Thirty years ago we wouldn’t be debating the viability of prologues. Readers assumed writers would build their world and characters a little before diving into the thick of the story’s plot. Now including a prologue can trigger an instantaneous pass from agents, editors and readers alike. So how did we end up in this mess, an era where millions of writers are being cut off from a structural device that thrived for thousands of years? Good question with an easy answer: we did it to ourselves. We writers created a surplus of bad prologues for decades and gave the poor prologue it’s terrible reputation.
You may ask why the fuss? It’s just another way to open a story. It’s harmless? Well, back in the old days that was true. For Dickens and countless others, the prologue was a perfect way for writers to establish the setting and overall tone of the novel. They might foreshadow a tragic ending for the story, or showcase backstory events that took place outside the purview of the protagonist. Prologues were sometimes written in a unique style, say poetry or prose, or told by a narrator who talked directly to the reader. They didn’t bother readers, they were road maps to a new world, and they enhanced the reader’s enjoyment.
However, in too many case what prologues have become is not a credit to writers. They are information dumps, long lists of dates and dry facts tied together with just enough narrative to yield a coherent bundle. They contain complicated backstories, with layers of historical events, going back to the dawn of time. They fixate on providing the reader with gimmicky hooks, bits of flash and color to suck a reader in, yet have little or nothing to do with the main story. I can’t blame readers for wanting to fast forward through such unsightly beginnings, can you? In short, prologues died because writers forgot how to use them as tools to work with a story, and not against it.
Since we can’t change the past, or the minds of all the countless prologue haters in the world, writers must adapt.
So what can you do instead of a prologue?
Write a prequel. You don’t need to lose the story you worked so hard to create, but you might need to re-purpose it. Think short stories, flash fiction or giveaways you can use as a marketing tool. This only works if you have something self-contained already, or that you can modify to become it’s own story. However, make sure it’s good enough to stand alone. Pass it by some beta readers, ones who have and have not read your full story first.
Redraft the relevant points into a new chapter one. Be careful with this one; it’s easy to go wrong. Make sure you have enough elements from the main storyline and characters to tie this new chapter together with the rest of the book. I used this trick in my manuscript; I opened the story from another main character’s perspective and it worked perfectly. Am I sorry to lose my prologue? Sure I am, but if you can’t fight them, join them.
Cut the prologue out. Start by having some beta readers read your current chapter one without the prologue. Who knows, maybe you never needed that old thing. If so, lucky you. If not, and your reader’s notes come back with questions, figure out which critical pieces of information you need to fill the holes and weave those facts back in. It’s amazing but making the decision to cut the prologue can be liberating; leaving it in might be holding you back from creating a tighter manuscript.
Keep the prologue and hope for the best. If you opt for this one, keep it short! Some books, like mysteries, make great use of the prologue; they give the reader a short jolt of impact as we look down on a murder or criminal doing his/her evil thing. However, wage the prologue battle with caution, you may be taking on more resistance then you expected.
So is the prologue dead? No, but it lives on only in special circumstances and through gifted writers. Some stories work best with a prologue, and a number of writers still have the clout to demand their right to use one.
Where do you fall? Are you in favor of the prologue?
10 thoughts on “Pro the Prologue or Against?”
I’ve always liked well written prologues and was disappointed to learn that most agents don’t. I started one of my books with a dynamic prologue that drew in most of my readers but I decided to eliminate it because of the device’s bad rep. I re-wrote the first five chapters of the book to work around the gap that removing the prologue created. If I had the chance, I’d go back to my original plan and put the prologue back in. But I’d have to have a daring agent and editor.
Every piece should be judged on it’s content, not it’s form. There is no single element that should prevent a book from being published, especially not as important of one as a prologue! Crazy!
Michelle @ In Media Res
Hi Michelle, I admire your passion. Thanks for dropping by. Robin
I think prologues give authors the opportunity to present important background information that would clutter the book if it had to be explored in other ways 🙂
I’m with you in theory, I enjoy good prologues too. It’s data dumps that drive me crazy.
I like prologues, and I still use them. Whether or not I keep them really depends on the direction that the story takes. If I can manage to squeeze the information in the prologue into another area of the book, or if the event I thought the reader needed to understand before hand turns out to not be as pivotal as I once thought, I scrap it. Ideally, chapter one should star your protagonist, and sometimes, that’s just not where the story begins. It’s another one of those tidbits of writing advice along the lines of “Never do this, except in X, Y, Z and Xa situations”.
I love prologues too, so it’s sad to see agents say they skip them. For me it comes down to strikes, I don’t want to start the process with one against me.
Some books work well with prologues, like if it explains something relevant that happened long before the story, if it briefly sets the scene for the story about to unfold, or if it’s an event that ends by tying things into the main story. The kinds of prologues I hate are where pivotal events or the ending is given away (unless it’s deliberately working backwards from, say, a character’s death to show us how that event came to be), or where it’s just part of a future chapter. Why would you include a prologue that’s word-for-word something that’s in the actual book later on? Who’s going to remember that for so long, and why is it even relevant as a prologue?
Hi Carrie-Anne, I loved your site today. I’ve never been to Queens, NY but you made it look amazing. On my “Someday” list it goes. Prologues are very useful, and for just the sort of plot setups you’ve mentioned. Many notable writers still use them. I love the working backwards prologue. I always think of the film Sunset Boulevard as the perfect example of starting at the end. I seen a lot of what you mentioned, books that open with a piece of the book sucked out of the middle and front loaded verbatim. I tend to think of that as a gimmick, something to hook the reader and I don’t care for it either. Thanks for commenting. Robin