When to Write a Prologue

I can’t believe I’m thinking about writing a prologue.

For as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve heard that prologues were dead.  They’re unnecessary, usually boring, and readers (and agents and editors!) won’t even bother to read them.  A lot of that is true—sometimes.  Any aficionado of epic fantasy has suffered through many an epic backstory infodump.  But just because they’ve gotten a bad rap doesn’t mean they can’t be effective and powerful* if used correctly.
*I wanted to link to Writing Excuses here, but apparently their wise words on prologues are not collected all in one episode.  In know they’ve discussed them on Brandon and Dan’s project-in-depth episodes, explaining how they’ve used prologues in their own novels.

First Law of Prologues: Only use a prologue if it makes the story better.
Which, if you think about it, could also be the First Law of Writing.  But prologues are seductive; they can trick us into thinking they’re exactly what the story needs, when really, they might just be the lazy way out.  Take the time for objective assessment (and if you’re too close to the story, recruit help!)

Corollary: If you can, call it Chapter 1.
This is more a stylistic choice, but prologues are different from regular scenes.  If there’s nothing setting it apart from the rest of the book—time, tone, point of view—then maybe it’s not really a prologue.

There are several good reasons you might use a prologue.

  • Jump POVs.  If your novel is from a single point of view, especially if it’s first person, the story is limited.  For example, it can be difficult to make the villain believable, or to show all the nuances in a complex situation.  If it’s crucial for the reader to know something before the protagonist does, a prologue might be in order.
  • Skip the boring parts.  If there’s a large chunk of time between the opening scene and the rest of the story, making it a prologue can keep the reader from getting disoriented.  CAUTION: Be very careful with this one.  There’s a big difference between a vital scene and a history lesson.
  • Flash forward.  It can also work the other way: jump forward to a tense moment near the end of the book to set the tone and hook the reader, than continue with the story as normal.  Again, caution.  Make sure it adds something to the story, and it’s not just a gimmick.  Done well, it can act as foreshadowing, and imbue the whole story with an added layer of suspense.  For example, in Red Seas Under Red Skies, I (slight spoiler) was a little annoyed to discover that the tense little scene in the prologue was not actually the climax, or even that important in the grand scheme of things, but it helped sow doubt as to whether Locke and Jean had really forgiven each other.  It set a tone, which is important in a book with such an erratic timeline.

I’m sure there are other reasons, but the main thing to keep in mind is that it needs to feel like it belongs.  Like any other part of the story, a prologue should be interesting, with all the same nuances of characterization and pacing and conflict.  It needs to serve more than one purpose; if you’re just telling the reader information, no matter how vital you think it is, there are better ways to work it into the story than as a prologue.

In my particular case, I’m contemplating a POV-jump prologue.  See, the big bad is mostly a mystery to my protagonist, and while at the end she sees the results of his plans, she never really knows how he did it.  Not a particularly satisfying mystery.

But if I give the reader a glimpse into the antagonist’s mind in the prologue, showing the actions that set up his opening attack, mystery becomes suspense.  I’ll still hold back most of the details, but they’ll know enough to dread what’s coming as much as the other characters do.

Huh.  I think I just talked myself into it.  Guess I’d better go write it, and see if it works the way I said it would.

Since writing the above, I did write a prologue.  It’s short, ominous, and maybe a little obscure.  I’m definitely going to need a second (and third and fourth) opinion on whether it works or not.  Really, I think that’s the only way to decide, if you think you need a prologue: write the thing, and see what readers say.

Do you read prologues?  Write them?  What do you think makes them succeed or fail?

One thought on “When to Write a Prologue

  1. I do read prologues. Like any other part of a book, it’s all about how they’re handled: a good writer who knows the rules can get away with just about *anything. If the voice is strong and the material compelling, prologue, backstory, infodump–it can ALL work.

    The now-legendary prologue aversion of agents and editors is just more dogma born, I suspect, in that decade or two in which we swam in a sea of faux-Tolkien Fantasy, and prologues were *de rigueur.* Of course there was a backlash. But like any trauma, you get over it, or should.

    Unfortunately, transitory truths get recycled and become dogma, and in this day of writing blogs, much of that dogma gets reinforced instead of being questioned and challenged. I think you make a very strong case, and have clearly identified some excellent reasons to use a prologue. Kudos to you for not taking the timid way!

    Dario

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