Weighing in on Prologues

It’s so nice to realize that, after all these years together, I still have new and surprising things to blog about! The issue of prologues isn’t new, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve always avoided weighing in on it. Why? Because people love their prologues and, as you can probably guess, I usually don’t, and so I really don’t want to open a can of worms like I did when discussing sex and swearing in YA

As much as I love conflict in my fiction, I don’t much enjoy it on the blog. But people keep asking me about prologues so, therefore, here we go. Here’s the basic gist of the question. This one came in through my MG and YA webinar that I did for Writer’s Digest last Thursday, but this is pretty much the idea behind every prologue question I get, so the wording isn’t especially important:

What are your thoughts on prefaces/prologues? Do they ever work for you? Many people have told me that everyone HATES prefaces/prologues so I cut it. However, my beta readers LOVED the preface. It made them want to keep reading to see what really happens in that moment. What to do? Do prefaces/prologues ever work? Will you pass on a MS because they include a preface/prologue?

Yep, this is the point of a prologue. It usually teases the reader with a high-tension moment from later in the book and it starts the manuscript off with a bang — because, as a writer, you know to do that. Tensions are high. Things are really exciting. This is great!

Then the real first chapter starts. And the ol’ Prologue Deflation kicks in because the writer is usually dragging the reader into an ordinary beginning which is, let’s face it, kinda boring. Sure, there’s always that tension that you’ll go back to the exciting prologue stuff later. And that’s what the writer is counting on. But most of the time, this kind of prologue tension feels like a lazy cheat to me, to tell you the truth. A lot of writers lean on prologues because they don’t know how to otherwise make their beginnings exciting.

A prologue isn’t an automatic rejection for me but they almost always leave me underwhelmed because the beginning after the prologue is usually a failure of imagination. Most likely the writer didn’t know how to really start, so they throw a fake-out on the fire and hope that it’s enough to carry you through to the good stuff that’s buried later. It’s the equivalent of a writer saying, “Well, I really want to send you the first 50 pages because it doesn’t really get going until Chapter Four.” Why hide the goods? Why resort to tricks and manipulation? Why toy with the reader and cover up your own plot insecurities? I’d rather have a well-crafted, gimmick-free, honest-to-goodness beginning to a novel almost every time.

Sure, prologues start with tension and they’re popular, but they set my expectations low in terms of the writer’s overall craft level, to be perfectly honest. There are definitely exceptions to the rule and some prologues work. Regardless, lots are published. But just know that we’ve seen the prologue bait and switch too many times to really have high hopes in most cases.

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  1. Becky Mahoney’s avatar

    I’ve actually been known to enjoy the occasional prologue, but not the ones that jump forward to a tense moment later in the book. I think that the ones that jump back to a significant moment in the past can be done really well when handled by the right author.

    Then again, I LOVE dream sequences even though everyone else seems to hate them, so maybe I have some unpopular opinions? :)

  2. Laurisa Reyes’s avatar

    I agree with Becky, I don’t care for prologues that reveal some future moment, then ch 1 jumps back to the present. I read one recently in a very popular MG fantasy and promptly put the book down. However, prologues that share some valuable event occurring from a POV other than that of the protagonist and which sets up the conflict for our protagonist is fine by me, particularly in fantasy, which I love.

  3. Ina’s avatar

    What about a prologue that doesn’t show a scene from later in the story, but rather a scene from the perspective of another character than the MC? Or a prologue that shows a scene that happened years earlier, that sets the stage for the story to come? I believe the latter was done quite successfully in Jeanne DuPrau’s THE CITY OF EMBER.

  4. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    I also see a lot of writers mistake Prologue for Massive Infodump. They use prologues as an opportunity to introduce their world, explain all of its rules, ect, ect.

    First and foremost, it’s overwhelming to open a book that way. Secondly, it tells me that the writer isn’t sure how to world build within the context of the story, so they’re going to throw it at me in the beginning to make their job easier.

    Of course, there are always exceptions. Some prologues do work. But I’d say 99% of the time, a prologue simply isn’t necessary.

  5. Melodie’s avatar

    The only exception for me as a reader to prologues is Elizabeth George, the fab mystery writer. Her prologues are soo great I was inspired to write one for my YA mystery. I pulled it during revisions – bc of what you’re saying – but it did help me focus my draft so my first chapter got a LOT better. A prologue is a nice crutch during drafting but only when I removed it was I forced to make my first few chapters stand on their own momentum.

  6. Shannon’s avatar

    I think it depends. Most epic fantasy requires some sort of prologue to introduce the “broader quest.” Think the beginning of Harry Potter in which we are introduced to Dumbledore and McGonagall long before Harry ever meets them. Or better yet, the mystery series, in which the prologue always introduces the very first murder. I think the prologue and epilogue are really useful tools in these instances, especially when there’s a strict one-person POV for the rest of the story.

