Prologues: please use responsibly

If there’s one word likely to make an editor bristle, it’s prologue. Why? Because in many of the unready manuscripts I see, they’re not necessary.

Writers often have trouble deciding where they’re going to start their story. The first chapter takes multiple rewrites, mind-changes, tweaks and deletions. Chapter 1 frequently has more scar tissue than any other part of a novel.

There are so many decisions to make about what to squeeze in and what to leave out. Sometimes writers get carried away and I see novels with any or all of:

  • an introduction
  • a mission statement
  • an explanation of themes
  • a foreword (which as a tweeter has pointed out is technically written by someone other than the author)
  • a prologue
  • or sometimes two prologues.

Often these are little more than instructions for how to read what follows. But there are times when a prologue is welcome. Here’s my guide to using prologues responsibly.

Not all bad

Readers relish prologues when:

  • they show us something important that is out of the main story’s timeline, for instance something that would otherwise have to be shown in flashbacks or cumbersome exposition
  • they show action or characterisation that the reader needs to understand chapter 1, for instance the start of a war or a quest
  • they are vivid and entertaining in their own right

Even prologue enthusiasts do not like:

  • an info-dump for its own sake – or back story that should be worked into the main text in a more natural way or was simply not needed (writers are prone to include too much back story and resort to prologues to shoehorn it in)
  • when a prologue is really just the first chapter, given a fancy name – if you put prologue at the top, it had better be truly separate
  • when a prologue is a rehash of a dramatic moment from later in the story, shown out of order because the start of the book does not have enough of a hook.

However, as with everything arty, there’s a fine balance to be struck. You can get away quite nicely with a prologue that comes from a scene near the end of the novel, to make us wonder how the characters got into such a mess.

Genre makes a difference

Some genres are more forgiving of prologues – fantasy and science fiction, for instance. These readers enjoy being plunged into unfamiliar worlds, and so the scene-setting aspect of a prologue is a helpful device.

But the closer the genre is to the everyday world of the reader, the less necessary a prologue is – because these readers want to be whirled in, immediately, to the people and the story they are going to follow, at the point that is most likely to hold their interest. They want you to unravel everything naturally and with your storytelling skill. However, they don’t mind:

  • prologues that show a crisis from near the end of the novel – perhaps the main character on their deathbed or in some sort of showdown
  • an event from a point of view that we will never revisit.

If you’re doing the latter, does it need to be a prologue? Many thrillers start with a startling event that happens to a character we will most likely never see again – quite often their gruesome demise. But these are usually called chapter 1. Why? Because they are the start of the story. Even though we’re probably not going to hear a squeak from those unfortunate characters again. If your opening could quite happily be called chapter 1, you don’t need to call it a prologue.

The first steps are the hardest

Novels are big. It’s always hard to work out how to introduce an enormous work you know intimately to someone who knows nothing about it – and to do justice to it. You’ll find this with the first chapter. You’ll also find it with the pitch you’ll write for an agent or editor, or the sales blurb, or if you try to answer that beastly question ‘what’s your novel about?’.

Sometimes prologues are useful and welcome. But make sure you really, really need one. And you probably don’t need two.

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In the meantime, share your thoughts on prologues – good and bad – and examples if you have any!

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  1. #1 by Novel Girl on February 5, 2012 - 8:33 pm

    I had a prologue in my WIP novel. Luckily I have honest beta readers who told me it was unnecessary. It is now deleted. :)

  2. #3 by Darlene Steelman on February 5, 2012 - 8:36 pm

    I’ve thought about prologues… after reading this, I have decided against! Great post. ;)

  3. #5 by Joanna Penn on February 5, 2012 - 8:43 pm

    I love prologues, in books I read and write :) My model is James Rollins and other thriller writers who use the prologue as a way into the mystery or the power of the McGuffin. This might be under genre specific. I was in a Guardian fiction workshop today and Louise Doughty was teaching – she mentioned how much she loves prologues, always uses them – and it struck me that it’s just a preference. Presumably some editors love them since they get in enough books!

