Why Prologues and Adverbs Get a Bum Rap

The prologue, like the humble adverb, is a despised thing among writers so I’ve learned.  So much so that, if you can believe the rhetoric, a manuscript of 90,000 words daring to contain one adverb is in danger of being denounced as rubbish and cast aside by agents – its author pooh-poohed as an amateur.  Likewise, the mere suggestion of inserting a prologue at the beginning of a tale is met with audible gasps of horror from those desperate to appear “in the know.”

Here’s the best thing about being a novice writer.  I don’t claim to know anything about this business.  I’m learning as I go.  That means I get to ask all the questions I want without fear of reprimand from fellow writers.  And to be honest, now that I’m on the other side of 40, I don’t really care what anyone thinks of me anyway.  I’m “over it.”  Thank God.

Here’s my theory:  there’s nothing wrong with prologues and adverbs.  The problem is that authors, who have not mastered the craft of storytelling, have used them as crutches to prop up otherwise weak writing.  It’s gotten to the point where readers (or maybe just agents and writing teachers) are sick to death of them.

It’s easy to see the effect of adverb abuse.  For example, “Luka uncomplicatedly adored his older brother,” (Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie) is a ridiculous phrase.  It doesn’t give the reader a visceral (or even interesting) experience of the relationship between Luka and his brother.  What’s worse, it takes the focus away from the story and onto the language.  In a truly well written novel, the reader isn’t even aware of the author or the language.  He’s absorbed by the story – everything else is invisible.  This book on the other hand, is a painful read.  It’s riddled with bizarre adverbs and other crimes against the English language.  It breaks about a dozen rules for story writing, and it shows.

The prologue issue is a little harder to break down.  I’m guessing it stems from the modern story arc where the inciting incident shows up in chapter one.  (For more information on the traditional v. modern story structure, click here.)  Writers used to have four or five chapters to introduce characters and establish the setting.  Now we get a few thousand words.  The trick has become revealing character details and background information throughout the story in a believable way.  It’s called letting a story unfold naturally.

Trust me.  It’s hard.  Brutal, actually.

The first book in the Hunger Games trilogy (Suzanne Collins) is a brilliant example of this new approach to storytelling.  I suspect writers trained in the traditional story structure spazzed out when faced with having to put the inciting incident in chapter one.  They took what would have been the intro to their book, dumped it into a prologue, and called it a day.

Here’s a short video of Kristin Nelson (Nelson Literary Agency) explaining why prologues are not necessarily the best choice for an aspiring author.


I still think prologues can work, but I’ve found a way to tell my story without one.  As for adverbs … you might find one or two.

6 comments on “Why Prologues and Adverbs Get a Bum Rap

  1. Crimes against the English language! I love it.

    Great post. I didn’t think prologues were frowned upon so much. Mine actually survived every single workshop, mentor and editor until the very end. At that point, I fought to keep it and we compromised with a shorter one. It was the only element of the whole book that I actively fought for. 🙂

    • Any time I’ve raised the issue of a prologue in a writing class, it’s been met with a chorus of “tuts”. But like I say, I don’t think the problem is really the prologue itself, rather the way it’s been misused/overused (as a way to dump info on a reader for example).

  2. Ok, I’m so ‘tut tutting’ during our next gathering. I might even wear glasses!

    Great post, Valerie. Like you, I’m trusting my instinct based on years of reading all manner of fiction. Learning that certain things like adverbs, prologues, and head-hopping are what keeps me going, “I didn’t know that.” And ultimately, what keeps me interested. (See how I started a sentence with ‘and’. See? See?)

  3. Ok, I just reread that and it makes no sense. Sorry, it’s early.

    What I mean is learning about those no-nos makes this journey much more interesting. Your story is solid. I’d totally read it with or without adverbs and a prologue. 🙂

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