To Prologue or Not to Prologue

by limebirdkate

As far as prologues go, I can tell you that I personally love them. Especially the teaser-type ones that arouse my curiosity. I have heard through the grapevine that publishers do not like them. They treat prologues as scenes that the author didn’t have the heart to scrap. Their belief is that what’s important in prologues should be in chapter one anyway: the introduction to main characters, setting, and problem. So, to that end prologues are superfluous, a writer’s Little Darling.

The trick is to ask yourself some key questions. Without the prologue, does your plot still make sense? Which characters are in the prologue? Do they show up again in the novel? Are they part of the backstory of your novel? Does your prologue take place in a different time or setting? Does the prologue set the mood for the book? And most importantly, is your prologue more exciting than your first chapter?

A prologue requires a reader to start the book twice, because often it is a different “story” than what you’ll encounter in chapter one (think Mood Setting). First you’re asking your reader to dive briefly into the prologue, then again at chapter one. If the prologue and chapter one are completely unrelated in terms of character, setting, or time, then you have to make sure that both are equally captivating.

But, a prologue can be dangerous if it’s too captivating. For instance, if the prologue blows your first chapter out of the water, then you have serious problems. Your hook could be in that prologue, then when readers hit chapter one, the book falls flat because the hook doesn’t play out. Prologues are also dangerous if the entire reason for the story’s being is in it. That means that the plot is weak, thin, can’t stand on its own without that prologue (that might be skimmed over by impatient readers).

How about when prologues work? Usually they work best when they are short, controlled, logical. Great prologues usually involve backstory that is crucial to the central plot. Other times they work well if the author wants to set a more global picture than what can be accomplished in the first several pages. Lots of times, a parallel storyline could be in the prologue, introducing characters that might not be in your book but are key to the central conflict in some way.

How about you? Do you like prologues? Do you have one in any of your stories? Can you name any books that have prologues that work, or don’t work?

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39 Responses to “To Prologue or Not to Prologue”

  1. It’s so tricky to get right. I think the Twilight one was quite good as it helped build the suspence for later but also kind of cheated as it just plucked a scene out from later on.

    • Hi Victoria,

      Isn’t that funny. I read Twilight and for the life of me cannot remember the prologue! I’ve heard the Twilight prologue being mentioned on other occasions and I would think ‘what prologue?’ Haha. Now I really want to go back and check it out to see why it didn’t impact me at all. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Very interesting post, Kate. I wasn’t aware that many publishers don’t like prologues. But, reading your reasons, I can see why, especially when it comes to the hook.

    I can’t think of any book, off the top of my Monday-tired head, that has a prologue that really, really worked for me. Stephen King’s IT comes to mind as having a rather involved prologue that sets up the villain of the story, and how it will relate to the story’s internal mythos…but I know that I skim it every single time I re-read the book, because I want to get to the story of the kids as soon as possible. Though, I suppose when you’re a big author like King, you can do what you want and tell your editor/publisher to just bite their tongue and take a lap! 😀

    I tend not to write prologues, myself. I guess mostly because I’m still an amateur, and (at this stage), I’m so paranoid about cutting as much as possible to make my first book succinct and palatable that I think a prologue would just waste time. But I could absolutely see it as something wonderful for a different story. A sweeping fantasy, maybe, or an epic, galaxy-spanning science fiction story.

    I don’t mind prologues, so long as they’re done well. Maybe I don’t see as many of them because publishers pre-emptively remove them?

    • Hi Mayumi,

      I’m sure there are great prologues that work. I never read IT ( I can’t handle horror), but you’re right. SK can get away with a lot. Although what you say is really the point that editors fear of their readership–that a prologue will be skimmed and what does that say of the book?

      I think that prologues had a hey-day a number of years ago, they were fashionable, and now due to major limitations on book length (not to mention the attention spans of readers) prologues have to be amazing or they’re cut.

