Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Dreaded Prologue

Agents, apparently, hate prologues. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that you don’t need them, that you should start your story with the main action, not something that happened days, or years, or even millennia before.

But some genres still love the prologue. I’m looking at you, fantasy epics. And, personally, I think a prologue suits fantasy. A prologue doesn’t drop the reader straight into the action.

Listen, all those old stories and poems begin and you know to settle in for the long haul. The old stories don’t dive straight into the action. Not before they give you the when, the where and the who.

So that’s one use for a prologue.

Maybe another use for the prologue is that it's a device which says, “Okay, so this is the stuff you have to know before we get to the main story. It might not seem relevant at the moment, but, trust me, you need this later so you don’t get lost.”

And this is where you throw in your epic battle that occurred a few centuries before, the consequences of which have shaped your world.

But, there’s a caveat. There’s always a caveat. Unless your prologue serves a purpose – unless you really do need it to stop the reader from getting lost on their way through all your world building– then you should probably ditch it.

I'm asking, of course, because I wrote a prologue for a Shiny New Idea of a story the other day. Do I need it? I don't know. I haven't written the rest of the book yet. 

And about that prevailing wisdom... Well, the thing with prevailing wisdom is that one day the wind will change and it will prevail in an entirely different direction. If, as I hope, prevail in this case can be stretched into some of wind-and/or-sailing metaphor. 

Look. I'm on a boat. Metaphor.

And the thing with any rule, is that it can be broken. In fact, most rules -- the literary sort, particularly, not so much the "mind the gap" or "look both ways before you cross the street" sort -- should be broken. 

And they should be broken with intent. Boldly. 

Just not always. And therein lies the difficulty. 

So where do you guys stand on prologues? Do you love them or do you hate them? Do you use them in your own writing?


  1. I read a prologue a while back I thought was totally boring. It was told in an entirely different voice than the novel, and was like eating the cardboard box before you could get to the cereal. That's how not to do it.

    The interesting thing about the prologues I remember is they work the opposite way - they give an action scene and then settle down into the main story with the first chapter. Movies do this a lot - like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Star Wars" - they give you the action and then settle back into the exposition.

    It's basically a way of saying, "Don't worry - we're not going to bore you. Here, have a cool action scene, and then we'll tell you where and when all this is and give you the proper introductions."

    For a writer, though, a prologue can be a good way to get your bearings and lay the groundwork to build on. It's just that, like you say, once the the book is done you can tuck it away in a drawer.

    1. Oh yes! The teaser before the main credits! That's another good way to use a prologue.

      A boring prologue is the most terrible idea ever.

  2. I wasn't thinking of using a prologue but it was suggested to me during a crit appt at a writing conference for a scifi story.

    1. I think sci fi is another genre that loves the prologue!



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