We’ve all seen it. Start pulling some books off a shelf, and chances are you will see a prologue. However, a prologue can be a red flag. If you haven’t heard back from your editor/agent/publisher, rethink your prologue. It can be the worst offender of all. #RMFW2017 @RMFWriters @crystalpubs2014
Prologues are not entirely evil. Many successful books use them well. So, if you are going to use a prologue, analyze what you will gain from that.
- Some writers rely on a prologue to provide an introduction to the story world.
- Or they use a prologue to try to make the story interesting because their first chapter doesn’t actually start where the story starts.
- Prologues often serve as information dumps. That may or may not advance your plot; it can be a successful way to move your storyline.
- If your entire prologue is just there to give a history of your world, you probably don’t need it. Make your reader care about someone first and then give them the information they want.
- Readers want to be drawn into a story. Giving them a history lesson first isn’t likely to do it unless you make it as engaging as the story, but even then you’re generally asking your reader to engage with your story twice.
Why Doesn’t It Work
- Those who love prologues will defend them to the death. Prologues can do no wrong for some writers. But…
- It’s an instant red flag if you’re trying to go the trade-published route. So if you’re a new writer and you want an agent and publisher, you should avoid a prologue simply because it’s a red flag of potential issues and you don’t need to start your submission that way.
- Often, they’re something really interesting that has nothing to do with the story you’re telling. You ask the reader to engage with Character A in the prologue and then the novel is about Character B and there’s no clear connection between the two.
- Or they provide information that readers can’t care about yet because readers have yet to meet a character this matters to.
- Or the prologue is written with too much distance to engage the reader. I read one recently where the characters were never referred to by name. There was nothing as a reader for me to latch onto.
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan starts with a six-page scene showing Lews Therin Telamon’s last moments. This works because it’s active and introduces the concept of the wheel of time and magical powers which we need since the first chapter starts with a farm boy.
Seer of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier starts with a two-page scene where a man is thrown overboard and knocked unconscious. This works because we need to know a little about who he is until he regains consciousness 30 pages later.
A Better Approach
Find a way to incorporate the information in the prologue into your story at a point where it matters to the reader.
Think about Harry Potter and where that starts. Not with a prologue giving us the background on Voldemort and who all the main characters are and how they’ve reached this point. It starts with Harry. And then we the readers learn things as he learns them.
(This is also why many stories that have an incredible amount of information to give the reader include an outsider or newcomer character that has to be told about everything that readers would want to know. So all that information can be naturally delivered as part of the story.)
Certain genres are more accepting of this than others. Sci-fi, for example. But it can still be overdone even in those genres.
Nova by Samuel R. Delaney
This book is one giant info-dump, but it works for the most part because it has a lot of characters that don’t know one another and a philosopher character who likes to muse about history and art and life. so dumping information is in character for him.
A Better Approach
- Only provide as much information as is needed in the moment.
- Keep it to information your characters would want and know and notice.
In science fiction and fantasy, sometimes text excerpts are used at the beginning of chapters to deliver this kind of information. (E.g., Robin Hobb’s Fitz books and Frank Herbert’s Dune)
THE BEST APPROACH
If you have information that doesn’t need to be in the story, but that you want to share with your readers, DON’T DELETE IT. You can use that same info elsewhere, in a different form.
(a) put it in an Appendix at the back of the book,
(b) post it on your website, or
(c) offer it as a freebie that people can receive if they sign up for your mailing list.
If you get famous enough, you can even publish a detailed compendium.
Workshop by Muffie Humphrey alessandraclarke.com
Graphic and recommended, complementary blog: “Prologue..or Not” by Jamie Grey, jamiegreybooks.com