To prologue or not to prologue?
This is a question I see cropping up a lot. Authors are conflicted because they want/feel they need to include a prologue but they’ve heard rumours that some agents and publishers despise them.
I haven’t spoken to every agent and publisher, but I can pretty confidently guess that some of them probably do. In the same way that some of them probably don’t like first-person narratives or multiple PoVs. But that doesn’t mean they will reject a story without reading it.
Books are rejected because the story didn’t grip the reader from the get go. Whether that’s Chapter 1 or the Prologue, it doesn’t matter – the opening material must entice.
In the case of prologues, you could almost say that they have to work harder to be enticing because of the stigma against them. But that stigma is valid, because there are many reasons why prologues don’t work and lots of writers fall into those traps.
So, without further prologuing (pun absolutely intended), let’s look at what prologues are, what makes a bad one and how to do them well.
What is a prologue?
A prologue is a snippet of the story that comes before Chapter 1. It usually sets the scene for us, shares any important information about the world, and possibly even introduces the character/s we’re about to follow or who will play an important role later.
It’s supposed to be tantalising and gripping. It’s supposed to get us warmed up for the adventure we’re about to embark on.
So why, then, are prologues such a contentious topic?
The problem with prologues
Whenever I encounter what I consider a bad prologue, it usually has the same features. It is either:
A crutch the writer is using to justify their narrative before starting the story;
A bundle of scenes from the story the writer didn’t want to cut; or
An encyclopaedia of world-building knowledge that bogs the story down.
The exposition crutch
Prologues usually become an exposition dump when the story begins after some big event. For instance, zombies have overtaken the world so you want to share how the virus spread. Or the apocalypse has happened and you want to explain how it all started.
Sharing this information is fine. In fact, it’s often needed to help us, as readers, engage with the story. However, dropping all of this information into a prologue is a heavy way to get started, and at this point we don’t even know the characters or the setting well enough to connect with it on any emotional level.
More often than not, the information given in these exposition prologues can be naturally revealed at other points in the story.
The throat-clearing bundle
Throat clearing refers to the first part of a book or scene that doesn’t really add anything but allows the writer to work their way towards the point they want to make. You may have heard of Chekhov’s Razor, which is a piece of advice that says you should cut the beginning of your finished draft. Why? Because those first few pages are usually waffle. They are the run up you take before jumping into the real story.
It may feel precious, and believe me I know how hard it is to cut scenes you love, but if your preamble is not adding true value then it cannot stay and it definitely should not be rejigged into a prologue.
The world-building encyclopaedia
The story takes places on a world we don’t know, or in a time we’ve never experienced. There are nuances to it that we’re unfamiliar with and you want (perhaps need) to share with us. So the prologue becomes this big encyclopaedic breakdown of the magic system, the politics, the wildlife and the breathability of the atmosphere.
It’s all (sometimes) fascinating stuff – but no one wants to step off the plane in a new country and be instantly bombarded by the local tourist office explaining every detail. Let us discover it naturally.
How to determine whether you need a prologue
If you’ve got a prologue in your WIP, or you’re thinking of adding one, start by asking yourself the following three questions.
Do we need the information now?
Be honest. Really honest. Is the information actually necessary at this point? Will the plot unravel if the reader doesn’t know X first? Will the world-building crumble if we don’t immediately know that Planet Y is Z miles from Earth with a breathable atmosphere and exotic wildlife?
If the answer is no, you don’t need a prologue. Disperse the information elsewhere or keep it to yourself. Beta readers will be able to tell you if they think anything important is missing.
If the answer is yes, ask yourself this:
Can this be Chapter 1?
There are some pretty solid reasons why a prologue wouldn’t work as Chapter 1. It could be that the primary PoV is first person in the head of the protagonist, but the prologue needs to come from a different character. Or perhaps the prologue begins ten years before the events of the novel and the time jump isn’t consistent with other chapters.
That said, quite often a prologue can be the first chapter or, at the very least, the information revealed can be scattered throughout the novel instead.
If the answer is yes, congratulations – you have your first chapter.
If the answer is no, ask yourself this:
Can a character substitute for the reader?
This is a clever writer’s trick for when you need to reveal information about the world but don’t want to come across overly expository. You create a character who becomes the stand-in for the reader. Harry Potter, for instance, is the reader’s stand-in for learning about the magic world.
You have to be careful with this, however, because it can be dangerously easy to create a two-dimensional character whose sole purpose is to be taught what the reader needs to know. This character still needs to have a purpose, ambitions and needs.
If the answer to this question is yes, congratulations – you have a new character to work with.
If the answer is no, then a prologue might well be necessary. But proceed with caution.
How to prologue like a champ
So you’ve decided that you definitely need a prologue – now how do you do it well? You learn from the masters. There are several great examples of prologues that strike all the right notes without falling prey to the points I mentioned above. Here’s one that you’re probably familiar with:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life; Whose misadventured piteous overthrows Do with their death bury their parents’ strife. The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love, And the continuance of their parents’ rage, Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove, Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage; The which if you with patient ears attend, What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
This opening sonnet to Romeo & Juliet sets the scene and introduces us to the characters. It tells us the theme of the play and conveys the years of conflict between the two feuding families in a few simple lines. We need this backstory because it is pivotal to the rest of the narrative.
Another example of a good prologue is in Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Again, this one is a little unconventional but it does exactly what a good prologue should. The book opens with two letters: one from ‘Neil’ to ‘Naomi’, and her reply. It tells us that Neil wrote the book we’re about to read and that Naomi is excited to get into it. It also sets up the idea that the male-ruled world (the society we’re more familiar with) is fiction and the female-run one is the reality these two people know to be true. This is important information given the plot and the reveal at the end. But I will say no more about that.
These letters couldn’t be Chapter 1 because the book isn’t an epistolary novel. It would be at odds with the rest of the style. And, more importantly, these letters are about the book we’re going to read. To include them in the actual narrative would be meta in the wrong way.
Prologues aren’t the enemy
Lazy writing is. Exposition is. Info-dumping is. They are what writers need to fight.
Prologues can work – they have worked – but they take skill. You need to be willing to really evaluate your writing and decide why it belongs where it does. I can’t tell you whether or not to use a prologue. Neither can your beta readers or critique partners. They can advise but it is ultimately your choice.
It’s not easy. But we didn’t sign up to be writers for an easy ride now, did we?