Prologues – this side of hell

I understand why readers hate prologues and skip them. Since December is my Madcap Reading Month, I’m shuffling through requested partials and fulls until my eyes are bloodshot and I’m begging to mainline good gin. So far, we have one contract offer – not bad to my way of thinking. But the rest? Well, they have this little problem…

Prologues.

They can be a lovely thing or the blight upon all who read. This batch appears as though many authors drank from the same watering hole and collectively decided their stories needed prologues. I’ve never seen so many of the little blighters, and it’s worrisome because not a single one of them belongs there.

Not. One.

My little red pen has slashed through virtually every single one with these words: WHAT’S THE POINT?

And that is exactly the point. You don’t write a prologue because it feels good or your elbow itches. You write one because it belongs there. Prologues have to adhere to the same rules of good writing and story organization that your entire manuscript does – meaning that there is a reason for its existence.

Prologues, party of one

All too often prologues behave like the author’s private playground, and she is the only one who understands how to get on the monkey bars and everyone else is standing around, scratching their heads wondering how she did that.

What do I mean by this? Let’s say your story takes place in New York and centers on Character Jane finding a job in a tattoo parlour, but your prologue is about Character Jane as a mere infant and her favorite nanny used to read Playgirl. Holy Helvetica, Batman, what does this have to do with the main story? What on earth was she thinking?

Now if I ask the author, she can actually tell me. But her real problem is that she’s too close to her story and can’t see how unnecessary it is. She understands her Character Jane’s backstory and feels compelled to include it because she believes this information is integral to understanding the character. But what about the reader? Do they feel that same need to read it? No.

And that’s why readers skip prologues.

Calling Mr. Info Dump

I remember this guy in high school who ate whatever was left sitting on the lunch tables. Needless to say, he didn’t exhibit a svelte silhouette. He was the school vacuum cleaner. And that’s another problem with prologues. They’re often a book’s vacuum cleaner. Don’t know where to put all this errant information? Hey, no problemo…let Mr. Prologue eat it.

So before Jane or Joe Reader can get into the meat of your story, you toss all the leftover food that you couldn’t eat and stick it in the most vulnerable place in your book – the BEGINNING. So Joe and Jane reader are filled up to their back teeth with so much garbage that they need to purge. And they do this by putting YOUR BOOK back on the shelf.

And that’s why readers skip prologues.

Prologue info dumps are classic among new writers because they usually haven’t developed the art of intertwining information with the narrative. It takes practice and experience to seamlessly introduce information and keep the action going. And when you’re trying to show that you’re an experienced writer, this particular foible will expose you faster than the beagle can fall asleep.

So…?

So what do you do? Well, the safe bet is to simply not use a prologue. Just like surgery, a scalpel is a dangerous thing in the hands of a neophyte. Be safe and avoid them until you’re further along in your writing career. Will a prologue result in instant death rejection? No, but I’ll sure be scratching my head, AND I’ll be looking at your pages with a much tougher eye.

If your writing sings, then I will suggest that you ditch the prologue and sprinkle the information throughout your book. Or maybe you’ll read this and do it yourself.

Necessary

There are times when you need a prologue. My novel, Donovan’s Paradigm has a prologue. I wrote one because I needed to explain why one of my MCs reacts the way he does when confronted with a certain situation that is pivotal to the plot. It’s information the reader must have so that the story makes sense. If I had sprinkled that scene into the main story, it would have come out as backstory, which would have killed the emotional impact. In a word, I consciously wrote the prologue because it had to be there.

Brevity

Chapter length prologues is something I’m seeing fairly regularly. Prologues were never meant to be that long. Dictionary.com defines Prologues as, “a preliminary discourse; a preface or introductory part of a discourse, poem, or novel.”

They’re little precursors to the main story, with heavy emphasis on little.

Expectations…Say, huh?

Avoid making an editor reach for a bottle of tequila by always being clear about what your prologue is saying. I’ve read many prologues that forced me to re-read them because I was convinced I’d missed something. If I can’t figure it out, then I know the reader won’t either. The reason they weren’t clear is because it had zip all to do with the author’s pitch. If your book is about vampire cleaning women, then a prologue with were-beagles makes little sense. It’s a “say, huh?” moment. There needs to be a tie-in to the story that the reader can follow.

