To Prologue or Not To Prologue

 

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Should you include a prologue in your novel? I have known writer friends who have debated this for years. Some love them, some hate them, but in this post I’ll detail what I think of them.

There are many different schools of thought when it comes to prologues, and the truth is, no one person is right about them. Sure, I’ll offer my opinions, but ultimately you’ll have to gauge its usefulness yourself. I touched on them briefly on the post concerning First Chapter Blunders.

Here goes. 95% of the time, prologues are not necessary, in many cases bothersome, and in all cases, tricky to get right.

I can already feel the hackles raising on some of you. I can appreciate that. I follow-up my statement with one question: how many of you always read a book’s prologue? I might wager that if you do, you’re not in the majority. In fact, I know people who read books regularly, yet have never read a prologue in their lives.

Does that mean that all prologues are garbage? Of course not. Some of them are enjoyable to read. But then again, in today’s competitive literary market, can they still be called effective? Can anyone else admit to being bored during the rolling words at the beginning of Star Wars?

Let’s take a step back to understand prologues.

 

Why might someone use a prologue?

  • To explain something to the audience
  • To fill in back-story
  • To catch the reader up to speed
  • To give the reader a sense of scope (typically most applicable in sci-fi and fantasy)
  • To let the reader know that a different flavor is coming later in the book

In my humble opinion, the last item is probably the only decent reason to use a prologue. Any info-dump is not a good idea, whether it’s in the prologue or the first chapter. A decent example of a prologue is in the first book of the Game of Thrones series. The prologue told the readers that there’s magic in the world. Without that, the reader wouldn’t have known there’s any magic at all until at least halfway through the book. It gave the hardcore fantasy readers something to hold on to.

 

Reasons why a prologue might not be a good idea

  • It’s often used as an excuse to massively info-dump
  • If it’s too different of a flavor, it risks making people put down the book at the first chapter
  • It’s usually not necessary to read (from the reader’s point of view)
  • It might take some time for the stuff in the prologue to become applicable
  • It often doesn’t have a hook and can ramble
  • I’ve personally never heard of a literary agent recommend writing one, but I’ve heard plenty that recommend against it
  • A fair amount of readers will skip it anyway
  • It sometimes has a crammed-in feel, where a writer didn’t have enough room in chapter one, and it spilled into the prologue

 

Here’s the thing, we’re all told how important chapter one’s hook is. The first 250 words is so important, that it can make or break your novel. You have to carefully craft your first sentence, then your first paragraph, then your first page. Now, add another equally crafted chapter one before your chapter one. That’s a lot of pressure! Essentially, now you have two sets of all those crucial facets. You can quickly see how prologues are rarely done well.

If you’re thinking that you need a prologue, think again. Anything that a prologue can do, a first chapter can (and often does) do better. If you have a ton of back-story to share with the reader, for goodness sake, don’t clump it all together, thinking that it’s alright as long as it has “Prologue” above it.

Back-story can be sprinkled into the first chapter through what the protagonist notices, dialogue, (small) bits of description here and there, etc. It won’t be as much, but is that entirely a bad thing?

 

Conclusion
I don’t want to give the perception that I’m totally against prologues, but as with everything in my novels, I want to consider how effective and necessary anything is that I’m tempted to put into it. It could be that your prologue falls within the category of trimming the fat of your novel.

 

If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing via email to have future ones sent to you. Image courtesy of Todd Dailey via Flickr, Creative Commons.

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55 thoughts on “To Prologue or Not To Prologue”

  1. That’s exactly what my prologue does! It lets the reader know that the story is more than it seems and allows them to get inside the story on a fact that the main character (and thus neither would the reader) won’t know until more than half way through. Apart from putting the information on the cover, there is NO WAY to introduce it in the story before the main character finds out. Not without stopping the story to tell the reader, which is worse than a prologue in my estimation. If I don’t introduce this particular facet, the reader won’t even know exactly what genre s/he is reading.
    Thoughts?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. On the surface, that sounds like one of the better reasons to have a prologue, but without reading it, I wouldn’t be able to comment on how necessary it is. But on the surface, it sounds positive. : )

      Thanks for reading!