    That being said, I’d never considered how a prologue could be used as a crutch, and I can see how, as an agent reviewing stories, one could come to HATE prologues when they result in… crap in the subsequent chapters. As a reader though, there must be good editors and agents vetting the prologues that I see, because I mostly like them.

  7. Diana Dart’s avatar

    Fantastic webinar last week, by the way. Excellent info crammed into only 90 minutes (you must have been hyperventilating by the end).

    I had a prologue in my WIP – all formulated to build tension and mood pronto. An editor-friend read it and blurted out (before those pesky “friendly” tendencies kicked in), “Well now I KNOW what’s gonna happen. Blah.”

    Needless to say, that half a page was the first to hit the cutting room floor when I started working on it again. I like your take on the whole thing. Prologues are out there and they can work at times, but if you create that tension and mood without one, punch it.

  8. Ilima’s avatar

    A good test is to write it without the prologue. This forces you to get your beginning into shape. If your prologue is that awesome, you can always put it back after your beginning becomes equally awesome.

  9. Mary Ann Duke’s avatar

    As a child and youth reader, I always skipped the prologue and/or preface. I didn’t like to read back then, so the fewer words I had to read, the better.

  10. Valeria’s avatar

    As a kid I never read prologues. I thought everything was supposed to start at chapter “1″.

  11. Keith Robinson’s avatar

    Ha! I had to weigh in here too, since I just blogged about this the other day. Generally I like them, have no problem with them, and can’t understand people who kick up fuss about them. BUT, that said, I do agree that they can go horribly wrong.

    I don’t tend to like the ones that show a flash of the future, but I love the ones that show a flash of the past. And while you may be right that some are just big info dumps, I think the reverse can also be true. After all, if you have a prologue which SHOWS an incident that happened years ago, isn’t that better than a later scene in which some knowledgeable person TELLS us about it? (Think Dean Koontz and his eccentric-old-man-tells-a-horrible-dark-secret scenes that last 3 chapters.)

    The argument that prologues are there because of weak opening chapters isn’t necessarily the case either. Some may be, yes, but if the “action-packed” prologue is left out for the sake of leaving it out, then the author might feel obliged to stuff action into the first chapter instead — which is just as big a sin, if not worse in many cases. A really bad example is those Maximum Ride books, where the first chapter starts with Max being chased by dog-type people… Yes, all very gripping. Except that it’s a dream, as we find out a few pages in. How cheesy is that? How is that better than having a genuinely action-packed or suspenseful prologue about a scene from the past?

    There are so many sides to this discussion. I get where you’re coming from, and agree to some extent, but I do think there are many instances where a prologue can work really well, and in many cases better.

    Finally, when the entire story is from a single POV in the present, and the opening scene is from the POV of a murderer 60 years ago, simply renaming “prologue” to “chapter one” is NOT an acceptable alternative IMHO. That’s just all wrong.

  12. Beth Hull’s avatar

    Mary, I knew you didn’t like prologues from a beginnings critique you did, like, a year and a half ago. No surprises here. :)

    I never minded prologues (I like Elizabeth George’s, too, Melodie). But I’ve used them as crutches in the past. They’re actually kind of fun. And then you take them out later and revise Chapter One until it’s awesome.

    Donald Maass has some good – strict – rules on when a prologue actually belongs in a manuscript. Unfortunately I can’t reference the rules because the book is with a friend. However, if anyone’s interested, the rules are in the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

  13. Teresa Robeson’s avatar

    I always thought something bothered me about the prologue of the Sammy Keyes books (which I love)…and I think you’ve helped me to understand why. :)

  14. Dad Who Writes’s avatar

    “sex and swearing in YA” always makes me think of the X song, “Sex And Dying In High Society”. But anyway…

    Prologues kind of annoy me unless they’re done really, really well. For example, the one at the beginning of Garth Nix’s Sabriel doesn’t tell us anything we don’t find out by fascinating degrees (or they would have fascinating if he HADN’T ALREADY TOLD US!) throughout the first few chapters. In complete contrast is the prologue at the beginning of the Lord of the Rings – an enormous info dump which breaks every rule about prologues and yet somehow works. Why it works would take a lot longer to disentangle.

  15. David Ebright’s avatar

    I agree that using a prologue as a “false start”, shortcut, or info dump detracts from the story. Some come across as down payments to the reader “I don’t know how to jump start this to get your attention – my opening’s kinda bland – but the story gets better – so stay with me here.” I particularly despise info dumps – anywhere in a book.

    Now I’ll admit that I’ve used prologues twice. In both cases they describe a historical event that impacts the present day & the protagonist. I think the trick is to keep them short – maximize the action (can’t sound like a history book) & ratchet things way up on Chapter 1 & build it from there. (I did a much better job of this in my 2nd book than the 1st.) The importance of the prologue becomes obvious later, minus regurgitation of prologue points in the form of backstory. (THAT’s ANNOYING)

    Looking back – I’m not sure there was a better way to tie in impact events (& a character) from the early 18th century minus a prologue without interrupting the flow later. Since I write YA – pace is important. Gotta stay outta the dead zones – even if one of your characters is dead.