Parting Gift

As I said at the beginning, I really do like prologues because they can be delicious in the hands of a gifted writer. Before you succumb to the urge to write a prologue, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the point?
  • Is this information vital to the reader in order to understand the book?
  • Is this the only place where I can impart that information?
  • Is it short – two or three pages?

If you go into writing a prologue with clear intent, then you can avoid resting on this side of hell. To do otherwise is to invite red pointy pitchforks and eternal flame…and bad margaritas.

27 Responses to Prologues – this side of hell

  1. Marisa Birns says:

    There have been books where I enjoyed reading the prologues and too many others where I haven’t.

    Now I understand why. The ones I zipped past didn’t have to be there.

    Say hi to the beagle. 🙂

  2. NinjaFingers says:

    Of course, then there are people who tell new writers ‘prologues are always evil. Never write one. Ever.’

    And the same with a bunch of things. Why can’t we be more honest and say ‘X is hard to do well, think hard before doing it’.

  3. Hopefully, Ninjie, that’s what my post attempted to accomplish. I know a number of agents and editors who say the evil thing, and I think it’s short-sighted. Sometimes a book really needs a prologue.

    Marisa: the beagle picked up her head, waved in your general direction, then assumed her blissful nap.

  4. 2-3 pages? I expect a prologue to be 2-3 lines. Well maybe not that short, but all the prologues I’ve written are a page or less.

  5. A bad prologue just saves you the trouble of reading further.

    I’m a writing teacher, and I’ve judged hundreds of manuscripts in various RWA and other contests. I’ve found that it’s a very rare bad prologue that leads to a great first chapter.

  6. You have a good point, Marilynn – a bad prologue = iffy story. However, just to be certain, I do read the first pages of the actual story as well just to satisfy myself because there have been rare occasions that this was, indeed the fact; the prologue sucked stale Twinkie cream, but the book was very good.

  7. Pelotard says:

    OK, you convinced me: I need to ditch mine. It wasn’t necessary to the story, it was a ploy in order to start with action (it’s an archaeological thriller, and I started with a scene containing a bit of action from the actual archaeological event and a bit of a teaser ending). Too bad. It tied in neatly with the epilogue, and a brief side comment in Ch 3. Of course, if I ever land a contract I might ask them if I can sneak it back in 🙂

  8. Pelo, you reminded me of another tendency; writers who drop a vital hint that’s important to the story – and never mentions it again until the end. The reader is supposed to get goosebumps and have a huge “ah HA!” moment. HOWEVER, the reader isn’t going to remember that important hint all the way through the book, and more than likely they’ll scratch their heads and have a “WTF” moment.

  9. Frank Mazur says:

    A great prologue begins the Marine classic Battle Cry. It’s opening line is reminiscent of Moby Dick, yet the second line gives the measure of importance of this narrator to the novel: “They call me Mac. The name’s unimportant.” What is important and is established are these facts: 1) Mac knew firsthand the body of Marines who will populate the story; 2) he establishes his ability with the reader to understand these Marines intellectually and emotionally. IOW, he assures readers that he is an honest broker of what they are about to read concerning these men. Once the first chapter arrives and the story of these young Leathernecks begins to unfold, mention of Mac or a referential pronoun are virtually nonexistent. And perhaps ‘virtually’ is too strong. I would have to re-read the story to say for certain. It’s a good prologue to study.

  10. wolferiver says:

    I never read prologues. Ever. Not even by established authors. I skip right over them, and I’ve never read a story and regretted not reading the prologue, either. They’re a pure waste of my time and I have no patience for them.

  11. It’s hard to know if a prologue is a waste of your time if you’ve never read one, right?

    I understand readers glossing over prologues, giving them little more than a cursory glance – just in case they’re worthwhile – but I never understood the logic behind passing them over completely. I mean, they’re between the cover, right? It’s like saying, “I always pass the chapter 2.” Why?

