Opening pages of A Gentleman in Moscow

We're back! This week, we are talking about the opening pages of our next novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles -- and prologues in general.

The group will meet to talk about The Dark is Rising next week, on Thursday at 2pm US east coast time. (I know our meetings are usually on a Tuesday -- I just got booked up this time). 

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A Gentleman in Moscow: the opening pages / prologue


The opening pages are in a different font to the main action of the book. This prologue or prelude to the novel takes the form of a court record, describing the sentencing of Count Rostov in 1922. The prosecutors want to execute Rostov as an aristocrat, but his reputation (as the author of a poem that inspired revolutionaries in 1913) makes killing him a dangerous decision. The account ends with Rostov being put under "hotel arrest" for the rest of his life: if he leaves the hotel he will be "shot." 

Craft Lesson: Prologues that pop

Prologues are an endlessly popular controversy in craft-of-writing circles. Many writers have been told that agents, editors, and / or readers don't like them; many successful novels, however, have them. This is true of literary novels, "popular literary" thrillers and mysteries, and ambitious genre fiction (Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings essentially has two prologues, one set five-thousand years after the other.)

So we face a bit of a paradox: we aren't supposed to use prologues but they appear in all kinds of beloved novels. 

Looking at the prologue for A Gentleman in Moscow, we might notice a few features that maybe hint at some good practices:

  1. The prologue is not only short in absolute terms, but the chosen form, the court transcript, makes it seem even shorter because the lines are so snappy -- dialogue only. This prologue is over fast.
  2. The prologue is set in a scene very different from the opening chapter -- the hotel. The whole premise of this novel is that Rostov is imprisoned in the hotel; the prologue allows us to see a scene outside without muddying the storytelling. Chapter one begins where the writer wants the book (or much of the book) to be placed: the hotel. The prologue allows us to begin somewhere else but not make that place a rival for the reader's attention.
  3. The prologue is a kind of back story, as it shows us Rostov's sentencing -- but it does not try to explain anything. It does not try to explain why Rostov is so seemingly confident, or what the Soviet commissioners are trying to do. We have to read on if we are hoping for that. Indeed, this prologue takes place seemingly only a short time before chapter one begins -- the same day.
  4. The prologue not only introduces many big ideas -- idleness vs work, egality vs excellence etc -- but it shows our protagonist facing up to his enemies -- which would be hard to do in the real chapter one. This mini-chapter gives us a taste of the challenges behind Rostov's seeming calm. It is as if the prologue is an ambassador from a later, more dramatic section of the plot -- what we call the C plot (in my character-first writing course).

So -- if we combine all these ideas, we get a sort of maxim or truism about prologues: they are brief, they allow for an additional location, they are not tools for writers to give backstory and explain stuff, and they often seem to offer a hint or clue of the wider stakes of the story.

Prologues are bad, in other words -- using this logic -- where they simply allow the writer to start the story earlier. If this novel had begun with Rostov as a child, or with a picture of his parents' lives, such a prologue might be unlikely to urge the reader to read on. 

Craft prompt: look at the four elements I've drawn out of this "prologue" -- brevity, a new location, showing over lecturing or explaining, and offering a sort of hint or transplant of the main conflict of the story. 

Could you create a prologue, using this framework, for your novel in progress?



  • Felicitas says:

    I was intrigued by this book from the first page – and so I find the craft lesson on prologue very interesting. Moreover, because I have often been told by writing teachers that editors and publishers do not like them. But I feel my book needs one in order to set the atmosphere and give a glimpse about what will come later. Very often I feel that well set prologues add a lot to the story instead of taking away from it.

    My biggest questions with my own prologue are: How much hinting actually adds to the suspense and how much is too much?

    Anyone has an idea?

  • Pamela Peterson says:

    I have my prologue written in poetic form to set the atmosphere of what the protagonist will be up against. Where and when do I send it?

  • Cathy Counts says:

    I think this prologue is smashing! Because of it, we know already how the protagonist feels as he leaves the court and walks the short distance to his hotel: it feels like a man being escorted to the hangman’s noose, even though his punishment is life imprisoned in a place he has enjoyed calling home for a number of privileged years as a completely free man. We know enough of his character from the conversation in court to understand what a wallop the verdict makes on him: his last walk outside impresses upon him how freedom, fresh air, sweet and open light, common sense and fair choice are now beyond his grasp. Then, knowing from the hearing how freely, wittily and intelligently he speaks and writes, the prospect of a life ahead without any of that freedom must be horrendous to him. It works for me, definitely. Without the prologue, we wouldn’t have that painful context of that last walk home and we understand how every moment in his life will be different than anything he has ever experienced. We grasp that the construction of this sentence is only just beginning and that he has barely scratched the surface of this new way of life.

  • I’ve heard so many times not to use a prologue that I now find it so weird to see one. They’re rare but so far I’ve liked them. Why is it a general rule not to use a prologue? Perhaps because if everyone did it would get annoying and become clichéd? Or perhaps only the master authors with large followings can ignore this rule without blowback?

    For myself, I did once consider a prologue but quickly nixed the idea because of all the advice against it.

  • I especially appreciated the different style of the prologue, a court transcript. I agree that this format kept the pace lively, but I also think the format begged a different attention from the reader, a certain elevated importance.

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