  3. Thanks for this. I thought it was a really considered and well-balanced piece.
    I’m sure some publishers and readers do not like prologues, but in the end if a prologue is what fits the plot, then the writer has to take the gamble and any consequences.
    I have a prologue at the beginning of my first book, “Avon Street.” It is the spark for much that happens afterwards. I could have used the incident as back-story later in the book, but I wanted to tell it from the protagonist’s point of view and since he dies during the incident, this would have been difficult. Yet the prologue is intense, emotional and atmospheric to a level which could not be sustained in the early chapters where characters are being established and the seeds for the larger story are being sown.
    That said, I can see why you say – “a prologue can be dangerous if it’s too captivating. For instance, if the prologue blows your first chapter out of the water, then you have serious problems.”
    It’s certainly a risk, but then writers have to take risks – and in the end, perhaps only the reader can determine whether they are justified

    • Hi unpub, absolutely! In the end, it has to be the writer’s decision. And if the editor or publisher cuts it, then the writer will have to decide how important that prologue is in terms of continuing on with the publishing deal. I used to have a prologue until I cut mine in favor of word count. I ended up using it instead as backstory, because that is essentially what it was. A scene of the two protags as children. While I still yearn for that prologue, I’m already engaged in an uphill battle trying to be traditionally published. I figured I needed to cut loose all the unessentials. Maybe in my second novel I’ll get my prologue. 🙂

      It sounds like you really thought out your decision about the prologue for your book. And I reckon that sets you apart from other writers who write them because they ‘sound cool’.

  4. Marg McAlister at Foremost Press had a great article on this very topic today. http://bit.ly/fRfktw

    I had a prologue in my first novel but took it out due to length and editor’s dislike of prologues. I thought it was cool because the story started off in the present, then, through the opening of a book, the actual novel began. The editor thought it was a great idea but she hated prologues. It had to go. I’ve run into this with several publishers and editors. It’s frustrating but understandable, too.

    • Great, thanks for the link.
      Yeah, I can imagine how frustrating that must be for you. It’s too bad that it boiled down to an opinion “but she hated prologues” rather than a real business decision. Thanks for commenting.

  5. I like them for the same reason. I like to be drawn in by a snippet and then find that bit later, so that it all makes sense. I like the short. I did read once that they are a turn off to editors and I wonder why.

    • Hi subtle, yes, just a snippet. That’s all I need. Something juicy to draw me in, and it’s okay to leave me hanging. As long as the writing is good and chapter one sweeps me away also, then I don’t mind waiting to go back to find out what that prologue was all about.

  6. I like getting to the story, and I consider that just the starting page. When I’m in a good book, I could no more tell you what chapter I’m on than what page. All I know is that the murder just happened and the protagonist is running away because they’ve been blamed for it. Either a writer can set a story up well or they can’t. Makes no difference to me if they do it in a prologue or the first chapter.

    • Hey Neeks. That’s an interesting way to look at it, and I think it makes sense. The prologue, if it’s written well, shouldn’t be scorned just because it’s that P-word lol. Sometimes I feel like the dislike of prologues is partly trendy and partly a matter of opinion, and that’s too bad. There are probably great prologues out there that never make the final draft because we’re afraid of scaring off a would-be sale.

    • That’s a perspective I hadn’t considered, Neeks: set-up for a crime tale. The film “Sunset Boulevard” would probably be a good example. And, even though it’s one of my favorite stories, I’d completely forgotten about it when I wrote my comment! Thanks for reminding me to think outside my own story-niche. 🙂

  7. Steve Berry uses prologues very effectively. They typically give you part of the historical event that drives the characters through the story.

  8. This topic has come up with some previous discussion, so maybe “prologues” are an issue with editors or agents. I think it was a certain trend in the 1970s and 1980s techno thrillers like those by Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, Crichton’s early work “Termonal Man” has an introduction by him. but no prologue, but, in later works he has both an introduction and a prologue. I think of introductions in nonfiction books mostly, and I think that in the techno-thrillers it is an explanation of the science behind the premise of the story. Clive Cussler can have chapter length prologues of twenty pages. UK author Phillip Kerr has no prologue in “Esau” but has a prologue of one quotation in “The Grid.” Len Deighten spy novel has very brief spy document as a prologue in “Ipress File” but his “Billion Dollar Brain” does not. Robert Ludlum jumps right to the story in “The Sigma Prortocol” with no prologue. So it appears that the genre maybe a part of it. Legal novelists Scott Turow and John Grisham jump right to the story. Turow’s “Ordinary Heroes” has a dated 1944 photocopy/military letter in twos pages in front of Chapter one, but does not call it a prologue. Crime writer Agatha Christy used no prologue, and modern crime writer Michael Connelly has no prologues either. In fact Connelly does not number his chapters either, at least “the Last Coyote” but “Angels Flight” is numbered. The other issue is, if one has a prologue, it calls for an “epilogue.” I always found those interesting. The other thing that could enter this discussion is “Forwards” and “Afterwards.” I jumped right to story in my historical love/war story novel, but used Forward and Afterward in my conspiracy novel.