      Like

      1. I’ve been looking at your line-by-line critiques and am considering submitting my first chapter to you when it’s polished. Perhaps I could send the prologue too? It’s less than a page long.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I welcome you to submit your story, Linda, although for the UtM series I prefer the beginning of the first chapter. It fits a bit better for the purpose of that specific series. Thanks for asking though, and I hope to see your story submitted sometime.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent post. I’m not a fan of prologues. I tend to skim them. I’d rather get into chapter one and have snippets of the backstory hinted at until it becomes critical to know it. Then the author has my full attention, and I care about the character enough for the backstory to mean something to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, if it’s good enough for Good Omens, it’s good enough for me. I do read the prologue of works, and when writing I just stick one in whenever it feels right, which of all the novels I’m writing includes four out of eight pieces: two to build suspense and foreshadow to later events, one to give crucial information and set the scene, and one to set the mood and provide some kind of context.
    I think prologues in film comprise of more than just those like the text crawl in Star Wars; a lot of opening narration like that of Lord of the Rings is like a prologue, the sequence wherein Trinity escapes the Agents in the Matrix, Tony Stark getting captured by terrorists in Iron Man, the Night’s Watchmen getting slaughtered by White Walkers in Game of Thrones… these are all sequences that for me imitate what prologues do in the written word. You could cut them out and not lose on the story, but stylistically speaking I think they all added to the strength of the work they were part of… if that makes any sense.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I completely agree that it’s more than the rolling words. That bit was included in the post for a smidge of humor. Also, that example I gave doesn’t really relate to what a book’s prologue.
      Prologues are a heated issue, and I appreciate your comment. Thanks for reading too!

      Like

  4. Reblogged this on First Draft and commented:
    Great point, “A decent example of a prologue is in the first book of the Game of Thrones series. The prologue told the readers that there’s magic in the world. Without that, the reader wouldn’t have known there’s any magic at all until at least halfway through the book. It gave the hardcore fantasy readers something to hold on to.”

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  5. Thanks once again for an intriguing post.

    I opted to add a Prologue to my book at the end of the process due to concerns that the first chapter might not provide enough of a hook (the first chapter is dedicated to introducing the main character and the foundation for the plot that unfolds). The book is a cybersecurity thriller, and the prologue takes place in a data center bunker in the process of being hacked. Given the genre, I was concerned that something more sexy was needed to engage potential readers, although I was quite happy with the first chapter as it was.

    The (short) prologue and first chapter are here: http://updegrove.wordpress.com/sample-chapters/ I’d be curious to hear from anyone that has a moment to take a look and let me know whether they think I made the right or the wrong decision (thanks in advance if you do).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like the mood and foreshadowing that’s set by your prologue (though pacing might be increased even more by cutting some of the minute details about the guards movement from truck, and into the eventual security office–I found myself skipping over the locking, unlocking, moving of palettes, etc.). I guess I would wonder if either of the guards come into the novel elsewhere, so that this could be your first chapter, rather than a prologue. Personally, I don’t love the teaser of a prologue–I want the story to start, not give me hints; but again, I think it’s a very personal taste, not a “right” or “wrong” thing to include.

      One other thought. If you are keeping the prologue, then the move into Chapter One seemed disjointed because the first line said “The next morning…” That seems more like a move from Chapter one to Chapter two. What I’m used to in a prologue is quite a shift in time/ space from prologue to 1st chapter, and to have the chapter referencing the prologue with its first line made me wonder why they were so closely connected.

      I hope the dog is a main character! She seems delightfully dim. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You know, I never realized prologues were so disliked when I wrote the first book of my fantasy series, and that many people just skipped over them. I began to worry and stress about readers not reading my prologue. After all, it was my hook. It was important to the main plot line. It needed to be there. So, after several debates with myself, I took out the word Prologue and gave it a title:
    The Beginning: Escape
    Ha! Problem solved. I could finally relax. Well, except now I worry about marketing and finding readers for that book. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Prologues can add nothing to the story, so the reader, knowing prologues aren’t worth the bother, always skips them. Then the reader finishes the novel and complains that the author didn’t ever explain why such-and-such character was trying to accomplish such-and-such goal. And the author thinks, ‘But I DID explain that, right at the very start. Didn’t you read the prologue?’ But if the reader misses an important part of the story due to skipping the prologue (which never contains anything necessary to the story), it’s the author’s fault for not repeating the same information elsewhere in the novel.

    I always read the prologue. Sometimes it’s a tedious info-dump (and sometimes so is the rest of the book — let’s not pretend prologues are the sole place this ever happens); sometimes it’s an interesting and important part of the story. But how can I (or any other reader) know which unless I read it?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. If I may chime in, Thomas, and to answer your question, theoretically yes, but I would also ask what could be done in a prologue to advance the plot that couldn’t be done in a first chapter.

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      2. When I mentioned tossing something out, I was thinking of the info-dumps in the chapters, not the prologue.

