“Curmudgeon Writer Expostulates on . . . The Prologue: Who Needs It?”

I used to teach “Novel Writing” at a college that has asked to remain anonymous. I had to give up teaching the class for my health. My students were turning in these forty- and fifty-page prologues that a barnful of CIA agents couldn’t have decoded. All in italics.

One day, I button-holed one of my students who’d written such an opus disallowing me to concentrate on the Sunday Buffalo Bill’s game.

“Mr. Smith,” I said. “As much as I admire your arch Byzantine prose, I wonder if this lengthy preamble is necessary for us to understand your story.””I don’t know,” he said.

“I don’t know,” he said.”Why don’t you know?”

“Why don’t you know?””I haven’t written the story yet!”

“I haven’t written the story yet!””But how can you tell us what comes before, if you don’t know what comes after?”

“But how can you tell us what comes before, if you don’t know what comes after?”

“It’s only a prologue,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.You see what the problem is here. Writers, naturally enough, assume that because a prologue comes first in a book of fiction, you cannot write the book until you’ve first finished the prologue. Thereafter, I forbade anyone to write a prologue in my class inducing a virulent outbreak of writers’ block. Manuscripts trickled to a stop, allowing me the opportunity to expostulate on the nature of the prologue.

You see what the problem is here. Writers, naturally enough, assume that because a prologue comes first in a book of fiction, you cannot write the book until you’ve first finished the prologue. Thereafter, I forbade anyone to write a prologue in my class inducing a virulent outbreak of writers’ block. Manuscripts trickled to a stop, allowing me the opportunity to expostulate on the nature of the prologue.

No one knows about the origin of the prologue. It probably dates back to the ancient Greek theater where a chorus strolled to and fro, summarizing the plot, introducing the characters, and giving the ending away. Spark notes, so to speak. Even back then, many thought the prologue an impertinence which tested the patience of the audience. These lengthy prologues all in flowery language, one critic suggested, might be the first inklings of the romance novel.I doubt it. Though it probably started the tradition of the concessionary run for popcorn and soda.

I doubt it. Though it probably started the tradition of the concessionary run for popcorn and soda.
When print came into being, prologues were often invocations, paeans written in an effusive and elevated language pleading with the gods that the author’s pen be guided in his literary undertaking so he would be awarded a six-figure contract, receive glowing plaudits in the New York Times Book Review, and his wife not sue him for failure to nurture.Many of us recall those moving prefaces from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Milton’s Paradise Lost or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet which we studied diligently the night before the exam.

Many of us recall those moving prefaces from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Milton’s Paradise Lost or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet which we studied diligently the night before the exam.Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands …

Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands …

We need go no further than the contemporary poetry reading to see modern instances of the prologue. For instance, the poet spending approximately a half hour explaining to his audience how he wrote this poem when he and his wife were fossil hunting in the Berkshires by the Naugatuck River “when she espied embedded in a chalk deposit a perfectly formed stromatolite, and she insisted it was lower Cambrian while I thought, no, Miocene, and there was something magical in the way she tilted her head and raised an eyebrow, that numinous glimmer in her eye, reminding me again of why I fell in love with her so very many years ago …”The joke told by keynote speakers to gain the attention of an audience causing the coffee to get cold and the sherbet to melt; or the prayer before Congress convenes a session which is followed by denunciations, shouting, and wringing of necks; or even the interminably long trailers before the main feature starts are other instances of the prologue.

The joke told by keynote speakers to gain the attention of an audience causing the coffee to get cold and the sherbet to melt; or the prayer before Congress convenes a session which is followed by denunciations, shouting, and wringing of necks; or even the interminably long trailers before the main feature starts are other instances of the prologue.Mid-twentieth century everything started to change. Many playwrights such as William Saroyan, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams used to “second act” off-Broadway plays, slipping in at the first intermission because they couldn’t afford the price of admission. This led to the elimination of the 1st act altogether. Most modern plays have only two acts rather than three.

Mid-twentieth century everything started to change. Many playwrights such as William Saroyan, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams used to “second act” off-Broadway plays, slipping in at the first intermission because they couldn’t afford the price of admission. This led to the elimination of the 1st act altogether. Most modern plays have only two acts rather than three.There are many reasons you should use the

There are many reasons you should use the prologue with great caution. The prologue assumes the audience is literate. They are not. We are, as Walter J. Ong points out in his Technology of the Word, a post-literate culture. The visual preponderates over the literate, the spoken word over the written word: this is evidenced by the popularity of movies, TV, YouTube, and even those diagrammatic instructions on how to change the date on your Casio watch.If you don’t believe me, ask your kids. They have developed a rich emotive shorthand away from the lexical largess given to us by centuries of high literature. They tweet and text each other in a glyphic code bewildering to anyone older than thirty: lol, omg, 2BorNTB, 182 (I hate you), etc.

If you don’t believe me, ask your kids. They have developed a rich emotive shorthand away from the lexical largess given to us by centuries of high literature. They tweet and text each other in a glyphic code bewildering to anyone older than thirty: lol, omg, 2BorNTB, 182 (I hate you), etc.Gone are the days when an author like Honore Balzac could get away with forty and fifty pages of dense prose lovingly describing the settee in the front room where the protagonist will soon (p.259) lay his bowler hat and gloves. Balzac had a captured audience. He didn’t have an I-phones chirping, computers burping, movies and music streaming, and TVs from four corners of the restaurant hawking

Gone are the days when an author like Honore Balzac could get away with forty and fifty pages of dense prose lovingly describing the settee in the front room where the protagonist will soon (p.259) lay his bowler hat and gloves. Balzac had a captured audience. He didn’t have an I-phones chirping, computers burping, movies and music streaming, and TVs from four corners of the restaurant hawking youthenizing skin creams and erectile dysfunction aids between program segments.In our post-literate culture, the prevalent form of fiction is the feature movie. Books, the more successful ones, are seamless textual representations of the movie they aspire to become. You can tell a book is cinematic at a glance:

In our post-literate culture, the prevalent form of fiction is the feature movie. Books, the more successful ones, are seamless textual representations of the movie they aspire to become. You can tell a book is cinematic at a glance: setting is minimal, scenes are dramatic and fast-paced, dialogue abundant, sentences pithy, paragraphs and chapters short.

How many movies have you seen of late that have a prologue? Movies start media res (middle of things) or capillus concitantem memento (the hair-raising moment)—before even the title scrolls by; or if you are watching a TV drama, right before the first break of approximately twenty to thirty commercials.

When I am reading a new fiction, I start at page 30 or so. As a writer, I know we scribblers take a while to warm to our subject. I was heartened to read recently that the great media wonk Marshall McLuhan suggested page 60 might be a good starting point. That McLuhan read Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake from cover to cover (or rather p. 65 to cover) and was the foremost expert on that work is persuasion enough for me.

Of late, I’ve thought of daring to teach novel writing again. For one thing, my love affair with the Bills which had disallowed my concentration on anything more complex than a Roy Roger’s Restaurant menu has ended. I also intend to make it a rule that my students begin their novels on page 65.

By the way, the prologue (Greek prologos: pro-, before; logos, word) is also known as the “Preface,” “Forward,” “Front Matter,” “Introduction,” or if you really want to impress the people in the cheap seats, the Praefatio.

But you probably knew that.

About Len Messineo

Previously published in Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The New Novel Review, The Sun, and other magazines, Len is a former recipient of the Hugh Luke Award and his stories have twice been nominated for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize anthology. His short fictions are an occasional feature on PBS affiliate WXXI's Salmagundi, and he teaches at Writers and Books of Rochester.




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