Wednesday, 4 August 2010

AlphaThoughts: On prologues and Wilkie Collins

I have opened my first ever novel with a prologue.

Many writers out there will know that this is a controversial topic.  Apparently a large number of first-time novelists start with a prologue.  It can be used as a way of justifying the writing to come – like prologues and epilogues in Shakespearean and Jacobean drama, that told the audience what was to come, and apologised for it afterwards.  Alternatively, it can be used as a way of foreshadowing what will come later, if you need your reader to anticipate the future but can’t make that happen from the first scene.

Many writing technique books caution against the use of prologues unless absolutely necessary, saying it’s better to jump right in on that first scene and make it shine enough to keep the reader turning pages.  But, when a prologue is used in the right way, the effect can be arresting.  Wilkie Collins’ very first line of the ‘Preamble’ to The Woman in White is as follows: 

        THIS is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve.

It goes on to state that the events should be heard in a court of law, but that the law cannot be brought to bear on this case, so it will be told here ‘by more than one pen’.  Collins’ prologue, then, not only opens with the dramatic hook above, but also frames the work and sets up the point of view and shifting focus to come.

In his most famous work The Moonstone (upheld by many as the first ever detective novel), Collins writes a more lengthy prologue of several pages.  This is largely to set up the back-story of this amazing gem.  Again, though, it begins with that all-important note of conflict – the narrator wants to explain to his family how he has been induced to 'refuse the right hand of friendship to my cousin.'

 Now.  I am biased, in that Wilkie Collins is one of my favourite writers of all time.  The Woman in White is a simply wonderful novel, and experimental for its day: the story is told by a variety of narrators, but never by its protagonist, the beautiful Laura Fairlie.  The writing is hauntingly beautiful throughout.  Having read it before, I read it again last year, and I am sorely tempted to read it again whenever I think about it.  Oh, to write a novel like that!

I think that with such a great novelist as my role model, I am going to try to make my first novel work with (and be better for) the prologue.  I have good reason to use one as I am really playing with the authorial voice.  I love the idea of the intrusive author – like in The French Lieutenant’s Woman when John Fowles writes himself into the story, sitting opposite his character on a train and wondering what to do with him – and I think a prologue could set up this idea nicely for me.

The prologue stays.  So there.

Have you used a prologue in any of your novels / other writings?  Or have you read any works with fantastic prologues?  Please share them with me.


  1. I haven't really but I don't mind reading them. Often they are just as exciting as the first chapter anyways.


  2. I've used a prologue in one of my novels. I don't see the problem with it, as long as there's action! I hate those wishy-washy ones that are all atmosphere. Gimme some action!

  3. Ah, the prologue. Hah. If it works, it works!

    I ended up writing a prologue for my spy thriller, Monarch, but then it just ended up as my first chapter, and it worked even better. Just be open to changing or shifting it around later if it doesn't work. That's the key to good writing - being fluid!

  4. Thanks Clarissa. I think they can be exciting too, and hopefully mine will be...

    I'm with you there Talli - no wishy washy prologues allowed!

    I think you're right about being open Michelle. I probably shouldn't say 'The prologue stays, no matter what'! I'll get to the end and then see if it works...

  5. I opened my previous wip with a prologue which I thought was absolutely necessary. When I was trying to decide whether or not to include the prologue, I looked at several of my favorite novels and found that the majority did include prologues, which really surprised me, considering their bad reputation.

  6. Welcome Susan,

    That's really good to hear about your favourite novels. I might start a Prologue Appreciation Movement!

  7. I like a prologue. It's pretty rare that I think a book would have been better without one. Never tried writing one myself.

  8. Hey Joanne,

    Thanks for that. I'm loving all the prologue love :-)