    • Hi Tim,

      I think you’re onto something here. I’m sure genre has something to do with it. I also think you’re right when you mention that it was a trend in the 70s, 80s. It seems to me I read many more books with prologues that were written 20+ years ago than anything that’s been written more recently. Witht he exception of Twilight, I hear, but damned if I can remember that stupid prologue!

      Thanks for commenting.

  9. I generally don’t read prologues. Most have been so long-winded and boring that, though I try, I just skip to Chapter 1. That said, I do ususally read them for “re-releases” where the book was sufficiently popular that they do a new edition and need something new to print. Then they add some commentary and call it a prologue or introduction.

    Generally speaking though, if it’s part of the story, I’ll read it. Maybe I’ve just seen so few (except in, perhaps textbooks) that I’m shrugging them off. Now I’ve got to go think about it.

    • Hi Shannon,
      Right, and that’s the fear of the publishing industry. Poor prologues give all prologues a bad name. They could fare better if they were written concisely and with enough of a hook to make you want to dive right into chapter one.

  10. I sometimes use prologues. The Termite Queen doesn’t have one, unless you consider the two-page first chapter to be more a prologue than a chapter, although it’s an integral part of the story. Interestingly, I first had it as the second chapter, but then I thought it was a better hook than the first chapter, so I switched them.
    My unfinished novel, The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, does have a prologue; it fact, it’s on my blog where it posted it for an entry in the Third Sunday Blog Carnival. I added it to the novel long after the fact because early on the hero as a little boy sees this maimed martial eagle named Survivor in the zoo and that has a profound effect on his life. In the story I simply stated that the sign said the eagle had escaped and had been shot by a farmer after it killed one of his lambs. Later, I thought the story of what really happened to Survivor would be quite interesting, so I wrote a prologue recounting it. So it does provide back story and it does have a couple of characters who appear much later on in the novel. It’s not essential to the plot. And since it’s an unfinished novel, who knows what will happen to it in the long run?
    The first volume of my Ki’shto’ba Trilogy also begins with a Prologue for quite a different reason. The premise of the book is that the tale of the adventures of Ki’shto’ba and Di’fa’kro’mi the Remembrancer were written down by Di’fa’kro’mi after he invented writing and he gave a copy to Prf. Oliva (from Termite Queen). who then translated them. So the book actually begins with a Translator’s Foreword explaining all this. The whole thing is couched as a scholarly production, complete with footnotes. (Try putting that on a Kindle! I never make life easy for myself!) And don’t worry that the format of a scholarly edition will make for tedious reading – the whole trilogy is practically non-stop action!

    • Hi Lorinda,

      Sounds like you have several different ways to approach the prologue question. You’ve covered all of the bases! 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

  11. I like prologues too, I’ve heard people refer to them as a lazy way to give backstory, but I think if they are done well that is not the case. I think a good prologue can really help get your mind in the story, questioning what is going on in the prologue and keep you reading so you can catch up with all the info that was presented to you in the prologue. Besides, Stephen King uses prologues and anything he does is right in my book!

    • Hi Laura,
      Me too, and I think they’d grow in popularity again if 1) editors could at least open their minds towards them, and 2) writers were more responsible with how they’re written. Thanks!

  12. I had one in one of my WIPs to open part 3 of the book. It was the very first scene of the first novel I wrote. But as I read how agents and editors dislike them, I also realized it wasn’t right for one part to have a prologue and not the others. So it got cut. Talk about killing your darlings!

    But I figure I can use it as “extra” web content for readers if the book is ever published.

