For all the injunctions against whether you should use a prologue, the stubborn little boogers persist. Check a shelf full of books and you’re likely to encounter a healthy sampling of them–many agented and published by the same folks who may have told authors never to use a prologue, or that readers skip prologues.
So the answer to this question seems obvious: No, prologues are not bad. Why, then, does this advice persist as one of the most commonly and wrongly blanket-proscribed elements of story (along with adverbs and the noble semicolon)?
What’s so wrong with writing prologues?
The Purposes of Prologues—and the Pitfalls
While all prologues aren’t bad, agents and editors do see a lot of bad ones that hamper a story’s effectiveness, because they can be tricky to use skillfully: The problem is that what makes prologues work can also be a root cause of what makes prologues fail.
Let’s look at some common reasons an author might feel tempted to include a prologue in her story—and ways they can go wrong.
To introduce key context
Sometimes plunging a reader into your story smack en medias res without at least some kind of orientation to it can leave readers confused or disengaged. Imagine the Star Wars opening scenes without some grounding in the Rebels, the evil Galactic Empire, and the stolen Death Star plans Princess Leia carries in that famous opening crawl, or Romeo and Juliet without the essential background on their feuding families.
But this also creates a trap for authors of prologues that are simply info dumps. Readers may not fully engage or invest in prologues that can feel like dull, static world building before we have a reason to care about the people who live in those worlds—and they may not propel readers forward into that story world.
To offer essential information
Some stories are heightened by prologues that enhance readers’ understanding of or investment in key characters or relationships, or that jack up story stakes, or tease in the plot.
Rochelle Weinstein’s prologue in Where We Fall, for instance, shows the love triangle of three best friends in a brief glimpse of their college days, but the first chapter opens on a marital scene of two of them—not the two who were a couple in the prologue. The background of the college dynamics creates an immediate story question in readers’ minds, and serves as a central throughline for the story.
But paving in what may feel to an author like essential information can also result in a prologue that feels like a backstory dump, stalling reader engagement in the actual story, and often compensating for first chapters that are underdeveloped or lack a strong hook.
To whet readers’ appetites
There’s something delicious about getting a tantalizing taste of what lies ahead—it’s why we love appetizers…and foreplay.
Think of how many mysteries and thrillers begin on a situation or crime that becomes the protagonist’s main focus in the story—Knives Out opens on the housekeeper discovering the dead body of her employer, a murder the rest of the film purports to solve.
This type of prologue may also foreshadow a pivotal event to come that immediately raises questions in readers’ minds or creates story tension. The main characters of The Hangover wake up in the aftermath of a wild night and the story unfolds as they try to piece together what the hell happened.
The problem with this kind of prologue is that it can feel like a cheat—the author trying to start his story with a bang to compensate for a quiet or static opening that may not create a strong hook—or feel misleading to readers, who may think they’re reading one kind of tale, only to feel yanked into another with the opening chapter.
Determining Whether Your Prologue Works
Creating a readable, engaging prologue that won’t turn agents, editors, and readers off is a careful balance between using it to serve and further the story and avoiding the traps that can stop it in its tracks.
Here are a few questions to ask in determining which camp yours may fall in:
- What is the purpose of the prologue? What does it accomplish?
Generally, as with any element of story, if a prologue isn’t materially serving the story it may be hampering it. Can you define specifically what a prologue accomplishes or contributes to yours? Is the story understandable and cohesive without it? Is the story as effective and engaging without it? Is the prologue there to compensate for failings in the first chapters?
- Can the information in the prologue be more effectively woven into the forward momentum of the story itself?
Prologues often feel info dumpy and inessential when authors use them to “bring readers up to speed” on backstory they feel is essential for readers to care about the main characters. Ask yourself why you feel it’s crucial that this info be introduced before the reader starts reading the main story, or whether it might be more effective woven into the main story as you move it forward.
Learn more: My online course “Seamlessly Weaving in Backstory” shows how to lace in context without stalling out your story.
- How long is the prologue?
One of the main keys to an effective prologue is also one of the simplest: keep it tight. Thumb through a handful of current books with prologues (tastes change, and modern readers’ tolerance for long prologues has diminished from the days of Tolkien’s epic four-part prologue to The Fellowship of the Rings) and you’ll see that most keep to a few pages; often they are a page or less. Long prologues can be the equivalent of appetizers that spoil the meal.
All prologues are a delayed entry to the story itself, and using them carries the risk that readers won’t walk through that antechamber and into your world. If you’re tempted to include one in your story, make sure it serves as an invitation to come inside—not a barrier to entry.
If you want to learn more about what makes prologues work, join me and Jane Friedman live online on November 30 for my brand-new course “Powerful Prologues” ($25 with playback for registrants).
Okay, authors, I want to hear your prologue woes and praises. Where do you stand on the prologue issue? Do you read them in other stories? Do you use them in your own? What do you struggle with—or what tips do you have for authors in determining whether and how to use them?