Losing Meaning

This is the start of a poisonous prologue:

When she had packed all the artifacts that made up their personal history into liquor store boxes, the house became strictly a feminine place. She stood with her hand on her hips, stoically accepting the absence of old Boston Celtics coasters and the tangle fishing poles, the old dartboard from a Scots pub, the toolbox and downhill skis..... (Mercy, Picoult)

Why is she packing up artifacts? Who is she? Who is he?

And, who cares?

The third paragraph finally suggests she is holding a yard sale. After six paragraphs, we skip from before the yard sale to after – the actual yard sale is not described! At the tenth paragraph, her husband comes home. In the 13th paragraph, we find out he is angry and some of the larger pieces fit together.

That scene has so much potential that it's even interesting out of context, though not remotely as good as if it had been in its proper place in the book. A wife holds a garage sale an sells everything her husband owns. Interesting!

To say the obvious, the event means more in the middle, where the reader would know and care about the characters. For this prologue the loss was much worse than just that. For most of the actual story, the wife is the one working to make their relationship good; she does the compromising and accommodating. Then she discovered he is having an affair. So she holds a yard sale and sells everything he owns!

So that scene is the turning point for the story, and a moment of growth for her, and an awareness for him. But of course there's absolutely no sense of that in the prologue. So the scene in the prologue, even if made clear, is always trivialized when moved to the front. Here, the tragedy is ruining a great scene.

In general, a prologue tends to be less uninteresting, compared to if it had been in its proper place in the book. That's because it lacks context.

That's a problem for any start. But, an event that naturally starts a story does not have as much context as an event in the middle of a story. So the transplanted prologue loses more than a natural start.

And the event being transplanted to the front is selected because it's interesting, perhaps even the most interesting scene in the book. Whatever the advice to "kill your darlings" was intended to mean, it does not mean ruining the best scene of your story.


The issue of corrosion is the same as for goofy first lines – can a prologue impair the reading experience. And it's no easier to settle.

Let's again consider the garage sale. She sells everything her husband owns. A reader might want to know what happens next.

That's a hook, and the author might like that. The only problem is if the reader reads quickly, trying to learn what happens. As opposed to, say, reading carefully, and slowing letting the actions blend together emotionally, the way that book deserves to be read.

Worse, the first chapter begins with a scene of a man killing his wife, then cuts away. The reader might read through the middle of the chapter to find out more about that.

The middle is very lovely. I was quite surprised on second reading to find that. I don't remember much from my first reading except maybe that it was boring. Picoult brilliantly sets up four themes for her book and starts them running. I wish there had been some way for her to communicate that to me when I was first reading her book. Or maybe I just wasn't paying attention . . . because there were things I wanted to learn and I was skipping through the backstory.