Not 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
Brad Meltzer. . .THE FIFTH ASSASSIN
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.
* * *
Earl Staggs earned a long list of Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION and 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
He also invites you to visit his blog site at http://earlwstaggs.wordpress.com where you can read:
Chapter 1 of MEMORY OF A MURDER
Chapter 1 of JUSTIFIED ACTION
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.