The rumors of the prologue’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Here’s a guide to when a prologue may help—or hinder—your book, from Ryan Van Cleave’s March 2020 WD article.
As a writing coach and college professor, I keep current on what agents and editors want because outside of basic craft instruction, those are the secrets/tips/tricks that aspiring writers most want. One of the prologue “rules” I’ve heard plenty of times is a variation on the following:
“Most agents hate prologues.”—Andrea Brown (president of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc.)
“Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”—Laurie McLean (founding partner, Fuse Literary)
“I am fully settled into the I Hate Prologues camp … I go so far as to NOT read them in a manuscript.”—Janet Reid (agent at New Leaf Literary & Media)
In short, a lot of smart story people want novel prologues to die a quick and seemingly necessary death.
But is that really the best advice to follow, along the lines of, say, squeezing the tube of toothpaste from the bottom, only packing what you can carry, and sending thank-you notes to editors who buy your work?
Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why a prologue might be a splendid narrative choice, and as well as a few reasons why those prologue-deniers might be right.
Power 1: The Hook
Freelance editor and former literary agent Lorin Oberweger gives a good explanation of what a prologue does when it works well. “The best prologues,” she says, “raise questions, convey some sense of mystery, launch us into the story in a compelling way, and always contain a strong element of movement and suspense.”
George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones does exactly this by including a prologue that shows how three men of the Night’s Watch run afoul of wildlings and freeze to death, but the weather isn’t cold enough to have done that. Worse, ghostly white figures come and kill one man, whose corpse reanimates and then strangles a comrade. The third man runs off and in Chapter One, he’s the poor soul about to be beheaded for desertion by Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell. In short, Martin’s prologue deftly presents a scene of action (dueling!), mystery (how are wildlings dying of cold when the weather isn’t that cold?), and the existence of magic (what in the Seven Kingdoms is reanimating the dead?).
Here are three other books that use prologues in the ways Oberweger suggests:
Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince (presents a foundational moment in Vivi’s life where a faerie arrives at her home, slays her parents, and takes her and her twin siblings away to Faerieland)
Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth (creates tension through a gallows scene where a thief is about to be hung)
Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (shows a beautifully described but stressful moment as a dark figure teeters on the edge of the observation deck in Tower B of the World Trade Center)
Power 2: The Glimpse of Memories Past
When asked why bestselling author Julianna Baggott used the prologue in her novel All of Us and Everything (written under the not-so-secret pen name, Bridget Asher) to show how, 27 years prior to the start of the story, eccentric mother August Rockwell attempts to teach her three daughters how to conduct a storm set to classical music, she says: “The novel was going to be chronological. I knew that from the start. However, there was this moment, outside of the chronology, that I wanted the reader to know. A foundational, outside-of-time experience. I love prologues because they privilege these moments. They are often built for the subconscious—down to the slant of the text. ‘This is what you’re supposed to forget,’ they whisper, when you enter into the bustling chronology of this novel, ‘but first, let me hold you down, underwater, disorient you a bit.’”
She adds that effective prologues “operate like the blurry first memories of childhood that are also deep stains. A good prologue is one that slips down and mingles with your own memories so that, when you finish the book and then open it again, you’re surprised that the prologue was the beginning. Your mind has attached to the logical forward motion of the novel itself. But, yes, this is how this story made its way in—through the poetic part of the reader’s subconscious.”
Baggott also points out that this is true for both films and many TV series, such as in the first season of True Detective. “People tend to remember, as I did, that it begins with the interviews of the two main characters,” she says. “What they forget is the opening—maybe two people moving strangely in the near dark, perhaps one is carrying a body, a fire catching, and then a wide shot of a massive fire. It’s moody, beautiful, unclear, and reveals very little. Because it has no context, it settles into the subconscious while our active minds are drawn into the brilliant dialogue of those interview scenes. But it’s there, having set tone, laid groundwork for and made a promise of what’s to come.”
Power 3: Foreshadowing
A prologue can set up some foreshadowing that pays off later with a satisfying wow moment.
An example of this type of prologue is The Eye of the World—Robert Jordan’s sizable first book in his mammoth Wheel of Time series—where, among a palace full of death and devastation, a confused Lews Therin Telamon encounters Elan Morin Tedronai, the Betrayer of Hope, who heals him, and with that comes the dark realization that Lews had just killed everyone he loved and, even worse, his own followers are destroying the entire world. (Even though we’re not yet in the Peril section, it’s worth mentioning that Brandon Sanderson—the writer who took over this series after the 2007 death of Jordan—notes that prologues are so prevalent in fantasy and sci-fi that they’ve become cliché when used in those genres. Still, it’s hard not to point out how that fact doesn’t stop Sanderson from using prologues in his own books, such as Steelheart and The Way of Kings.)
This manner of prologue is so effective that it regularly happens in other types of stories, too, such as video games like The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and the underappreciated PlayStation One classic Vagrant Story.
Power 4: A Stellar Epilogue Partner
A well-wrought prologue paired with a thoughtful epilogue gives a nice bookend feel to a novel. While we all expect a good story’s end to give us a reasonable sense of how things will fare for our main character going forward beyond the final page, don’t you sometimes really, really want to know more? I’m looking at you, Hazel Grace Lancaster (from The Fault in Our Stars), who spends much of her time chasing the mysterious author of her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, because that book ends midsentence and Hazel is determined to find out what happens to the girl in the story whose experience with cancer so closely mirrors Hazel’s own.
“Can’t I just use an epilogue all by its wonderful self?” you might be asking.
Sure. But then readers lose that thoughtful, buttoned-down, and potentially circular sense that a prologue and epilogue combo platter offers.
