Monday, June 20, 2011

To Prologue or Not To Prologue

This subject seems to be popping up recently-- or maybe I'm just in one of those weird cycles, where a particular thing you've never really noticed suddenly seems to be everywhere, you know? It happens all the time with me and words -- I'll see a word I don't recognize, then I'll be seeing everywhere. No? Just me? Anyway, the topic of prologues is often a sore spot and one of those classic 'writer arguments', like outlining or writing by the seat of your pants. It's one of those things that can spark a huge debate and often a flame war between writers.

How do you feel about prologues? Well, I'll admit that I towed the 'party line' about them for a long time -- unnecessary and wrong. If you have a prologue then you've started your story in the wrong place. And I've certainly struggled with starting my stories in the wrong places. Usually I end up cutting pages of stuff until I get to the real beginning. But I've been getting better about it, and plotting (not outlining!) has been a big help. I've heard the advice that you should never submit a manuscript with a prologue. Take the information and weave it into the story, or just call the prologue Chapter 1 and have done with it. And it was advice I followed, because none of my books ever needed a prologue.

Or so I thought.

The manuscript that is currently seeking a home and/or agent, my Steampunk Cinderella, did not have a prologue either when I was first sending it out. Then I had a phone conversation with an editor and he said to me: "This needs a prologue".

I admit, I was a little taken aback by that advice, because it went against everything I'd been told. But he gave me very clear reasons that he thought the story would benefit from the addition of a prologue. And after thinking about it, I agreed. So I wrote a five-page prologue -- not nearly long enough to be a chapter-- that filled the need he described, and then completely re-wrote the rest of the book. The beta reader I sent it to, before sending it back to that editor, didn't say anything about it having a prologue. Another reader sent me a note after reading it, and she loved it. Said it read like a fairy tale, in fact. Which was the goal, so I guess that's a good thing!

What's the lesson in all this? There are no absolutes in writing. Every "rule", once you learn it, can be broken. Things a prologue should NOT be: an infodump, a crutch, a way to completely introduce every single character in the story, or a gimmick. Your first chapter should get us into the story proper, so don't lean on a prologue to give us background that you can put somewhere else. We don't NEED to know EVERYTHING right away; in fact sometimes it's better if we don't. Surprise us.

My prologue has legitimate rights to be where it is, and it occurs nearly ten years before the story starts, so it doesn't fit in as a chapter. If you have something from a non-character point-of-view, or maybe something happens before your Hero is born that directly affects his story, maybe a prologue is a good idea.

As with everything else in writing: do what works for you and the story.  Keep writing!


  1. It's like you said, it depends on the story. Personally, I don't care for prologues and don't write them. But there's been some stories that a prologue works. There's always an exception to any rule including with writing.

    Kim Baccellia

  2. I think only on of my books has a prologue. It needed it to work properly. I don't mind them at all, reading or writing.

  3. None of my books have a prologue, but I've read books that do and they seem to work. Like others have said, I suppose it depends on the story.

  4. Anonymous said...I have always read a lot of fantasy--whether YA or adult, and I write almost exclusvely in the same formats. Spec fiction for any readers seems to lend itself to prologues, in my experience.

    However, the general view--by readers, not authors--is that fantasy prologues are notoriously too long & too wrapped up in long past history, or the excruciating tiny details of ancient clashes between different sentient races or family members or social/political/economic movements.

    About a year ago, I discovered unscientific survey results based on a blog's commenters, in which most veteran fantasy readers responded that they -always- skipped prologues. I was a bit shocked, even being familiar with how tedious a genre fiction prologue can be. You see, I would never skip anything in a book. But that's me. Reading prologues may also be more common amongst young readers--After all, they haven't been jaded yet by a plethora of snoozers. What do you think?

    I remember back to Anne McCaffrey's early "Pern" books. In the first, she included a tiny prologue that oriented the reader to how the colony was settled on Pern & how the home planet lost contact with it. It might have run two paragraphs. With each additional book, McCaffrey did her best to whittle down that first prologue while adding a sentence or two about the previous book to get new readers up to speed. Every prologue was lean and direct, and took only a couple of minutes to read. The best I've ever seen.

    In my first draft of "Seabird", a YA fantasy, I included a short and totally unnecessary prologue. Some early readers liked it & some didn't. As I went through revisions, I ran into a problem area about a third of the way into the book. Two characters are in a potentially threatening situation. One doesn't have all of the details about the reason for the danger, so the other recounts events that took place a hundred years previously in an effort to provide context. The tension on those pages just evaporates into nothing. The one recounting the history came off as acting like he mainly loved hearing his own voice.

    What to do to fix the scene? That information really was important to the reader. Finally, I decided to pluck the info out of its scene & convert it into a new prologue. As a scene in its own right, the 100 year old events took on a life of their own--generating tension all over the place & allowing me to introduce one particular character to the readers long before I had been able to previously. And of course the scene at the third of the way point regained its tension, now that the characters were focused 100 per cent on the lurking danger. Win-win.

    In my second book, "Earthbow", I have no prologue. I intended to have one, because "Seabird" did. I played with a couple of ideas, but each idea turned itself into a scene in the main story. So no prologue.

    Finally, in my work in progress, I have a scene that's about a typewritten page long. There's decent tension in it between two future antagonists in the plot. I suspect it will also puzzle & intrigue new readers. Hopefully make them want to continue reading. Except the ones who never read prologues.

    June 21, 2011 5:24 PM

  5. p.s.
    I'm "anonymous". I tried to sign on with my Google acct and then with my LiveJoural but it rejected both of them. Is something up with this site?
    Sherry Thompson.