Should a novel have a prologue or not? That’s one of the great debates among fiction writers these days. Some insist an effective prologue can jumpstart a story, hook a reader, or provide important background information. Others claim it slows everything down. Distracts, even detracts, from the principal plot.
When I’m the reader, I confess I don’t much notice unless it’s super long or completely detached from the main storyline. As a writer, I’ve experimented…a lot. Sometimes I get rather fond of the prologues I’ve come up with. Other times, they’re better fit for the junk file. And yet another… a kind friend—blessed are the beta readers—told me it sounded like one of her job interviews!
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” –Albert Einstein
Just for fun today, here’s a couple I test-ran:
How did a gringa from the suburbs of Baltimore turn a remote island in southern Chile upside down? It wasn’t her sister, the missionary, or her preacher brother-in-law. It wasn’t the earthquake that year, or the local dolphin-whisperer or the legendary ghost ship or even the wicked witchdoctor.
Instead, a teenage girl rocked our family boat and caught the Caleuche. Just an average city kid from the USA, on a visit with a double-edged agenda, but she rewrote the legends.
When Melissa Travis arrived that January afternoon—the zenith of the summer in South America—Chile shuddered under a tsunami of changes. In the universe outside, those were the days of Nintendo, Walkman, heavy metal bands, and spiral perms. In Chile, democracy dawned again, after sixteen years of dictatorship.
And with it, their exiles returned. A trickle at first, then a deluge. For some, it was a happy homecoming. For others, a tragic reminder of all they had lost. My husband John [not his real name] fell in that category.
For long months, he debated whether to risk going home to his family in the Chiloé Islands. The roundup of radicals, real and imagined, had ended. So they claimed. But the islanders have longer, darker memories…
Melissa traveled to Chile as an exile of sorts, too. And the world as she knew it was about to change…
History’s a Mystery
In the above sample prologue, I used my Diana Delacruz persona to lay some historical context while evoking questions about the story. Many readers, younger and older, won’t know a lot of details about Chile’s bumpy past. Either they didn’t grow up here or they weren’t born yet.
It’s not bad, I guess. I also shared a bit of the cultural setting, from Melissa’s point of view, in a blog post a couple of years ago. The two might have worked in conjunction.
“What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing more powerful than a good story.” –Tyrion Lannister
However, I like this next one better because it’s a story in which Diana Delacruz plays a cameo role. I relate how the author made her original connection with the main character, which isn’t even conceived of in the book’s time frame.
This prologue fleshes out the story universe and gives it a taste of reality beyond the Chile setting. And you know I love a good story:
My husband and I shuffled along outside an iconic clam shack in Ellsworth, Maine, on a sultry August evening. The mingled aroma of hot grease and seafood might have repulsed me in any other setting, but this was quintessential New England summer. So what if the line-up in front of us wrapped halfway around the block? I had to have a basket of plump fried clams before we sailed back to Nova Scotia on the brand-new catamaran the next morning.
“There’s only a gazillion spots just like this up and down the coast.” John Fabián mopped his brow with his T-shirt. He loathed the muggy, buggy heat. “From here to the Bush retreat in Kennebunk, I imagine. All the same. Why does it have to be this particular joint?”
“No complaining.” I laughed and patted his bronzed arm. “Because…there’s only one Captain Jim’s.”
A pretty teenage girl ahead of us spun around, her golden-blond ponytail bouncing. “I agree, that’s what I just told my sister. We gotta get a clam basket from Captain J.’s before we head back to Baltimore tomorrow.”
“Oh, you’re an outah-statah, are you?” Turning on my heaviest Downeast accent for the summer people always tickled me.
“Yeah, from away, as they say, I guess.” She smiled, her eyes sparkling like sun-on-sea. “But I’ve spent lots of summers—or parts of summers—here. My family’s had a cottage out in Northeast Harbor for, like, a century.”
Uh-huh. I refrained from sniffing. She might look the friendly girl-next-door type, but I smelled a connection to old money somewhere.
“What about yourself, ma’am?”
Ma’am? Honestly, I was only 32. Must’ve been John’s wind-sculpted crinkles. “Oh, I’m a local, though just back on vacation now,” I said. “Grew up in Trenton, stone’s throw out of town. Went to Ellsworth High.”
“Really? So did my brother-in-law.”
The girl tilted her palomino mane toward a kiddie playground on the opposite side of the snack bar’s teeming complex. “They’re waiting for me across the way. He’s the true Mainer in our family. Has a hankering for clams, too.”
“Of course he does. I don’t understand why Johnny doesn’t like ’em. He may not be from around here, but he grew up on the ocean. An island off the coast of Chile, actually. South America, ya know.”
“We don’t bread and deep-fry clams in Chiloé.” John shook his head and pretended to scowl. “And our clambakes there are nothing like the mediocre ones here—put you to shame, Di.”
“Can’t beat our lobster, though.” I elbowed him and threw a triumphant grin at the girl.
She was staring, and I didn’t think it was amazement over the relative culinary merits of seafood dishes. “Chiloé! Did you say Chiloé—off the coast of Chile?”
John peered at her. “Ever heard of it? If you have, you’d be the first person.”
“I spent some time there a couple of years ago, believe it or not. During the, you know—Listen, you’ve got to meet my family. How long have you been away, anyway?”
“Sometimes,” John said, “it seems like a lifetime. I’d give anything to go home.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“He’s a political exile.” I squeezed John’s hand. “But things are looking up there now, I hear, since the change of government. Maybe we could think about it sometime, honey.”
“It’s not just Pinochet’s long arm,” he said. “There’re ghosts and monsters in Chiloé you know nothing about, Di.”
“But Chiloé is changing too,” the girl said.
“I bet.” John’s Chilean-Spanish accent thickened with sarcasm. “That’s what they said before the coup back in ’73, eh? But it only takes one bad apple to spoil a whole island.”
“Or one good nut to save it. Like…God can change things, you know. My sister and brother-in-law are missionaries there.”
“God, huh?” I said. “Reminds me of an old school friend of mine. He’s a missionary or something like that now. Cole Peterson was my first crush, Johnny.” I laughed up at him. “Religious or not, that guy could play soccer to rival your hero Pelé.”
The girl stared again, her aquamarine eyes as wide as carat gemstones now. “Oh, wow, I can’t believe—”
“Ordah, please,” called an aproned Mainer from the clam shack’s screened window.
“After we get our clams, you’ve got to come with me.” She offered her hand. “I’m Melissa Travis, by the way. Have I got a story to tell you.”
Mystery of Destiny
You, my reader friends, must go on to suppose here that Melissa eventually shares “What I Learned in Chile” with Mrs. Delacruz… who later becomes Aunt Diana to her and transforms the legendary Desert Island Diary notes into Destiny at Dolphin Bay. I honestly don’t know if this prologue works or not.
In the end, though, I decided not to go with two first-person narrators in the same book. While writers play with a lot of experimental point-of-view concepts these days, I felt the abrupt switch might distract from the main story at this early juncture. Didn’t want to derail the forward momentum so soon out of the station!
At any rate, that’s my take on prologues in my first two series. In the third, the Swan Island Secrets trilogy, Coni Belmar also tells her story in first person, but within the context of an oral narrative, not in diary form. So, up till now, I’ve left the author-character exchange in the prologue and epilogue intact. Can’t quite make up my mind.
To prologue… or not to prologue? The jury’s still out. What’s your vote?
Coming soon… Destiny at Dolphin Bay cover reveal!