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 5, 2012 - 10:01 pm

      Hi Jo! I don’t either love or hate them – simply like them to be used well. Envious of you at that Guardian workshop – if you tell me John Mullan was there I think I will expire of a jealous embolism. :)

  4. #7 by Jami Gold on February 5, 2012 - 9:17 pm

    I have a prologue in one of my books. I’ve had an agent tell me not to change a word, so that’s a good sign. :)

    The rest of the book is told in close 3rd person POV from the heroine. The prologue is in scene, filled with dread, and establishes characters, but takes place in the POV of an antagonist. (Although the book isn’t quite a thriller, it has some thriller elements and follows that structure in many ways.) The events of the prologue are the inciting incident, even though the protagonist doesn’t know about them. The end of the prologue smoothly ties into chapter one, so the reader knows exactly how it fits in (but doesn’t understand all the implications of the prologue’s events until near the end of the story).

    I hate info-dump and unnecessary prologues just as much as the next person, so I’ve worked hard to make sure this one doesn’t fit that mold. :)

    Great post, Roz!

  5. #9 by mrdisvan on February 5, 2012 - 10:05 pm

    Arguably an in-the-scene prologue is the equivalent of a pre-title sequence in a movie. These are supposed to be almost as unforgivable as voiceovers, but I have to say I love them – probably because of James Bond and Dalek movies in the ’60s.

    Actually, most action and fantasy/SF movies still have the equivalent of the pre-title sequence. They just put it after the titles. In books that’s where you say, okay, I know readers hate the word prologue (rightly; it’s stuffy) so let’s just rename it Chapter One…

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 5, 2012 - 10:07 pm

      Bond movies are an interesting case. They serve to reacquaint us with a familiar character by boiling down all the things we love about a Bond film – usually a chase, a flirt, some cheek and a little panache. They say to the audience ‘he’s back, now settle down and enjoy the ride’.

  6. #11 by Ileandra Young on February 5, 2012 - 10:18 pm

    I had a prologue on my current WIP. It stayed for ages and ages, stubbornly taking up space the first chapter should have filled until one day… I just deleted it. Didn’t think twice about it or reason it out, just highlighted the whole lot and hit delete.
    Tell you what though… the beginning reads a hell of a lot better without it!

  7. #13 by Sally on February 5, 2012 - 10:19 pm

    Hi Roz!

    My novel covers two time periods and it was very tempting to put in a prologue. But I was always very wary of the idea because it was something that potentially would be ignored. Plus I reckoned I could get it into the story – and in the end I did so. I can understand that prologues are sometimes absolutely necessary – as are epilogues (and I have an epilogue of sorts at the end of mine).

    Btw, I finally got that blog up! ;)

    • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 5, 2012 - 11:11 pm

      ‘Could potentially be ignored…’ that’s another very good point, Sally. And I’ve usually found whenever I’ve been thinking of a prologue that it’s been possible, with care, to get it into the story instead. Not always, though.
      I’ve just been to your blog – it looks lovely and aaarg, I couldn’t find a way to subscribe!

      • #15 by Sally on February 6, 2012 - 10:46 am

        Oh, sorry about that Roz! I’m still in beta mode, working out how to do stuff. I’ve been wanting to add a ‘subscribe’ thingy. Must be in the widgets somewhere! Will sort it out and get back to you.

        I’m subscribing to your mailing list now. :)

  8. #18 by Dave Morris on February 5, 2012 - 10:34 pm

    It’s got to be said that a surprising proportion of novels would be a lot better for losing the first chapter. I speak from personal experience…

  9. #21 by claredragonfly on February 5, 2012 - 11:06 pm

    Interesting. I was originally thinking that I like prologues, but I hate the kind that show an exciting part from closer to the end of the novel–I want the beginning to hook me, and I figure if it doesn’t, it’s not an interesting enough story! And I agree that a part that actually starts the story but is in a POV that won’t be used again ought to be a first chapter; that’s certainly what J. K. Rowling did in the Harry Potter books. (Sometimes, IIRC, it’s the first two chapters.)

    So I was thinking that I only like the kind that are far removed in time from the main action of the novel. But often that kind of thing is better handled as backstory in the novel itself. Then I looked through a list of the books I’ve read recently… and I couldn’t find a single one I liked that included a prologue. So maybe I’m just not a prologue fan at all!

    • #22 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 5, 2012 - 11:34 pm

      I think you have to be careful if you’re serving something up from later. First, the reader might forget the details by the time they get there, unless you keep reminding them by, say, returning to a scene of them in the deathbed room or whatever. Second, you might pull the sting of whatever happens if there aren’t enough surprises and intrigues along the way. But used well, it’s very powerful.
      And as you say, the story has to be sufficiently interesting to keep the momentum.