Two fine examples of this one-two literary punch are Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In the latter case, the prologue shows how an elderly man gets a rare flower for a birthday present just as he’s gotten each year for decades, and he shares that information with a detective because it’s related to the mysterious and unsolved “Case of the Pressed Flowers.” The novel ends with “Epilogue: Final Audit,” which provides closure to the main story conflict (financial corruption in Sweden) and helps those flowers change from being a chilling reminder of obsession and loss to a profound sense of affection, which brings a welcome sense of hope to an otherwise fairly dark and violent book.
Now that we’ve examined the main ways a prologue can be reader-pleasing and worthy of the space they take up on the page, let’s examine why they’ve gotten a pretty bad rap in recent times.
Peril 1: The Info-Dump
Last week, a client sent me the first 25 pages of a work-in-progress, and 23 of those pages were a prologue that explained the world, the magic system, the history of three kingdoms, the various language each race used, etc.
I asked why she felt all that needed to go in the front of the book, to which she replied, “But how can you understand the story without knowing all that first?”
Oberweger says that “too many authors use prologues to convey information that could easily be included elsewhere in the book. When one considers how often readers skip prologues, I think the challenge is to make sure a prologue is absolutely necessary, does a great deal of work, and is essential to the story.”
She further advises that “your opening pages serve as an enticement into the rest of the work. If your prologue is structured around simple world-building or giving some bit of character history, if it’s engineered more out of a desire on your part as author (e.g., ‘I want to show my character acting in a sympathetic way, so the reader will like him’) than out of a critical story need, then probably you can live without it.”
Readers don’t need to know the 10,000-year history of dark elves to know why they should care about this dark elf in this situation/setting with this urgent problem. Always start with character and conflict, then worry about all that backstory context material. There’s plenty of time to weave that in along the way, once the reader is hooked.
Peril 2: Misleading the Reader
Prologues give a false impression of how the story will go.
Freelance editor and former literary agent Mary Kole admits that “Prologues can be great because they tend to start a story off on high tension. A perilous chase! A crone delivering a prophecy! An ancient mystery! A future calamity!”
While those things sound tremendous in terms of getting a reader thrumming, she notes that a prologue can also be a bait-and-switch tactic, and that’s often why many publishers and literary agents take a dim view of them. “Once this high-tension first scene is over and your ‘real’ beginning gets off to a slow start, you’ll lose the audience you’ve hooked with the exciting opening. I counsel all of my writers to try and craft an exciting first scene without leaning on the prologue crutch. If your story calls for one, use it. But Chapter One has to kick off with just as much energy and action as your prologue, otherwise, you have more work to do.”
Another way of thinking about this is that it’s not a good idea to include an action-packed prologue because Chapter One is ponderously slow and dull. Even the best-handled prologue won’t serve as an antidote to a flawed first chapter.
Peril 3: Relying on Prologue to Create a Mood
Prologues create the “right mood.”
I hear this as reason for their inclusion in many student works, primarily those authoring stories with a heavy dose of world-building. My recommended solution? Rely on the epigraph.
Need a few examples of novels with terrifically chosen epigraphs that quickly create the “right mood” for the subsequent story experience?
Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian uses W.B. Yeats’s “There is another world, but it is in this one.” This epigraph helps readers mentally prepare for the vastly different world Junior encounters when he leaves the Spokane Indian reservation school to attend the white school in a neighboring town, where the only other Indian there is the mascot. Perhaps Alexie also selected this quotation because while Yeats was born in Dublin, he was raised in London, a country that had historically ruled Ireland.
Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend includes three epigraphs that, taken together, bring up the primary themes of this book about a woman becoming saddled with a dead friend’s dog that is suffering from grief as deeply as she herself feels.
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather begins with this quotation by Balzac: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Indeed, those are the two things at the heart of this book about the Corleone family’s warped version of the American Dream.
Peril 4: Too Long
For whatever reason, writers tend to overwrite prologues. It’s as if someone hacked Thesaurus.com so when writers look up the word “prologue,” they find synonyms such as “drawn out; elongated; extensive; far-reaching; gangling; lengthy; prolonged; protracted; stretched.”
Want a real-world example? While people love Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the entire “Customs House” prologue is hefty. The Hester Prynne story doesn’t actually start for some 70 pages! Today’s readers don’t have that kind of patience for setting things up. They want the start of the actual story to happen far closer to the front cover. (Bonus points for starting the real story from line one.)
Peril 5: Not Starting Off Strong
Here’s a hypothetical situation. Thanks to a well-researched, well-written, and well-edited query, a literary agent is now requesting that you fire off the first 10 pages of your manuscript to them posthaste. What do you send? The eight-page prologue only? The entire prologue and the first two pages of Chapter One? The first 10 pages of Chapter One with an apology for not including the prologue? Something else entirely?
Even if your prologue is knock-me-down great, how many agents have the knee-jerk reaction of Andrea Brown, Laurie McLean, and Janet Reid? Do you dare take the chance of wasting your one shot with them with the word Prologue leading the charge?
So, what’s the can’t-miss solution? The potentially bad news is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Go forth and prologue your stories. Or not. The choice must be made on an individual basis using the best sense of what makes your story work. Or not.
Still, writers often ask me for advice on whether (or not!) they should use a prologue—people love rules, don’t they?—and I often reference Rule 2 in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing: “Avoid prologues.”
Leonard doesn’t pull punches, so if he thinks something should never be done, he says it clearly. But here, he uses “avoid.” I take that to mean that you should write a prologue and do a full, honest cost-benefit assessment of its value in your story, and then decide it’s worth keeping.
Just recognize that there are industry folks out there who instantly feel queasy upon reading that dreaded word at the top of a page. Perhaps with very good reason.
Maybe the best option is to rename all of your chapters, with “Prologue” simply transforming into your new “Chapter One.”