    I don’t mind them if they’re short and ultimately relate well to the story. Maybe that’s when editors will let established writers use them. But I’d bet most of us would be told to drop them until we’ve established a track record with several successful books.

    • Hi JM,

      That’s what I ended up doing with my prologue, too. At first I tried to weave it into backstory, but it ultimately battled another scene of backstory so it didn’t work and I had to cut it. I really, really like your idea of using it as a hook on your website to help entice your readers towards your book WHEN it is published–ahem. 🙂

      I think you’re right. Editors will more likely let them pass if they’re well-written and from an author who is established. Thanks for commenting!

  13. I love prologues. With the exception of one, all my books have had them. Sometimes you want to present some background info before you launch into the main story. Placing the information in the main narrative might disrupt the flow of the story. I think it’s easier to make the case for prologues when you’re writing nonfiction, as sometimes there are facts you need to make clear immediately.

    • Hi Simon, yes nonfiction probably gets the edge here. Especially since many people need a little nudge in being reminded about historical evens. So, prologues are a dandy way of getting that job done. And I can see how it could be a nuisance if placed elsewhere in the narrative. Thanks for commenting!

  14. Wonderful post. I only use a prologue if there is a great deal of time difference in the setting and character than in chapter one and then I make the prologue very brief since it usually does not contain the main character. In my novel, Legend of the Tengu Prince, the prologue introduces the villain so that it sets the scene for why he does what he does to the protagonists.

    • Hi Ledia,

      That’s a great reason to use a prologue, I think. I also think that agents/publishers would be okay with that, too, because without it the novel might not work as well. Ooh, I love the idea of introducing the villain in the prologue. That’s a nifty way of making it unique and probably more palatable to publishers.

      Thanks for commenting.

  15. Being quite visual in my approach then I see it as one would a movie. For example, at the beginning of the Lord of the Rings they gave a whole history of Middle Earth in a few minutes, that worked. Or, looking at TV, at the beginning of a new season of the show there may be a short summary of what came last season.

    It all depends on what the focus of this story is, there may be a need to give some background, that could come in either a prologue, or in exposition during the story – there are positives and dangers in both of the approaches.

    • Hi Dennis,

      Absolutely, I think it’s a fine line. You’re taking a risk considering prologues are so taboo. On the flip side, if you can pull it off then you’ve set yourself apart from all the other books in your genre. And then you’re flying!

      Thanks for commenting!

  16. I have a prologue in the memoir I’m writing, but you made me think about the wisdom of having it. Now I’ll have to revisit how I start what I’ve barely started. Oh well, this was great advice.

    I must like prologues because I wrote one for myself! They set up the book for me so I’m prepared for what I’m committing to reading for the next several weeks.

    • Hi Lorna,

      I suppose some key questions to ask yourself are how important is that prologue in terms of holding the story together? Is there a huge time difference between the prologue and chapter 1? Or a different setting? Make sure it’s not just backstory, because I think that’s where a lot of writers make their mistake. It’s a Little Darling of a scene that writers think is a great preview of what’s about to happen. But what the publisher will be asking himself is why isn’t this chapter one?

      I love prologues, too. I had one for the novel I’m currently querying and I cut it in favor of lowering my word count. I actually turned it into backstory, and I was able to flesh it out more because of its new role in the story. So, perhaps something to try is to copy your prologue into a blank document so you can play with it (without messing up the original text). See if you can turn it into its own chapter with scenes, narrative, dialogue, what have you. If it’s got potential in that venue then you might be better off moving it elsewhere in the book.

      However, if it’s really just an isolated event that doesn’t blossom into anything substantial, or link directly to another event, then it might be best as a prologue.

      Try it and let me know how it goes for you 🙂

  17. I think the prologue in Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, works really well. It includes a clever translation of the word prologue, sets the tone for the rest of the book and creates suspense. It’s not too long and the first chapter follows naturally from it. When done well, I love prologues. My only complaint with prologues is when they are too long (70 pages for example).

    • Hi buddhaful,

      Yes, 70 pages would be quite long! lol. I have never read the book you mention. I will have to jot it down on my nifty little list that I’m starting to compile from this post. I’m also happy to hear about a prologue that works well. There may be hope for us “pro-prologuers” after all 😉

      Thanks for stopping by!

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