Friday, June 21, 2013

Prologues and Wasted Pages


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 unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The famous prologue to Romeo and Juliet, tells us all we need to know.  A prologue is, as Shakespeare said, 'where we lay our scene.'

The beginning of any novel, play, short story, or screen play, is so plagued with back story, the stetting of the stage, that it often needs to be cut, and cut, and cut again. At the beginning, when you only have a vague notion of what you want to say, many pages are often spent casting about in the dark. More often than not, those pages need to go into the waste basket. A well written prologue can take the place of three chapters of laying the scene. It is wise to re-write the prologue last, as it must encompass the whole story in a nut shell, as it were. Looking at Shakespeare's brilliant prologue, we know what story we are going to hear. Not only do we know what it will be about, we are excited to watch it play out. That is the essence of a great prologue.


Jennifer Rova said...

I bought a new book "Jerusalem" which won a Pulitzer. Immediately when I got home, I began reading. Your post fit the book perfectly. So far, (5 pages) has been prologue and it really sets up the premise of the book which is the long, varied, fought over and worshiped history of Jerusalem. It is giving me a taste of the writer's style and a synopsis of the events that will unfold under his skills. I can hardly wait. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of a good prologue.

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

I would like to read "Jerusalem." Keep me posted!

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

Thanks for clarifying what a good prologue should do. Done well, I think a prologue can help a writer avoid clunky exposition within in the story, ("As you know, Sir Cedric, our two countries have experienced an uneasy peace ever since the 1100s, when a treaty was signed by the kindly but addle-brained King Ralph. Please pass the salt.")

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Good post, Liz! As readers I think we sometimes take the prologue for granted, & as writers , underestimate its importance