PROLOGUES – To Use or Not To Use!

Often I blog about using interesting methods to develop murder plots, and sometimes MH900446454murder mystery writers use a prologue to set up their story – possibly with an actual murder scene or with a scene that gives valuable information to help the reader understand the victim or villain.  But are these preambles to the real story necessary?

Some literary experts even question whether the prologue is actually part of the novel. And, if it’s not, then why use it? Does a prologue even begin the novel or is it simply background to be read as a separate piece – or even ignored?

It’s generally said that many readers actually skip a prologue because so many writersMH900411777 misuse prologues. Hints that a writer may be misusing a prologue as a true literary device include the following:

If the only purpose of your prologue is to excite and “hook” the reader, then it’s a misuse of this tool. There must be a proper “hook” at the beginning of your first chapter (where many readers actually start reading your book) in order to interest the reader.

If your prologue has nothing to do with the main story plot, then your prologue is a waste of words. If you can cut the prologue from your story and that action does not affect the story arc or its outcome, then it’s not necessary and should be deleted during your edits.

If your prologue is long, then maybe the prologue is simply masquerading as your first chapter. Prologues, when they’re considered necessary, should be short and to the point.

If your prologue becomes an “info dump”, then I suggest taking a course in plot development. Before beginning the story, the writer must first envision the beginning, the MH900448290middle and the ending of the story in broad strokes to understand the overall plot development. A writer must keep track of key details in the plot and slowly let them unfold. Dumping massive amounts of background at once is never a good idea. When it’s disguised as a prologue, it confuses, disorients and frustrates readers before they have a chance to become invested in your story.

If your prologue is there to set the mood or give reference to the story setting, then it’s unnecessary. Why is that? Because you’ll have to set the mood of the story in your first chapter anyway, and then have to continually build the characters’ worlds as the characters are introduced. Therefore, such a prologue is redundant and a waste of words. The information that sets the mood and introduces your characters should be unfolded only as needed to anchor the reader with the information required to move your story forward.

So now you may question if there is ever a need for a prologue or if it’s a thing of the past to be avoided like a literary plague.

Genre has a lot to do with whether you use a prologue in your writing. Thrillers and mysteries are specific genres where a prologue might work well. If your protagonist is to do battle with an old enemy, a prologue might set the stage for the thrilling chase about to evolve. Or if your protagonist is to solve a crime that’s linked to some past action, a prologue might be necessary to provide valuable information regarding that past event.

The key in either of these situations is to keep the prologue brief and to the point. Reveal too much too soon or go into too much detail and your reader won’t be intrigued enough to continue reading.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

About James J. Murray, Fiction Writer

With experience in both pharmaceutical manufacturing and clinical patient management, medications and their impact on one’s quality of life have been my expertise. My secret passion of murder and mayhem, however, is a whole other matter. I’ve always loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers, and longed to weave such tales of my own. Drawing on my clinical expertise as a pharmacist and my infatuation with the lethal effects of drugs, my tales of murder, mayhem and medicine will have you looking over your shoulder and suspicious of anything in your medicine cabinet.
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7 Responses to PROLOGUES – To Use or Not To Use!

  1. obsidianpoet says:

    I like prologues. I like epilogues. I think if they fit with the story they are valuable. Maybe it could be a chapter. For me as a reader I start with whatever it is at the front. I don’t really think prologues need to be short myself. Maybe we should all just title the prologues chapter 1 lol. Is the stigma in the words? 🙂

  2. James, I have to confess that I use a Prologue primarily because of Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature for eBooks. The first chapter-and-a-half of any book may not grab a reader’s attention, but a short Prologue setting the scene or posing a dilemma can do that. It’s not the same situation as in a bookshop where a potential buyer can turn the pages and alight on any chapter that he or she finds interesting. From a stylistic point of view one may object to Prologues; but I believe authors should adapt their work to suit the medium for which they are writing.

  3. The stigma may well be in the words! Just like clothing styles, writing presentation changes periodically. Charles brings out an interesting point about prologues in the e-world. Maybe the increasing e-book popularity will revive the prologue in the process. Thanks for your comments.

  4. John Chapman says:

    In general you are correct. Prologues are certainly the kiss of death to any new author looking for an agent. If you can avoid one, then it’s best to do so. Having said that some very well known and successful authors have used them.

  5. johnchapmanauthor says:

    It’s perfectly possible to tweek e-book files so that the reader starts at the prologue. Your file is simply a zipped collection of mostly HTML files and can be edited in a program such as the Calibre editor. The change needs to be made to the section at the end of the contents.opf file. Just add a line like this:
    Where ‘index_split_003.html’ points to the filename of your prologue.

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