As many of you know, book publishing industry professionals and readers alike have openly expressed their dislike of prologues.
Let’s lay a quick foundation:
Prologues aren’t inherently evil or indicative of poor writing. Prologues can—and have been—executed with skill. But are they necessary?
That, in my opinion, is the biggest question—not “should I write a prologue” but “does a prologue improve my story?”
What is a Prologue?
Prologues come before chapter one and could be expository/introductory prose, a poem, diary letter, news clipping, or anything in between.
As a reader, when I start reading a prologue, I’m usually impatient to get to chapter one. But by the end of a good prologue, I’m wondering about the subsequent story and excited to see how the event fits into the rest of the plot.
That’s a well-written prologue, mind you. The bad ones I skim over.
If you’ve attended a writing workshop, you may have noticed literary agents voicing their dislike of prologues. Some even go as far as to say that when they see prologue pages in the query box, they are immediately wary of the story and submission.
Why such an immediately negative reaction?
This is largely due to the poorly-executed prologues littering query boxes and submission piles. You’d be surprised how many writers commit the deadly sins of prologues.
1. Using a prologue as a place for a massive dump… information dump.
Information dumps are one of the easiest ways to make readers’ eyes glaze over. Paragraphs of text that provide dense (albeit important) background information are tough to digest. Without strategically trickling this information throughout a scene or throughout the chapters/book, readers can be immediately turned off to a story.
Not to mention, the opening pages are a make-or-break moment. You have mere seconds to hook a reader (or industry professional—who are also readers!).
Many, many writers use prologues as a means to provide tons of background information to a story (rather than to slowly introduce these elements by weaving them into scenes throughout the book). Take a closer look at your opening pages to see if you have several stretches of paragraphs or sections of text that do this. If you do, it’s time to revise!
2. A boring prologue (that readers want to skip to get to chapter one).
Obviously writers don’t start writing a prologue saying, “What is the driest scene I can write? The more boring, the better!” If your scene lacks action or purpose that propels your story, you may be falling into this danger zone.
Look at your manuscript with the critical eye of a reader and ask: “Would I skip this prologue and go right to chapter one?” If so, consider what you can do to spice things up a bit (while keeping the prologue relevant to your story).
3. A prologue that has nothing to do with the main story.
Prologues need to somehow propel or impact your main plot. Period. If your prologue is filled with action, offers bite-sized pieces of background information, and weaves a compelling scene but is not relevant to your main plot, you probably need to re-think your strategy.
It doesn’t matter if your writing is solid if the scenes aren’t strategically moving toward that pretty plot arc—depicting an emotional journey for your character and exhibiting the stakes for your protagonist and the world at large.
4. Prologues that are too long.
The modern reader (often) prefers shorter chapters—prologues included. If your prologue is longer than most of your chapters (or if both your prologue and chapters are longer), it might be time to reevaluate the structure and pacing of your chapters.
5. Using the prologue to hook the reader as the sole purpose.
For this example, I’m thinking specifically of the prologues that throw the reader into the action—and I mean the middle of the action. Maybe it’s the center of a bloody battlefield or twisted in the sheets of a love affair. Whatever it is, the reader is unceremoniously plunked into the action in a world they’re unfamiliar with and whose characters they don’t yet know (and love).
While action scenes are a gripping way to begin a story, consider whether or not this action is important to the central plot and if this beginning isn’t too overwhelming/confusing for the reader to acclimate to.
6. Using the prologue strictly to provide atmosphere or to do some early-on world building.
World building is one of the things I love most about fantasy and science fiction. These delicious details are… well… delicious! The setting is described with enough detail to have the readers visualizing the character’s surroundings but not too much to bog down the pace of the scene.
Proceed with caution if the prologue is used strictly to set the tone and introduce world-building elements. Often, these details can be weaved into your chapters without the need of a prologue.
However, like anything in this industry—the type of prologue or the inclusion/exclusion of them altogether are subjective. Not to mention, skilled writers have a way of proving the rules wrong.
So, when should prologues be utilized? In other words: when are they an asset to your story?
According to Brian A. Klems, “A prologue is used when material that you want to include in the opening is out of time sequence with the rest of the story.”
Prologues should supply information that is—or will be—important to understanding the plot. Often, the prologue doesn’t include the protagonist and takes place outside of the central plot (though not always).
Types of Prologues
Here are a few examples of different types of prologues:
- Background/History: This type of prologue provides background to the history of the world and events that previously transpired—such as a major battle or betrayal. These events typically took place before the beginning of your story and somehow significantly impact the events going forward.
- Different Point of View (POV): As many of you know, debut authors are encouraged to minimize the number of rotating POVs in their manuscript (capping out at a maximum of six-ish). This type of prologue could be advantageous when diving into another character’s perspective—particularly when that character’s insight is only needed once and provides a foundation for the story.
- Protagonist (Past or Future): These prologues are great for showing a pivotal moment for the protagonist—either in the past or in the future (such as a defining moment years ago or after the main plot has taken place).
Strengths of a Prologue
Fear not, writers. Prologues aren’t all bad. In fact, they come in handy in a number of scenarios:
- To provide a “quick-and-dirty” glimpse of important background information without the need of flashbacks, dialogue, or memories that interrupt the action later on in the book.
- Hook the reader into the action right away while having the readers asking questions relevant to the central plot—and therefore eager to learn those answers in the opening chapters.
- Offer information the reader couldn’t otherwise glean from the plot (such as a break from the point-of-view narration or from a different character’s perspective).
- Introduce the antagonist—providing background motives that either humanizes the character or exhibits his/her evil intentions. This angle can be handy if the protagonist doesn’t meet the antagonist until later on in the book.
- Introduce a philosophy or religious belief important to the plot/setting.
- Foreshadow future events, thereby creating suspense for the reader and get them asking questions (and eagerly reading on).
Do I Need a Prologue?
Trying to decide whether or not you should keep (or even write) a prologue? Consider the following questions:
- What information am I providing in the prologue? Why is it important to reveal it up front? Can it be revealed throughout the story in smaller trickles and still be as impactful (or more)?
- Does this character’s POV come up again later in the story? If so, would this work as a first chapter instead?
Writers often look upon outlines with fear and trembling. But when properly understood and correctly used, the outline is one of the most powerful weapons in a writer's arsenal.