Fiction writers often use prologues to set up their story—possibly with an actual murder scene or with a scene that gives valuable historical information to help the reader understand the villain or hero. But are these preambles to the real story actually necessary?
Some literary experts even question whether the prologue is truly part of the novel. And if it’s not, then why use one? Does a prologue even begin the novel or is it simply a bunch of background that can be filtered in throughout the story—or can a prologue even be ignored in some stories without losing any of the tale’s richness?
About two years ago, I posted a blog that questioned the need for a prologue in modern fiction writing by asking my readers those same questions. Imagine my dismay when I dusted off the completed draft of my next novel (that I wrote a couple of years ago) and realized that the first chapter—and possibly the second chapter also—was a cleverly disguised prologue.
I questioned why I had even included those first two chapters in the novel and the only truthful answer was that I wanted the reader to understand what motivated my protagonist to act a certain way in Chapter Three.
As I reread the first several chapters, I knew that my first editing chore was to create a better Chapter Three so that there would be no need for the first two chapters, and that is exactly what I’m doing. My old Chapter Three is now a better-written Chapter One.
So again I question the need for a prologue—either cleverly disguised as an opening chapter or overtly labeled as a prologue.
It’s generally said that readers often skip a prologue because so many writers misuse them—as I did in my first draft. Hints that a writer may be misusing a prologue as a literary device include the following:
If the only purpose for 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) to actually interest the reader.
If your prologue has nothing to do with the main story plot, then those pages are 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 middle 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 allow them to 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? It’s because you’ll have to set the mood of the story in your first chapter anyway, and you’ll want to re-build the characters’ worlds when they appear later in the story. 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—and I emphasize the word MIGHT.
If your protagonist is to do battle with an old enemy, a prologue might set the stage for the thrilling chase about to evolve. 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 those past events.
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 great detail, and your reader won’t be intrigued enough to continue reading.
My best advice is to be cautious of the prologue—it can truly make or break the mood of the story you are weaving for your reader.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
There’s a case – with an extremely long lineage in literature – of using prologue + epilogue to frame the main story. For example prologue + epilogue might be written by a much older version of one of the characters, looking back on the critical events. Or from an entirely different person’s perspective than the POV of the main story – the main point being exactly that you do establish a different setting within chapter 1. I totally agree that it can go wrong for the reasons you state, but I think the situation is not quite as black-and-white as you have painted!
Thanks for your comments, Richard. As in life, what is “appropriate” in writing is sometimes fluid and full of “shades of gray” regarding fiction these days. You bring up some very valid points and I’ve seen prologues and epilogues used effectively by talented writers.
One of these days I might just find myself writing a story that requires a prologue, and I will certainly have no problem including one.
My point was that some writers use prologues ineffectively when a little extra creativity would have introduced their story sooner and closer to the central theme of the storyline. Readers can be impatient to “get on” with the story, especially in the general fiction genre.
I appreciate your comments and I’m interested to hear others.
All the best ~
You do like to be provocative, now don’t you, you rascal!
Two observations, if I may my friend:
1. Good writing is all about engaging the reader and that priority pre-empts just about everything else;
2. Prologues can and should be used where they accomplish #1. Everything else is detail and personal preference.
Good Point, James. Thanks so much for sharing. And all the best this holiday season.
Reblogged this on lukewinters and commented:
Great article on prologues, and whether or not to use them
The only successful use of prologues I see these days is the classic Clive Cussler adventure story format: 1843, Off the Coast of Spain [historic shipwreck scene shown] Then Chapter 1: Present Day, [hero on quest to uncover treasure set into motion by events in prologue].
In this type of scenario, a prologue really is the best way to go, because the historical events are not really part of the present day story’s action.
I totally agree with you, Rick. In that sort of scenario, you have to anchor the present day action with a preview of the history in the prologue. Thanks for your comments!
I like reading fiction with long, information-dumping prologues, such as those provided by Victor Hugo and henry Fielding; consequently, none of your commandments will ever be able to dissuade me from writing this kind of prologues.
No problem, Klaus. It’s always the author’s choice to provide the work of art that pleases him or her above all. That’s my primary rule that takes priority over any other. If the author is not pleased, why publish it?
All the best and thanks for your comments.