  12. Thank you again for another great post.
    I’ve always believed in ‘starting where the story starts’ so if it starts at chapter one, why is there a prologue? If the prologue is so important, make that chapter one.

    Ironically my novel has a prologue even though I didn’t initially write one! My clever editor thought a page explaining the Brugelish world would help set the scene and establish the weird and wonderful. I kept it very short, and a bit like a wikipedia entry.

  13. Jean Davison says:

    This has certainly given me pause for thought, and I’ve now ditched the prologue for my novel-in-progress. I seem to have had a different understanding of prologues though. I thought they were usually to hone the reader straight into some dramatic action, hook them so to speak, and then in Chapter One start with the back story. This seems the other way round to how prologues are described here.

  14. Allen Parker says:

    Prologues are no harder to use than semicolons and plot devices. They are no easier, either.

    A prologue is a tool that can be a writer’s best asset or his worst nightmare, depending on if he really knows his tool and where to apply it.

    I use prologues in ways some have maligned, but good writing trumps all. Knowing that a prologue is the best device to deliver the information is what should determine whether or not you write the first writings as a prologue or Chapter 1.

    All to often, I see Prologues that should be Chapter 1. Sometimes, Chapter 1 would be much better formatted and written as a prologue.

    But, isn’t that our job as writers to know when to use what tool and how to apply them properly?

  15. Jean, I don’t know your story, but it sounds like you have a couple things going on. It’s never a good idea to pump the reader with a lot of backstory – especially at the beginning of your book. Remember, backstory is stuff that happened “off camera” that created your current story. But your story ISN’T your backstory, so you need to fight the urge to give it too much of a voice.

    If you have that much backstory, either write that book, or figure out what pieces of backstory are necessary to tell the current story.

    The prologue is simply a vehicle that delivers information that’s vital to the reader so they can understand the plot, AND it can’t fit into the main story.

  16. Bill Webb says:

    Damn Lynn, tell us how you really feel becuase I’m not catching your vibe, maybe if you gave us a little introduction first? 🙂

    Proloques are mostly lazy ineffective ways to start writing a story. I am with the group that feels that I have yet to read one, or even see a movie with one, that I didn’t feel was unecessary. Even the Star Wars Prologue…A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, could have been skipped.

    Oh and by the way, Happy Holidays!

  17. Bill, Bill, when have you ever known me to be anything other than direct?

  18. wolferiver says:

    Well…OKAY, Ms. Price, I have read one or two prologues, but have hardly ever found them useful in any way, so now I don’t read them. Most prologues really are dead weight; atmospheric teasers that explain nothing. Few things piss me off more than to read a book with all sorts of irrelevant bits in it that lead to nowhere satisfactory.

    I will say that I recollect one book that had a prologue that was effective: Brideshead Revisited. It works because it shows the whole rest of the story being told in a prolonged flashback, by a man who has been worn out and left empty pursuing a life he never really belonged to. It is integral to the story that its structure begins this way. Most other prologues (99 percent of them, at least) are just stupid bits of back story that are either a) not necessary or b) something the reader can figure out for themselves.

    Are you saying that because I troubled myself to buy the book that I owe it to myself to read every damned word of it? Or else, what? I may be cheating myself? Am I offending the author’s sensibilities by skipping some of their precious words? What about the time I’ve had to waste reading something that gave me no enjoyment or enlightenment and kept me from getting to the real story?

    In most cases I may like the rest of the story, just not the prologue part. If it turns out I don’t like the rest of the story, I’ll stop reading that, too, and make a note to never buy another book by that author. I certainly don’t feel any obligation to plow through a dull story even if I am out the money. Or does this, too, make no sense to you? Will this also leave you puzzled about people who put down books half-read and unfinished? (Why there are all those word in between the covers. How can you ignore them? Easy. I can ignore them when they’re boring.)

  19. Wow. That’s quite the conversation. LOL

    I’m one of those people that will attempt to read the prologue of every book I choose to read that has one. I know that if the author put it there, she had a good reason. I may not agree with her, and most times I won’t make it to the end, but I do make the attempt.

