Prologues are fine, actually.The prologue from Isaac Asimov's "Nemesis."

Sometimes rules in art are there as training wheels, and just because you personally never saw the need to remove them, doesn’t mean everyone should be forced to use them.

That might sound broad, pretentious, or presumptive. Maybe it’s provocative, just so we have another p-word into the mix. It’s not meant to insult or make anyone feel bad, though. Because it’s something we all go through at some stage or another, and the act of creating art is so complex, personal and strange when you consider art can be created just for yourself, or created with commercial intent behind it, and those things produce vastly different results. It’s imperative that we look at some of the “rules” that have emerged in our respective crafts, and look at how they became rules in the first place. Because a lot of them just don’t make sense.

The other day I saw an ongoing argument via the terrible hellsite Twitter/X where there were readers talking about how they skip prologues. The idea behind that is if the author had anything valuable to say, it wouldn’t be a prologue. Somehow, this idea of what was largely a publishing industry preference, something perpetuated by publishing houses and trickled down to agents. Publishing industry insiders saw patterns in a lot of newer writers’ work, where a prologue became a lazy way to insert backstory or exposition that was necessary to make the book work, but the writer didn’t want to put in “the work” to integrate it into their novel.

But to paint prologues as a whole as “wrong” is itself a lazy critique.

While there are plenty of problems in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, the prologues are never one of them. In fact, they remain some of the best parts of his books. Hell, even the prologue in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy remains a classic and something I can’t imagine that book without. Yet here we are, discussing necessity.

Somehow, this attitude made it to readers, who then decided that’s what prologues were en masse. I’m sure there are plenty of crummy prologues published and out in the wild, but the idea that it’s an automatic skip is so strange. In a lot of cases, whenever there is a prologue in a book, it serves more as an aside or establishing thematic ideas present in the book. Think of it as a guide, or a way to gently ease a reader into the experience.

What happens when those readers, being fed a line that was largely writing advice to newer authors from tired industry insiders and who bought it, decide they want to be writers?

The same thing that happened when feds helped perpetuate the idea of “show, don’t tell” as a literary device at the illustrious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which prospered as a Cold War era ideological factory of form over content. Abstraction led to a deeper exploration of the world. That led to communism. You can’t have communism, not in the age of New Criticism. The focus of “words on the page” over deeper analysis of the era was catastrophic, and while there were literary movements after New Criticism, the natural ebbs and flows have landed us in a place where the old New Criticism standards endured far beyond their usefulness.

It’s in part because the standard of “show don’t tell” remains difficult to escape. A lot of newer writers struggle with info dumping. I say that being guilty of it myself when I was starting out, and it being something I needed to actively work on before I felt comfortable enough with my writing and knew I wasn’t exposition dumping anymore. Where the problem comes in is that advice like “show don’t tell” and “prologues are bad” aren’t meant to be all-encompassing.

In western music, our scale has twelve notes in it, and each of those notes is its own key, with each key containing seven notes that follow a pattern, with each note having its own mode. The mode is made up of the notes within that key. That key is made up of notes from the scale. A bulk of music education is teaching new musicians that you don’t go outside of your key because there are seven notes in the key and playing a note that doesn’t fit in the key can lead to catastrophic sounding results. A good music teacher will go further than that, though, and explain how going outside of a key can produce interesting results, and how certain chords overlap in multiple keys, and that playing that one chord means the notes you can play over that chord for a melody can, in theory, extend into those other keys or modes with tonally interesting results. The problems lay in playing a note that clearly doesn’t belong and sounds “bad,” so it’s a safer bet to play within your given key.

Considering most pop music conforms to rather strict formulae to remain appealing to the broadest listeners, it makes sense to not do anything too wild. I’m not criticizing pop music, because a lot of the time the people writing pop music songs are brilliant and find ways to work in little musical tricks like key modulations that are rich, complex, and remain mostly unnoticed. But regardless, you don’t have to follow each key to make music people like.

When someone wants a song to sound vaguely middle eastern, for example, they’ll play what’s called the harmonic minor scale, which takes the natural minor scale, takes the seventh note in said scale, and bumps it up a half step, or one note. See? One note different.

There’s also what’s called a chromatic scale, which is where you’ll just play all the notes in descending/ascending order, instead of skipping around like most keys will do. I’m not sure anyone would tell Trent Reznor that his use of an evolving chromatic melody sprinkled throughout The Fragile album in 1999 that he was doing anything wrong, right?

What I’m saying is that as your competency at your given craft improves, so does your ability to work beyond the stricter confines imposed on newer artists.

The idea that no one should ever write a prologue or there’s never been a good one is frankly ludicrous. It’s absurd that you’ll trust an author to read through a 300+ page novel they wrote, but not enough to trust the first few pages have some meaning to the overall structure, because it may be named or numbered in a way you’ve seen done poorly before. The same with “telling.” Sometimes it just makes more sense and works better.

If an author writes a bad prologue, that’s indicative of their work and their work alone, not an all-encompassing standard.

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