      • #23 by Dave Morris on February 5, 2012 - 11:49 pm

        Then there’s the kind of prologue you get in East of Eden. (Which, bizarrely, the movie replicates.)

  10. #24 by Tahlia Newland on February 6, 2012 - 12:43 am

    I think your said it all when you said that you saw prologues a lot in ‘unready manuscripts’. I started with a prologue in Lethal Inheritance, but after a couple more drafts I looked at why the prologue was there and realised that I could get the info across more effectly in the body of the story. It just took more work on the ms for me to work this out.

    Tahlia Newland, urban fantasy author of ‘A Matter of Perception’ – quirky & surprising tales http://tahlianewland.com/short-stories/

    • #25 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 6, 2012 - 8:24 am

      Hi Tahlia! Yes, it takes a lot more work, but it’s so much more satisfying when you realise what you’ve achieved!

  11. #26 by Joel Kirkpatrick (@joelkirkpatrick) on February 6, 2012 - 2:14 am

    Excellent post, Roz. Close to a third of the submissions I read have prologues. I bypass them entirely, preferring to get right into the tale.

    • #27 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 6, 2012 - 8:24 am

      Thanks, Joel! I think anyone who gets to read manuscripts in their original, wild state will say that. :)

      • #28 by Sally on February 6, 2012 - 10:47 am

        “I read have prologues. I bypass them entirely, preferring to get right into the tale.”

        Exactly what many readers do. You’ve proved my point Joel.:)

  12. #29 by TottWriter on February 6, 2012 - 2:03 pm

    This is so true. I write a lot of fantasy, and prologues are something I really struggle with at times. There is a certain amount of information the reader needs to know before the story starts, to avoid a massive info dump which would ruin the pacing of chapter one, but it’s just presenting it in a way that is appealing to read.

    My prologue used to be about four pages long. 3/4 of that is now gone, and my book is a lot healthier for it. I’m still struggling with the final wording, but that’s a much better place to be than trying to summarise plot which can come later into a scene setting for the book.

    I also refuse to put “Prologue” at the top of the page. That might be what it is, but I’ve noticed I have always been less bothered by books with prologues that just have the page of text before the first chapter than books which have the page of text boldly marked “Prologue”. There’s just something about that word. You judge the text before you read it.

    • #30 by dirtywhitecandy on February 8, 2012 - 9:15 pm

      Tott, not using the name prologue… yes I’ve seen that done in a number of ways. Prologues with names, dates, synonyms for prologue – all good ways of starting the story spell on p1.

  13. #31 by spookymrsgreen on February 7, 2012 - 11:13 am

    I have a prologue at the beginning of my debut novel, and I never intended to include one when I began writing. Eventually, during the editing stages, it just of happened naturally and the story follows much more clearly as a result. I then included an epilogue because again it was a natural progression. My second novel in the series did not have a prologue, and I have just started writing the third and that does not have one either. Strange!

    Personally they have never bothered me in books I have read. Sometimes I find they drag a little, or wander away from the basis of the story, but then so can the first few chapters. We just have to edit them as carefully as the rest of the book, and be certain that they are relevant and entertaining.

    • #32 by dirtywhitecandy on February 8, 2012 - 9:16 pm

      ‘We have to edit them as carefully as the rest of the book…’ amen. Prologues, beginnings, endings, epilogues, bits in the long middle.

  14. #33 by Laura Zera (@laurazera) on February 7, 2012 - 9:49 pm

    Thanks for this post. I have a prologue in my current ms draft, and it does seem to fit into the ‘appropriate and useful’ category. I shall keep it!

  15. #35 by journalpulp on February 7, 2012 - 11:06 pm

    I have a short Prelude in my novel. I chose the word Prelude instead of Prologue because of a book I read called Sinaloa Story (not very good) by Barry Gifford (author of Wild at Heart and co-writer of David Lynch’s Lost Highway), whom I occasionally enjoy, and who called his opening chapter a Prelude, and I like the musical connotation of the word. In fact, the Prelude to Barry Gifford’s book is the best chapter in his whole novel.

    I inserted a Prelude into my novel (which isn’t sci-fi or fantasy) because I came up with a way to early on inject foreshadowing and plot into my story. I also thought the Prelude, which took me two months to write, created a certain sense of mystery, and it also set up symbols and themes that I later in the book exploit.

    In addition to all that, my intention with the Prelude was to encapsulate the main dramatic situation of the book, which is one person’s coming to consciousness, if I may use that bullshit psychological phrase.