        Out of the forty-four romances I’ve written, I put a prologue in one I wrote in 2011, and when I look back on it, I realize I didn’t need it. I would have been better off starting at chapter one. I’m not the type of writer who goes back and rewrites books I’ve published, so I won’t go back and change it. However, I have no intention of putting another prologue in a book. From experience, it just isn’t needed. There’s always somewhere else you can put the information.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t use prologues myself, but I always read them. Then again, I read the introduction by someone else, the angels list and dedication, the coming books that are included to fill in the end of the book, etcetera, so

    However, Terry Pratchett does use prologues one in a while, and uses them well. He uses a prologue as a ‘scene setter’, “To give the reader a sense of scope” (direct quote from the article). Which proves the adage that a talented writer can break every rule and still write fabulous, readable prose. I don’t know why people are so against them, but I’m putting it down as a ‘fad’ rule. Twenty years from now, prologues might be all the rage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Commenting on fads is a good point. This might be best saved for a post all in itself, but 50 years ago, it was deemed very popular to do things that today wouldn’t get you in the front door at most literary agencies. I suppose I could have prefaced that all of my advice is for the modern publishing era, but I figured it could be assumed. 😀
      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have to say that I’m rather mystified by the level of orthodoxy on the subject of prologues; it sounds to me a bit like the fatwahs issued against adjectives such that every submission that’s tainted by one will get rejected in formula fashion by the gatekeeper of the slushpile. I’m sure not every prologue is an info dump, or that every author has the same profile in mind for a prologue that is being described here (I know that I certainly didn’t; I could have easily just called it “Chapter 1”).

    There are many ways to write a compelling book (look at Hemingway in contrast to Henry James, or David Foster Wallace vs. his contemporaries). What matters is whether the author has the skills to pull it off, and not whether their opening pages fall fall into the category of a “Prologue” (whatever the then-current stereotype for that device might be) or a “Chapter 1.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with you, Andrew, which is why I was careful not to say I’m 100% against prologues. I put prologues in the same bin as I do other things like killing off the protagonist in a first person, using flash-backs, a true third person omniscient, changing tenses in the middle of the book, etc. They all can be done brilliantly, but one has to really know what he/she is doing in order to pull them off well.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I always hear about prologues that “don’t add anything to the story,” and I don’t think I’ve ever really encountered one, so I truly don’t understand all the prologue hate. Maybe they’ve just had bad experiences so far, but I feel that they more often than not set the mood or tone of a piece, or give us a little snippet of something to carry with us through the text that alters our perception of what’s to follow. Granted, I don’t think every book needs a prologue, and I use them only when I feel it suits the structure of the book. I decided to forgo a prologue in the second book of my current trilogy because it wouldn’t make sense. The first book, in a way, was the prologue. And there’s no epilogue yet. That follows in the third book. But I have another series of many books, and each of those will have prologues and epilogues to establish something that’s passed, and set up something still to come. Then I have other books with no prologues, because it doesn’t make sense for the structure of the plot. I always read the prologues and baffle over people who despise them. What’s wrong with a little bit more to read?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You make some good points, L.S., and everyone feels a little differently about them. My hunch is that with blogs, then twitter, the general population’s attention span has dwindled down to the leanest sort of writing. It’s neither good or bad, it’s just the swing of literary fashion.

      I don’t think that it’s so much that prologues are bad, but there’s probably just more of a general scrutiny of what’s really essential in a novel.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I think the reason I don’t care for prologues is because of the type of fiction I’m drawn to, which is highly character driven, rather than plot driven. I have found prologues don’t give me insight into the hopes, dreams, desires, oddities of character–usually they provide a piece of information (and it can be well written, not an info-dump), that is important to plot later in the story, or they are a foreshadowing that I find heavy handed. Just my two cents on why I don’t prefer them.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Nice article! I’ve read a lot of prologues that I wished would just end, and yet still I chose to add one to my own story. It’s a prologue because it takes place 25 years before the main story. It tells the reader that the world is violent. It tells the reader where the protagonist came from. It also hints at the beings that put the world in the state it is. I feel like it sits well alongside lighthearted start of the main story, before it becomes entangled in the struggles that were touched upon in the prologue.

    I’ve certainly tried not to info-dump anyway 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  12. It was debatable for a while, but adding in a preamble to the book did help in the end. I just needed a different approach to set up the rest of my book.
    I think depending on the context of the book, a prologue could help, but it is down to the writer to decide if one would be necessary, and just how much should be shared.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve heard the prologue debate before. If I use a prologue, it’s never longer than a page and sets up the climatic scene. I probably should check with readers and see if they skipped it or not! Never thought of that but good idea. Jan

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Fascinating discussion. I’d never used a prologue until my last book because of all those reasons. I decided to make it a very short, pithy scene (the prologues that I’ve liked the best have nearly always been short) that lays the foundation for the rest of the novel, which starts three months later. It cried “prologue” to me as I wrote it, and it felt too important to roll in as backstory later on. We’ll see it if works…I’ve had no negative feedback on it so far. Every story is different, with different requirements. I may never use one again, who knows?

