Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Art of the Prologue & Edgar Allan Poe

When it comes to Page One of your glorious work-in-progress, some agents, as well as some editors, often say skip the prologue. Their reasons are many—and they’re right. Regardless of genre, our prologues may be:

1) backstory that may or may not be interesting, but has nothing to do with what’s happening at the start of the novel.
2) sentence upon sentence that delays the incident which gets the ball rolling for our characters.
3) a passage that kicks off the story just right, but should really be labeled Chapter One.

So how does a writer know if her prologue really ought to be a prologue? Here’s my rule of thumb: If the passage passes my Edgar Allan Poe Test, it’s a prologue.

You can put your writing to the Edgar Allan Poe Test, too. If you haven’t read the works of Edgar Allan Poe, all I can say is whoa, Nelly! Run right out and get yourself a copy of his Selected Tales. Next, gobble up Poe’s classic short story, “The Purloined Letter.” Done? Good!

Now, let’s consider “The Purloined Letter.” Poe’s revolutionary detective, Auguste Dupin, must recover a letter a very nasty man has stolen. Smart guy that the nasty man is, he’s hidden the letter so well, the police aren’t able to find it. But Dupin does. He visits the man, hangs out awhile in the guy’s living room. He takes note of everything in the room, including the cheap, utilitarian letter rack full of notes, and cards, and envelopes. And wouldn’t you know it? That’s where the nasty man has hidden the purloined letter—right there in the letter rack—in plain sight.

To me, a good prologue is like the concept behind Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” It subtly reveals to the reader the answer to your mystery, the key to your love story, the tool needed for the quest, or in other words, the significant detail that will be important to the climax of your work. If this passage doesn’t do this, if it details backstory, or if it delays the inciting action or event, it needs to be outta there. If it kicks off your story but has no bearing on the climax of your story, it’s really Chapter One so label it accordingly.

Now, it’s your turn to give the Rockville 8 your take on prologues. Do you write them? Do you read them? What do you think a good prologue should do?


  1. Love the post, Nicole. What a great test. I'll have to try it . . . but, hey, I don't think I've ever written a prologue. Hmmm. Okay, should I ever consider writing one, I'll remember your Poe Test. ;0) Seriously, I think I've heard so often not to use them, that I just never even started thinking that way. I do read them, however. Whatever an author includes as part of the story, I read. I must say, though, as an avid romance reader, I adore Epilogues.

  2. I've also heard the no prologues rule. But I also always read the prologue. And I freely commit them, as well. In fact, I'll just say it. I LIKE prologues. And I know that If I read a prologue that I don't like, I probably won't like the rest of the book, and I stop reading. I have no problems whatsoever with not finishing a book. :-)

  3. I do like a good prologue that hands you a piece of the puzzle. You don't understand where this piece fits until other pieces fall into place but you know it has to be important, somehow.

    I have written prologues in times past but not recently due to the "no prologues rule". I find that I can usually get the prologue info in there another way.

  4. I've not given prologues too much thought. I had one when I was first writing Honor Bound, but quickly realized it was backstory more important for me, the writer to know rather than anything that really moved the story forward. So I guess I passed the Poe test! Yay! But seriously, I think the Poe test can also be applied as a "first chapter" test or a "start on the day things change" test. Is what you're writing integral to the story? Yes, great, keep it in. No, boo, delete, delete, delete. (So easy to say, not always easy to do!)

  5. Thanks, Candy! You know, your love of epilogues speaks to an important point. Prologues and other conventions are more acceptable in some genres than others.

    Would you agree mysteries often feature prologues--as long as they pass what I call the Poe Test--whereas many romances don't have them? Romances do, however, often have epilogues. Sci Fi, horror... they each seem to have their own do's and don't's, don't they?

    Of course, the strictist of editors and English professors will point out there should never be an epilogue unless there's a cooresponding prologue. Yet, you're right, epilogues are often found sans prologue in romance.

    More proof rules are meant to be broken! Ha!

  6. Evie, I'm with you. I like prologues as long as they DO THEIR JOB. After all, life IS too short and my TBR pile is too tall!

  7. Sounds like you've developed your own version of the Poe Test. Sprinkling that backstory throughout the manuscript makes for more work, doesn't it? But it's worth it!

    BTW-I found your tweets recently. Excellent and interesting snippets! Thanks for telling me about what you've been up to.

    (That's @LisaMcQuay, ladies and gentlemen.)

  8. Oh, Keely, you've hit the nail on the head. Sometimes this writing stuff is not easy to do AT ALL. Thanks for stopping by and commiserating, friend. :-) But on we go, right?