Prologues: Yes or No?

Of all the tools available to fiction writers, the most maligned may be the prologue. With the possible exception of the adverb and the semi-colon, no other literary device engenders such visceral hatred. Prologues have been called “superfluous,” “tedious info-dumps,” and “a bait-and-switch technique.” Agents and editors, we’re told, hate them.

Recently, on a blog I follow, an aspiring author asked for advice about a partial manuscript request. She’d been asked by an agent to send in the first fifty pages. “Do I include my prologue” she asked, “or do I begin with chapter one?” The replies were swift.

            “Why do you ask? Are you ashamed of your first chapter?”

            “Whatever you do, don’t call it a prologue. Make it chapter one.”

            “I wouldn’t. Prologues are a sure way to get rejected.”

            “Why do you need a prologue?”

But are prologues always bad? Here are five ways prologues can dazzle and delight:

1. Providing Necessary Orientation

Plunging readers in medias res can be confusing, especially when understanding the opening scenes requires a brief introduction into the fictional world. In the Star Wars movies, for example, the famous opening word-crawls tell us what we need to know: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Okay, got it, the viewer thinks. This is a fantasy world. Civil war threatens the galaxy, pitting an evil empire against rebels led by a brave and noble princess.

2. Hooking the Reader with Story Questions

A common device in cozy mysteries and police procedurals is the discovery of a body by characters who play no further part in the story—the dog walker, the milkman, the jogger, teenagers out for a snog. Readers see the dead body. The investigation begins in chapter one. A cliche? Maybe, but it works. The initial story questions—Who was the victim? Why was he killed and by whom?—keep the reader turning pages.

3. Establishing Atmosphere, Tone, and Major Theme(s)

The prologue to A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin features none of the main characters but instead follows the Night’s Watch rangers who, while tracking a group of outlaw “wildlings,” encounter the Others, undead men long considered extinct. It establishes the vaguely medieval setting, the mostly serious tone, and the major themes of duty vs. love, family loyalty, the difficulty of facing hard truths, and the corrupting nature of politics.

4. Foreshadowing the Main Event

In Louise Penny’s A Rule Against Murder, the prologue describes the creation of Bellechasse, a lodge in the Canadian wilderness:     

there was something unnatural about the Manoir Bellechasse from the very beginning. It was staggeringly beautiful, the stripped logs golden and glowing. It was made of wood and wattle and sat right at the water’s edge. It commanded Lac Massawippi, as the Robber Barons commanded everything. These captains of industry couldn’t seem to help it…. They’d grown weary of robbery and needed another distraction. The Manoir Bellechasse was created and conceived to allow these men to do one thing. Kill.

5. Describing a pivotal moment out of time sequence with the rest of the story

Rochelle Weinstein’s Where We Fall begins with a prologue showing three college friends in a love triangle. Chapter one opens with a married couple—but not the couple in the prologue. Without that early glimpse, the rest of the story wouldn’t hold together.

The problem with prologues isn’t the prologue itself but the fact that they’re often misused, misplaced, poorly written, and ineffective.

Have you ever written a prologue? Do you love them or hate them?

7 comments

  1. I love prologues. I often recommend them when I’m beta reading a story that needs a lot of worldbuilding. If you’re writing historical fiction or fantasy, you might NEED a lot of setup just to get the reader into the world, but that can drag and leave the reader wondering what the heck the story is about. Doing any of the above can immediately set up the who/what and then the big question can be answered in the rest of the book.

    I think prologues are only bad in first drafts. By the time the book gets to publication, it’s an important part of the narrative.

  2. Laura Hillenbrand’s UNBROKEN begins with a prologue. It was well done and so necessary that it converted me. Without it, the book’s first chapters were about some random kid. I cared about him because of this glimpse of what his future held.

  3. I think prologues get a bad rap because the term is meant to reveal ‘before’ the story happens. The example you gave by Louise is exactly this. I can’t speak to the others — I’ve never watched or read Star Wars or Game of Thrones (I know, I can hear you gasping).
    But a prologue shouldn’t be a lazy way to introduce backstory or to plop you in the middle of the story. And there’s a lot of that (and probably the thing agents and publishers hate).
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  4. For all that prologues are maligned, A LOT of books have them. So they must work for somebody. I’ve never written one but I enjoy reading them. They’re like a tasty appetizer. The only problem can be when the prologue is the most exciting part of the book.

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