  16. Anna’s avatar

    I often skip over them. I just want to start the story already.
    P.S. Enjoyed the webinar. So helpful.

  17. Katherine Quimby Johnson’s avatar

    What a timely post! A new-to-writing, new member of one of my writers group shared the start of her first novel and it included a prologue, which we all told her to ditch except for the last line, which was a real hook.

    Sometimes I think writers need to draft the prologue because it helps them get into the world of their novel. The trick is knowing when to remove it in revisions, because what a writer needs isn’t always what a reader needs.

  18. Lester D. Crawford’s avatar

    The Belgariad by David Eddings comes to mind when I think prologue. I loved those prologues.

    I thought the prologue (at least I thought it was a prologue because it was numbered 0000) of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline was great.

    A prologue has to be part of the total package. It must support the story. A prologue is not supposed to be a substitute for anything. A prologue has a job to do. If it does not do that job, then it should not exist. I often hear advice given to writers to “cut the first chapter.” If the first chapter needs to be cut, then the writing is flawed. The same applies to a prologue.

    In my current project, the first book of the series has a prologue that simply states (in 97 words): “This is Earth. This is a spooky spaceship landing on Earth.” The protagonist finds the spaceship early in the first chapter. Things do not go well for him after that.

    Then there are epilogues.

    In my current project, the last book of the series has an epilogue that is brief as it provides an “oh, no!” moment that sets up my next book series. The epilogue has a job: sell the next book series.

    Every word you write has a job to do. Make your words do their jobs or fire them!

  19. Ari’s avatar

    I used to like prologues, but sometimes I feel a bit cheated by them.
    The stakes are high and the scene is tense; it leaves you dying to know what happens next. But then you move to the start of the real chapter, and you know you can’t find out until you read till the very end.

    Now that I think about it, the novel would have been fine if you took out the prologue. It wasn’t exactly necessary. It was just a bait, it may work, but leaving it out didn’t change anything.

    There are different types of prologues though. Prologues that is just a repetition of the heightened action scene, or a prologue that has some sort of backstory to ease the readers in.

    Interesting post. I think ultimately it varies and has to be done well.

  20. Tymothy Longoria’s avatar

    Ms. Kole, as always great writing, great topic. What say you on prologues in a sequel?

    For example, the first book is written and I wish to add a prologue in the second book to remind the reader of things that “went down” in book one and as a bridge into the second.

    Thoughts?

  21. Karen’s avatar

    As a reader, I like prologues that provide a bit of past information bringing to the beginning of the story. As a writer, I try to avoid them for fear of getting it wrong.
    Great post and comments.

  22. Matt Leo’s avatar

    Just because a MS doesn’t have a section labeled “Prologue” doesn’t mean it has no prologue. I’ve critiqued a lot of manuscripts that have a frenetic, action-packed opening scene in Chapter 1 that leaves a huge pacing hole in its wake. That hole is usually filled with dense background briefing. Somewhere on the other side of that hole is the actual start of the story.

    I think a lot of prologues (labeled or otherwise) arise from the difficulty of getting a story launched, particularly speculative fiction stories which have major briefing workloads to manage. It’s tempting to throw in a prologue with the hope it will generate momentum that will carry the reader through the world building and backstory that follows. That doesn’t work. A good author, particularly a children’s author, doesn’t rely on gimmicks like that. There’s different ways to launch a story, but a good writer starts the story in the right place and moves forward with confident writing.

    A prologue is not a replacement for starting the story in the right place, or managing reader briefings effectively, but what it can do is clarify protagonist’s story arc. Why is the thing drives him or her through that arc so powerful? If you have a story about return from exile, before the exile takes place is probably too early to start the story; but a picture of that time might be helpful in understanding the nature of the protagonist’s feelings about return.

    One thing I think that works is to make the prologue like a self-contained story that’s worth reading itself. I think that’s a good approach to the first chapter too; tell a short story that can hold a reader’s attention for three to five thousand words. If your story is about a question that itself takes some explaining, you can raise that question as the answer to a more understandable one. Edgar Rice Borroughs did that with *A Princess of Mars*; bootstrapped a sword and sorcery fantasy by telling a completely pedestrian cowboys-and-Indians story in the first chapter.

    But there’s no question that people who read lots of unpublished manuscripts learn to dread prologues, explicit or implicit. I’m wondering, whether it might be best not to even mention a prologue until a full manuscript is requested. A good first chapter should be able to launch a story on its own.

  23. Lyle Blake Smythers’s avatar

    @Matt, good observations. But A PRINCESS OF MARS is not even remotely a “sword and sorcery fantasy.” I suggest you reread it or check your definitions.

  24. Diana’s avatar

    You’re right about the post-prologue let-down. Prologues CAN work, but often they just don’t!

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