Prologue abuse

There is often a lot of confusion about prologues and the service they perform in books. As an editor who doesn’t mind prologues, I thought I’d give my two cent’s worth as to what flips my Vickie Secrets.

A prologue, as defined by Dictionary.com is:

“a preliminary discourse; a preface or introductory part of a discourse, poem, or novel.”

This is important to remember because I’ve seen many prologues over the years that don’t come anywhere close to this definition. A prologue is the beginning of your book, so it should never be a head-scratcher.

Raison d’être: The first order of business is to determine whether a prologue is even appropriate. Just like everything else in your story, your prologue should have a reason for being there. What I find is that most prologues don’t serve any purpose, or they’re info dumps, and that’s why so many readers tend to skip them and most editors tend to scream.

I look for prologues to contain information that absolutely cannot be put anywhere else and is integral to fully understanding the plot. For me, there is nothing worse than reading a prologue and saying to the beagle, “Gee, I wonder what that was all about.” If I feel that way, it’s a sure bet readers will as well, and that’s a reaction an editor can ill afford. Logically speaking, it’s not a good idea to open a book with something that doesn’t make sense or lead to a logical place because it won’t sell books. Because of that, any editor worth their salt will either toss a prologue of this nature, or make the author rewrite it.

Many prologues I’ve read have an artistic or philosophical bent that did nothing to create that all-important set-up. Or they teased. Depending on how the teaser is written, this can either hook or irritate. I’m usually irritated.

Logical: I look for prologues that have a beginning, middle, and an end. Something that just hangs there like a wet booger won’t make an impact because it’s incomplete. The ending of your prologue has to make sense. I’ve read prologues that didn’t make any sense until I got to the end of the book. By that time, I’d forgotten it, so whatever impact the author had hoped to make with that prologue was reduced to a dull thud.

Show vs. Tell: Yes, I always yammer on about this little beast, and I do so because there’s so much abuse. I look for prologues that show because these prologues can be elusive enough without adding to the problem. Remember, this is the first face of your book, so a prologue must hook your reader. Tell keeps readers at arm’s length.

Tell: He was angry seeing her again.

Show: His organs singed from the same noxious fumes that burned in his gut every time he saw her.

If you have an entire prologue that’s nothing but tell, readers are going to fall asleep because there are no tactile references that align us with your character and whatever information you’re trying to impart.

Length: I look for prologues to be short and sweet – a couple pages. Many aren’t, and they go on for pages and pages. These shouldn’t be chapter length. If they are, perhaps that is your first chapter – or they need to be edited down with a scalpel.

Tool or Artistry? As I said before, I feel prologues must be essential. If they aren’t then what purpose do they serve? I don’t view them as places where the author should take artistic license or be arbitrary. I view them as a tool. Many authors use prologues as their own private playgrounds that make little sense to their readers, and that’s another reason why many agents and editors abhor them and many readers skip them.

So if you’re inclined to write a prologue, be mindful of your intent and what you’re trying to convey. Otherwise, I have to give them to the beagle for her angry time-out corner.

3 Responses to Prologue abuse

  1. This was the most helpful bit of advice on prologues I have ever seen. Thanks.

  2. Pelotard says:

    “Edited down with a scalpel”?
    Nah.
    Chainsaw.

  3. twittertales says:

    As a reader, I often sigh when I see a prologue. I still dutifully read it, and often they’re great. Then suddenly the prologue is done and chapter one is a whole new beginning – arg. Garth Nix’s YA fantasy book “Sabriel” is one of the best examples – the prologue gives emotional heart to the book, and the first paragraph of chapter one is instantly engaging (the very first sentence is a killer).

    Garth Nix is the biz. I’ve read “Sabriel” twice this month.

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