The Bastard Prologue By Earl Staggs


earl 2Not long after I began writing fiction, I learned that a prologue was a no-no.  A prologue was akin to the plague, something so horrible some people would scream and shriek and run away from as fast and as far as they could. Even though not every reader and every editor held them in such disdain, I decided I would never use a prologue.

Not long ago, while working on a sequel to MEMORY OF A MURDER, my first novel, I found myself returning to the opening chapter even though I had already written several later chapters.   Something didn’t feel right.  Something was missing.  The beginning of my novel needed an extra oomph.  It occurred to me that the oomph might be created by using a <gasp> prologue.  Fortunately, before I committed the unthinkable and inserted one, I came to my senses and talked myself out of it.

A week later, I found myself in a Barnes and Noble.  I wasn’t there for the usual purpose of finding a book to read.  No, I was there with my wife because she wanted to find a particular book on the art of crocheting.  While I toil away at writing the Great American Novel, she pursues the creation of the Great American Afghan.

While waiting for her to find what she wanted, I realized I was standing next to a table stacked high with books and with a sign over it saying, “Former Bestsellers.  $5.99 and up.”   I decided to browse through them.

I opened twelve books and was aghast and agape to find that nine of them began with a prologue. These were not books by unknown authors.  These were authors whose names I knew.  You know them, too.

The first two were by Tom Clancy.  One was AGAINST ALL ENEMIES, the second, THREAT VECTOR. The next six were:

Sandra Brown. . .LOW PRESSURE


Linda Howard. . .SHADOW WOMAN

James Rollins. . .THE EYE OF GOD

Clive (and Dirk) Cussler. . .POSIEDON’S ARROW

Brad Thor. . .BLACK LIST

The ninth book was THE BLACK BOX by Michael Connelly.  This one had a section preceding the first chapter, but unlike those listed above, it was not called a prologue. It was not called anything.  It was just there without a heading or a title.  Since it did not have a name, I felt justified in calling it a Bastard Prologue.

What had gotten into those writers? Did they not know what I had known for years:  You do NOT use a prologue?

That’s when I remembered something else I’d learned during the years I’d been writing.  It was that there is really only one true Rule of Writing. That rule is: “Whatever works best.”  It means within reasonable judgment and common sense, authors can do whatever they feel is best for a piece of written work.  That one rule overrides all others which may be floating around out there, no matter who declares it or tries to enforce it.

It also means if I feel a prologue will make my book better, I can use one.  If the authors listed above and their publishers can do it. . . .

So that’s what I’m going to do.  I’ll put a prologue in front of Chapter One of my work in progress.  I’m not going to call it a prologue, however.  I’m not going to call it anything.  It’ll be a Bastard Prologue.

And, here’s what it will say:


* * *


He carried the girl over his left shoulder and the shovel in his right hand. Moonlight barely penetrated the dense forest above him, and he nearly stumbled several times over exposed tree roots and large rocks. He had to duck under low-hanging branches and occasionally had to push the shovel ahead of him to move thick brush out of his way.  He wished he could turn around and go home and not do this, but he always did what he was told.

A noise off to the right made him stop. The sound of wood breaking, like someone or something stepped on a thin brittle branch. He looked and saw nothing. Then a pair of eyes appeared ten feet away from him. A deer. Not moving. Staring. Accusing.

He wanted to shout, “I didn’t want to do this. They made me.”

After a few seconds, the eyes disappeared, and he heard the sound of the deer moving away. Then he heard nothing but crickets in the distance and the swishing of small branches above him when a breeze found its way to them.

He pushed forward again and tried to ignore the burning sensation in his shoulder. The girl was small, but he knew he would be sore tomorrow from carrying her so far. He had to keep going deeper into the woods until he found a clearing large enough to dig the hole.

After trudging another fifty yards, he came to a circular area twenty feet in diameter where nothing grew.  Three rounded boulders roughly formed a triangle in the center of the bare patch, each about four feet long and half as thick and rising knee high out of the bare ground.

He decided he would dig in the space between the boulders.  He leaned his shovel against one of them and laid the girl on the ground. Her long dark hair splayed out beneath her head like a black halo.  Moonlight washed over her face, adding a silver sheen to the tawny skin of her Latino heritage.  She was so young, he thought, and so pretty. Too young and too pretty for this.

But that didn’t matter. He had to dig a hole and put her in it. Then he would get home as fast as he could. Before he went to bed, he would pray that when he woke in the morning, he would not remember what he had done.

If he did, he would remind himself it wasn’t his fault. They made him do it.


* * *




Memory_of_a_Murder[1]Earl Staggs earned a long list of Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION JustifiedAction-CoverMediumand has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year.  He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars.


He invites any comments via email at


He also invites you to visit his blog site at where you can read:




A funny short story titled “The Day I Almost Became a Great Writer.”

A true story called “White Hats and Happy Trails” about the day he spent with his boyhood idol, Roy Rogers.



16 thoughts on “The Bastard Prologue By Earl Staggs

  1. Kevin says:

    I don’t think the prologue was really out of favor. Yes, we did see a time there where it seemed like everyone and their trained moneky was offering writing advice to ditch the prologue. Yet, major authors kept right on writing them whether the section title said “Prologue” or “Chapter One” or as nothing at all as many did. Apparently, the major authors never got the memo so many of us did on various lists and on blogs. Probably because the major authors are too busy writing the next book to worry about such things.

  2. Barry Ergang says:

    I don’t recall ever seeing any dictum against prologues. However, as you point out, Earl, the only genuine rule about writing is that there are no rules. You do what works and ignore what the “experts” say.

    • EARL STAGGS says:

      Sometimes, Barry, it’s more like you do what feels right and hope it works. Having the freedom to do that is one of the exciting things about this writing thing we do.

  3. Victor J. Banis says:

    terrific prologue – or, well, whatever it is – Earl, you know how to write, how to tell a story – the rest – that’s for the amateurs
    , not the pros

  4. EARL STAGGS says:

    Kevin, to be sure, the no prologue “rule” is out there. Right alongside the no flashback and the no split infinitive ones. Also out there are people who will vilify you for using them and people who don’t give a whit what you do if it works. Fortunately, this planet is big enough for all.

    • Kevin says:

      I know it is out there. I just think those folks are fairly meaningless. When the Bestseller folks keep on doing what they do despite the noise in some quarters, I think the rest of us can also ignore the noise.

  5. Great post, Earl. I remember reading all those agent blogs (Ms. Snark, in particular) and THE RULES. Yes, a major one was no prologues–“I will not read it if it has a prologue.” It was irritating, to say the least. Some stories cry out for a prologue, or an epilogue. Many of us writers are a bit contrary, so we ignore that kind of rule and do exactly what you say: Whatever works.

  6. Kaye George says:

    Bastard or Legitimate, that Prologue pulled me right along with it. Wow!

  7. I have long thought of a Prologue as being akin to an Overture to an opera. A good prologue gives you a sense of what is to come. And I think yours is quite intriguing.

  8. […] novelist Earl Staggs wrote an interesting blog post that he called The Bastard Prologue. He said that when he first set out as a novelist, he was told to never use a prologue. One day, […]

  9. If prologues were good enough for Euripides (said to be their inventor), they’re good enough for me–provided they’re done right. And yours is. Besides, we all know what Somerset Maugham said about rules.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s