    A good publisher who liked my novel but ultimately rejected it said, in a letter he wrote me, that he was rejecting it not for the prose but because he felt the story wasn’t “foregrounded” fast enough. As it turns out, I get a lot of compliments and questions about my Prelude, and, two years later, I’m glad I included it.

    • #36 by dirtywhitecandy on February 8, 2012 - 9:27 pm

      A prelude. Very stylish, Mr Harvey. But then, you’d probably expect that I’d approve of the musical motif.

      And your use of it is one we haven’t discussed yet – to distil the essence of the book, which the reader then realises later. Downside: the reader can be too baffled if you are obtuse. Upside: when they get to the end and realise what you did, they feel they’ve seen something very deliberate unfolding. And congratulate themselves for being awfully clever.

      Lost Highway I remember chiefly for being lost myself, though also pleasantly dazzled. And it has a cracking soundtrack for brewing a brooding hero or two. Try going running in the dark with it playing loud on headphones.

      • #37 by journalpulp on February 9, 2012 - 12:03 am

        “Downside: the reader can be too baffled if you are obtuse.”

        Which, actually, I am, in general — and I don’t just mean in my literature: obtuse, abstruse, obscure, boring, these are just a few of the many adjectives that have been legitimately used for me and my books. I’m not proud of it, but I can’t really deny it. For me, as both reader and writer, literature is as much about style as it is about story.

        “Upside: they feel they’ve seen something very deliberate unfolding.”

        Yes!

        “And congratulate themselves for being awfully clever.”

        But you are clever — all you readers of my novel, with your beautiful, confounding, thunderous, golden silence.

        “Lost Highway I remember chiefly for being lost myself”

        I heard that. Overall, I consider Lost Highway irreparably flawed — for many of the reasons I’ve criticized David Lynch for before — and yet I must say, I found the first fifty minutes of that movie absolutely riveting. And I mean, riveting. I think the opening of Lost Highway is as fascinating and as intriguing as movies get.

  16. #38 by Jessica Meats on February 8, 2012 - 11:28 am

    I didn’t call it a prologue, but I started with a flashback. I had someone advise me to get rid of it on the grounds that “editors hate prologues” but I left it in because it was key to the main character (and killing off two people and burning a house down in one page is a big attention grab) and because I used flashbacks at other points in the story.

    • #39 by dirtywhitecandy on February 8, 2012 - 9:28 pm

      Jessica, I don’t think editors hate them per se, but the word ‘prologue’ probably rings alarm bells. If it’s necessary they usually forgive you.

  17. #40 by Scott Hunter on February 11, 2012 - 5:58 pm

    Nice to see Frankie making a cameo appearance!

  18. #42 by Daniel on February 16, 2012 - 7:21 pm

    I’ve never understood people skipping prologues. Surely the author didn’t put it there just as decoration. However, if I get a ways into a book and decide that the author does make a habit of including unnecessary lumps of words, I’ll just toss the whole book aside. If the author’s prologue is unnecessary, it’s a sure bet that the rest of the book will be filled with unnecessary garbage as well, so I see no point in not starting from the beginning.

    I’d also like to point out that prologues are considerably more common than people probably realize, they’re just not labeled as such. A very large portion of detective/cop/crime shows start with a prologue: the crime.

    • #43 by dirtywhitecandy on February 16, 2012 - 11:58 pm

      Thanks, Daniel – and the prologues you like are, I dare say, the ones that are good!
      Very true that they may come under different names. I just read a book with a first chapter that should have been called ‘Prologue’, so it works the other way too.

  19. #44 by Carol Moncado on February 16, 2012 - 11:21 pm

    I have one in the current MS I’m shopping. It took 1st place in one fairly major contest and finaled [no winner yet] in another with the prologue as part of the entry and had great comments on it. It introduces the orphaned nieces/nephews who are the impetus for the hero seeking a marriage of convenience – but who we won’t see again until they arrive at their new home a number of chapters in. Since the overall tone is rom com, it didn’t really fit as part of chapter one but seeing why the hero is doing what he’s doing seemed important to me.

    Of course, I’ve cut them out of several MSs too – they helped me but didn’t serve the story in the end.

    I always read them, though. And I adore HEA epilogues that show a bit of life after ‘the end’ ;).

    Thank you for the thought provoking post. I can think of one newish writer friend who would benefit from it because she’s not nearly as convinced as I am that her prologue isn’t necessary :).

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