    I used to be an avid prologue reader/writer. I used to read every word of the prologue, thinking it would gain me some incredible insight to the rest of the book. And when I wrote, I would write a “most neccassary” prologue that was “detrimental” to the understanding of the plot.

    I’m glad to say I’ve grown since then. I now write books that stand on their own. However, I just recently added a prologue to my YA. The plot would not work as well without it. It still works if you don’t read it, but…*shrug*

    I’m on the no-prologue side of the fence, but I’m willing consider that there are instances where the author was right. It was needed.

  20. What a great post. It has made me re-visit my prologue (and ultimately decide that I DO need it) but the reasoning behind them is a lot clearer now and I will never start a book with one again!

  21. V.V. Denman says:

    To prologue, or not to prologue? That is the question. My manuscript currently contains the dreaded prologue, but I’m considering removing it, just so people will stop telling me to remove it. I’m not experienced enough to know if it’s necessary. (of course it seems so to me) But I’m clever enough to know when a critique partner is telling me to remove it . . . just because they’ve heard that prologues are bad-bad. So until I’m fortunate enough to land an experienced critique partner, or rich enough to hire an editor, I’ll just keep guessing. Anyway . . . time to try the story without it.

  22. Kyla says:

    Oh, dear. I’ve heard this before. And, yet, I’m still writing a prologue for my novel. Why? Not for the fun of it, I can tell you that.

    The story I’m writing has one key initiating moment: One character is tricked into a cavern where creatures kill him and escape from this cave that has been their century-long prison (there are several important things that happen in this scene). Everything that happens in the series is caused by that moment. And the villain my M.C. must face in the end is the very villain you meet in this moment.

    So, I have written a four-page prologue about this scene. It doesn’t fit as a first chapter, because the rest of the book is about my M.C. and her journey in learning how to protect herself and defeat these creatures (it’s a fantasy novel). I have considered changing to the villain’s POV in the last novel and showing a flashback instead of writing a prologue, but…I really want to show it from the character who dies POV, as there is a key detail about it that only he knows.

    I’m also considering putting it as the prologue of the last book in the series instead of the first. It would probably make more sense then, and it would be put in the story after you’ve already read parts of it. But I’m not sure if I can pull off the sudden change in time from book to book. Would that be more or less confusing?

    Anyway, is that using the prologue correctly, or would you suggest some other method? I’d love to hear any ideas you may have.

    Thanks so much for the wonderful post! Have a great day, and happy writing!

  23. […] usually just encourage infodumps. Prologues–This Side of Hell. Behler […]

  24. John Allan says:

    I found the original blog in 2009/10 archives, but seemingly it’s still a very relevant topic. So, a question for Lynn – or the beagle: I have used a prologue and an epilogue in my novel, both relevant and both short – the prologue weighs-in at under 800 words.

    UK agents often ask for a letter, synopsis and sample chapters – usually three; would a prologue, in that instance, count as a chapter?

  25. Personally, I’d leave it out and let the agent/editor start from Ch. 1. Good luck!

  26. John Allan says:

    And again . . . thanks for the prompt reply Lynn, and apologies for my tardiness.

    I read that as: leave it out of the initial submission but keep it in the book. The problem is that two paragraphs in the first chapter and, to some degree, an incident in the second, relate back to the prologue, which sees the MC stopping on a motorway to watch the emergency crews dealing with a vehicle accident, while blissfully unaware of the link between the accident and a potential client.

    I am going to see if it will work as the opening of the first chapter.

  27. Jocelyn says:

    Excellent blog, I really agree with everything you said. But didn’t Tolkien use prologues in Lord of the Rings? He had like five. I think one of them was Pippin explaining about hobbits’ smoking, which was totally unnecessary information. Then again, Tolkien focused more on his world-building than anything else, but the smoking thing was REALLY unnecessary…I know Tolkien gets a lot of leeway on things most writers would completely fail at, like languages, races, super long histories of Middle-Earth, etc., but Tolkien DID show later on that hobbits smoked, so that prologue about Pippin smoking just really got on my nerves…

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