Monday, February 12, 2018

To Prologue or Not to Prologue?

Jessica Nelson

You’ve sat down at the computer, or with your pen and paper, and started to write. The scene is set in your mind and the words are flowing onto the page. After all that beautiful prose is complete, you realize that this is the beginning of your book—but it’s not where your story starts. So you slap the word “prologue” above what you’ve written and move on to chapter one.

Or, you’re getting ready to send your novel out to publishers, and you realize your first chapter is a little slow, so you pull out a scene from the middle or the end of your book—one filled with tension and action and suspense—and put it at the beginning to hook the reader and make them want to keep reading, and you call it the prologue.

But do you really need that prologue?

I remember reading a claim recently that most readers skip over the prologue and jump straight into chapter one. I tried to find verification for that claim, but couldn’t find anything official. What I did find was a pretty heated debate not only about whether people read the prologue, but also about whether prologues should even be used.

Let’s deal with the first question: Does anyone read the prologue?

There seems to be two diametrically opposed groups. One group insists that reading the prologue is essential. Why would the writer bother with the prologue if it wasn’t meant to be read?

The other group believes if the information in the prologue was important, then that information would appear in the meat of the story (chapter one or onward).

I personally always read the prologue. But I admit to being disappointed when the prologue is nothing more than a scene from later in the book meant to catch the reader’s attention. Especially when that scene is a word-for-word excerpt.

According to Sandy Tritt, “For the past several years, publishers and agents have shied away from prologues. They say readers don't read [prologues], so just start your book with chapter one and be done with it. The problem with many [prologues] is they simply don't capture our attention and hold it. Which is a killer for any book. So, my professional opinion is to avoid prologues (because agents and publishers have said so).”

However, Tritt acknowledges that sometimes a prologue is useful, and she has read well-done prologues and even used prologues herself.

So now we address the second question: When is a prologue effective?

An effective prologue . . .

1. . . . adds important contextual or historical background. In fantasy or science-fiction, a prologue may set up the culture and customs of the world so the forward action of the story isn’t bogged down by background information.1 In historical fiction, the prologue may introduce a particular historic event around with the story revolves or it may introduce the time period to give the rest of the story the appropriate context.2 Clive Cussler does an excellent job with this type of prologue. Cussler often includes a prologue that introduces a historical event that relates to the main conflict of the story. However, there is a fine line between effective and ineffective with this type of prologue. Tritt says, “If I wanted to give an information dump describing why my characters do what they do or to inform about an unusual setting, I would not use a prologue.”

2. . . . allows for narration from a point of view that won’t be used again. This is generally seen in mystery or crime fiction, where the prologue will be written from the point of view of the killer or the victim.3 Regarding viewpoint, Tritt says, “If you are using a full-circle plot, your first chapter and your last chapter should be in the viewpoint of the same character. Yet if something from the past and from a different character's viewpoint needs presented in real-time, then I would use a prologue to act out that scene. Alternately, if your story presents only one viewpoint throughout, yet something that happened previously in a different viewpoint needs acted out, then I would use a prologue for that scene.”

3. . . . is a scene that occurs before the starting action of the story. According to Tritt, “If the prologue contains a scene that happened prior to the main storyline of the book and it still has a bearing on the characters, and it is written with dialogue and action that holds the reader's attention, I don't have a problem with a prologue.” Sometimes this is the inciting event—the moment that sets the rest of the story in motion—but that event may occur months or years before the starting action of the story. A prologue allows the writer to introduce the inciting event without needing to add it later as a flashback or try to work it in to a revealing dialogue exchange.

An ineffective prologue . . .

1. . . . takes a scene word-for-word from somewhere else in the novel. This is usually an attempt to grab the reader’s attention when the writer isn’t confident their first chapter will capture and maintain the reader’s interest.4

2. . . . creates a general atmosphere but does not add any information about the world of the story and/or does not include any action that effects the narrative.5

3. . . . contains a background information that would be more effectively presented in pieces throughout the narrative. Tritt says, “If the background information is given in a flat and uninteresting way, I strongly suggest getting rid of the prologue and find another way to slowly give the reader the background information during the natural unwinding of the plot.”

4. . . . is boring. If the prologue isn’t interesting, then it’s only detracting from your prose.

Even if you’ve written an effective prologue, there’s a still a chance your reader won’t read it and will miss out on potentially important information. We have some alternatives to prologues:

1. Can your prologue be just as effective if you made it chapter one? This is relevant mostly to prologues that contain an inciting event or a historical milestone. Charlotte Firbank-King rarely uses prologues and instead uses subtitles in her chapters to indicate if significant time has passed from chapter one to chapter two. As Firbank-King writes, “I prefer to treat the prologue as chapter one with a subtitle or date—then one can hit chapter two with another subtitle or date, like ‘5 years later,’ or ‘1066’ in chapter one and ‘1944’ in chap two. In my YA fantasy book, I have a subtitle for each chapter and chapter one is ‘The beginning.’ Chapter two has two subtitles: ‘Attack’ and then one under that on the left that reads, ‘Six summers later.’ In adult books, I’ve used dates.”

2. If your prologue is a scene from later in the story, then maybe what you need is a more interesting chapter one. You can still use the scene or excerpt as your book blurb or as bonus before chapter one (not denoted as a prologue or as any official part of the story.) The Lifeguard by Deborah Blumenthal does this. She takes a high-tension scene from near the end of the book and includes it between the title page and chapter one, but it’s not marked as a prologue or anything else. It’s a teaser available to anyone who wants to read it, but it’s not necessary to start the book.

That said, you should always assume that your reader is starting at chapter one. If chapter one doesn’t catch and hold the reader’s interest, then maybe the story hasn’t started in the right place.

3. If the prologue contains primarily background information, then an alternative to having a prologue would be to incorporate that information throughout the text. Be careful to avoid info dumps, though.

To prologue or not to prologue? That remains the question. There is no hard-and-fast rule or a one-size-fits-all solution. It largely depends on the story and the way the prologue is written and utilized. We’ll end with some advice from Tritt: “Study what is selling, study the art of writing, and then make an informed decision about how to structure your book. There is never one-way-fits-all, so don't be afraid to buck trend if you have an intelligent and necessary reason for doing so. Good luck!”

Footnotes (additional information used as inspiration or paraphrased from other sources)
2 Daily Writing Tips
3 Daily Writing Tips
4 McAlister, Marg, “The Prologue”
5 Daily Writing Tips