not been forgiven for by any of my readers. I still get texts every once in a while protesting that action, in the hopes that I will bring the character back).

Finally, after my personal storm (maybe breakdown) subsided, I asked, “Do you feel hopeful about the ending?”

Her answer: “Yes.”

And that made my decision. Without taking the journey, the ending made me feel hopeless. It couldn’t get much worse than that, so I sat down and read the book.

And I loved it. Completely and totally. The writing was so beautiful I had to pause, as though every line was poetry to be savored, not devoured. And I did cry, but the ending was hopeful, well reasoned, and the temporary loss is offset by the new possibility of something much bigger. Yeah, I did cry, but in some ways, that is the mark of a tremendous author, who can get us to connect with fictional characters so much that we are personally invested in their lives, hopes, and dreams.

Now, back to the prologue. It wasn’t necessary. I would rather have taken the journey not knowing the end. I wouldn’t have gotten myself all in a fluster over the ending of the book if the prologue hadn’t existed. They are intended, in most cases, to be a teaser, but the teaser shouldn’t cause the reader to set the book down and walk away in horror.

I am certain each of us has different feelings about prologues, but I have resolved to never read another one... or write another one if I can help it.

In this case, the prologue did nothing but potentially keep a reader from a book. If I would have read the prologue in the bookstore, I would not have bought the book and would have been denied an amazingly beautiful story.

I’m curious what you think about prologues. Friend or foe?

Quote for the Day from Douglas Adams

“I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be.”

10 comments:

Jemi Fraser said...

You have some great friends!

This does not sound like my kind of prologue either. I NEED my hopeful endings - I like them happy, but can live with the fact that many of them can only be hopeful.

I'm so glad you made it through the book and it was well done. :)

Love Douglas Adams!

Julie said...

Jemi,

Yes, the friends are keepers... at least I hope they'll keep me. :)

I'm with you; hopeful is a requirement. And the book was certainly worth it (thinking as I ponder a second read because the language of the book is so beautiful).

And I love Douglas Adams, too. I might need to reread all his books sometime soon. They certainly fit my "find happy thoughts" mood lately.

Thanks for the comment.

Kathy said...

OK, I don't read the prologue; I look at the last chapter to see if my characters are alive. Last book I bought it didn't seem to go well for my character. I did not continue to read. I had my husband read the book. He confirmed my fears. But the author's new book with the main character comes out in September; soooooo I'm waiting to read.

Ah yes, I am still and will continue to be a last chapter scanner :)

Sarah Callejo said...

I like your style, this is beautifully written.
I often read the prologue and forget it the instant I start reading the book. I haven't yet found one that put me off reading the book though.

Al said...

I loved your post.
I personally like prologues. I like the way they give a hint of where the story will go.

Kasie West said...

I'm not a prologue fan. Mostly because it makes me have to start a book twice. The beginnings of books are normally my least favorite because I have to learn the characters and the stakes--the work part. The middle/end are me fully invested in the plot--the fun part.

And the book you're talking about, yes, totally unnecessary prologue. Sorry I didn't read it faster for your second perspective. :) But we will talk about it soon.

Julie said...

Kathy (a.k.a. Mom),

I know of your evil end-reading ways and I still disapprove, but this was the first time I actually considered it. I'm so glad to have friends to help me in my hour of need, just as you have Dad to do your first read/warning work. :)

Julie said...

Sarah,

Thanks for the compliment. And before this book, I'd never found one that made me want to put the book down and race for the hills. It's difficult to give them up, because sometimes they do have information that is relevant to the story. Maybe, I'll have my trusty friends read the prologues first and tell me if they are important. It's all about using our resources, right?

Julie said...

Al,

Thanks so much. And I totally understand the other side. I know that my need for total discovery is a bit of a fickle thing, but I just can't seem to let it go. :)

Julie said...

Kasie,

Your reason is so interesting. I never would have thought of that.

And I, with my benevolent nature, do hereby accept your apology for not reading speedily... due to being a good mother, traveling constantly, getting sick, having your eyes fabuloused, cleaning, etc.

I can't wait to talk to you about the bad prologue but otherwise amazing book. :)