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I have a prologue on my current WIP for the following reasons: 1) it introduces an important element that doesn’t appear until the seventh chapter, and 2) it takes place eighty years before the rest of the story and thus doesn’t fit or feel right as chapter one. It’s not critical to the plot, because I know readers often skip them. It’s more like bonus material, a reward for those that do read it.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Interesting! I posted a little teaser “Anteprologue” on my blog which chronologically comes right before the Prologue of the novel. It introduces a few of the characters, but nothing is really crucial to the plot. I think of it as akin to the webisodes between seasons of Doctor Who, or the Marvel One-shot episodes. A little bit of extra fun to run and hopefully to read!

        Liked by 1 person

  16. My recent novel has a prologue. It exists partly because it was the first bit of the story that I wrote, and partly because it sets the scene for the novel and reveals a bit of information that becomes important much later. Could it have been Chapter 1? Sure, but it stands a bit apart, and I think, is better as a “Prologue”.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I would say I have a prologue for the reason – To let the reader know that a different flavor is coming later in the book. But when I started writing the book, this was the natural start for me as a beginner. I think because I’m writing urban fantasy, I wanted to show that the tone of the book would darken, especially when there is light humour in the first few chapters as the characters are introduced. I think I will take it out for future submissions, though. I hear they aren’t always well received with literary agents or publishers.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. The prologue in the story I’m writing is kind of used as a hook… it’s way in the future (towards the end of the main character’s long life… she’s in her 90s in the prologue) and it opens a gateway into her telling the story of her life… but, that being said, I know a lot of people don’t read prologues… so I wrote it so that it’s not necessary to read the prologue to get into the story, the first chapter still has an opening all its own, with its own hook. But the prologue is there to give you the tiniest bit of back story, just enough to pique your interest, if that makes sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I’m not necessarily against prologues myself. In fact my first book had one; my second also had one in earlier drafts but later morphed into ‘chapter one’. And I guess that’s one of the main arguments against them, right there: if it’s simply the start of the book, why isn’t it just chapter one? Also I agree that info dumps right at the start (or arguably anywhere) are not usually a good thing.
    One good reason for a prologue might be that it tells a short, separate story that sets the scene for the main one; and its separateness benefits from being reinforced by being a prologue rather than chapter one. (Though that seems indulgent perhaps unless it’s quite a big novel.) An example I can think of was the start of ‘Lost Horizon’, which gives some backstory that’s a story in itself, and I think the book does benefit from it. Then again, that book was written about 70 years ago (from memory) when prologues were much more common.
    Which underlines another factor: prologues have simply gone out of fashion, and readers are less used to them – and publishers and agents seem generally to dislike them. That alone should make writers wary.

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  20. First off, this post is very good. It doesn’t give a definite answer, but it gives suggestions. It came up at a very good time in my editing process, so thank you.

    See, the thing with my prologue is that it introduces characters that are guaranteed to crop up later. Everyone who has read my story so far loves my prologue because it’s a mini-intro to a story all its own. The reader is more likely to keep an eye out for the characters they’ve (hopefully) quickly fallen in love with in the prologue.

    That said, I don’t know how to query agents like this. They ask for the first chapter/first few pages/first few chapters, and whether I start with the prologue or chapter 1 is lost on me. Any advice?

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    1. They don’t want to see a prologue. I could almost guarantee it. They want to see the first chapter as they asked in a literal fashion. Every agent I’ve read/heard about don’t care for prologues. They want the story to “get on with it” type of thing. I can’t say that I disagree, as detailed in the post.
      Thank you for the compliment I appreciate it. I do try to represent all angles of a topic. And thanks for reading!

      Like

  21. You know, I didn’t know prologues were a thing to worry about until a few months ago. The sci-fi novel I finished has a prologue, and the fantasy novel I’m writing has a prologue too. In most of what I’ve read (the stuff I’ve liked at least) the prologue is a way to sell the world your characters inhabit more than anything. What I mean is that by using the word “Prologue,” the author was implying that it’s a soft way to get the reader to suspend his or her disbelief. If one can do that, then the reader is hooked, and it makes for more forgiveness in the first chapter.

    But now that I’m reading all of these thoughts, I’m wondering if it’s a good idea. The biggest problem I see with bad science-fiction and fantasy is that they don’t sell the world; it’s unbelievable and grating on the nerves. When people say they skip the prologue but not the first chapter, it really makes me wonder about using that word. Skipping the selling point of the world I’ve built means that the reader might not care, and by default will not read until the end.

    The prologues I have written could stand as first chapters on their own merit. Since all I’d need to do is delete “Prologue” and type in “Chapter 1”, does that mean they could remain as prologues, or should I just go ahead with the change?

    Liked by 1 person

  22. hi i am yet to have that novel printed or the 2nd, 3rd 4th even edited but i kinda like prologues. it depends on the author. Jackie Collins uses prologues and it makes me want to read her books. If the book spans time i like the idea of them but not too long winded. so i guess i am a fence sitter.

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