Prologues: A Defense and a Primer

I have long been a supporter of prologues, especially in longer fantasy works. My own debut novel has a prologue that I fought for when I was considering traditional publishing. But the stigma against prologues still runs strong in many communities and is stronger than ever in traditional publishing circles. Let’s take a moment to look at what prologues are good for and discuss proper prologue usage.

What is a prologue?

We all know the obvious answer. It’s that opening chapter of the book that is often confusing or boring and is labeled “prologue” instead of “chapter 1.” But there’s actually a specific purpose for a prologue–or, more accurately, a few specific purposes, each mutually exclusive. So, here’s a quick listing of some good reasons to use a prologue:

  1. Give a first-hand account of a specific event that is central to the primary story line but does not take place in the natural arc of the story. A great example is the Game of Thrones prologue, which kills everyone involved but makes clear to the reader that White Walkers do, in fact, exist.
  2. Tease a particularly cool aspect of the world-building which won’t become obvious to the reader in the opening chapters of the book to build excitement in–and offer context for–the opening.
  3. Offer a POV that is useful for the reader to understand but doesn’t fit in the main narrative. Often termed the “villain POV prologue” because of a trend to use these to explain villain motivations, this is a tool that can be great, but it better be very important or you’ll get a lot of complaints for extraneous information.

I hesitate to say this list covers everything, but if it doesn’t fit any of these three elements, be very cautious about using a prologue for that. As a general rule of thumb, if your reason for including the prologue is anything other than “I think this addition will help my readers get greater enjoyment out of the primary story arc that starts in Chapter 1” then you should cut your prologue.

Is this thing working?

Once you’ve determined that your prologue fits into one of the above reasons for use, you need to make sure your prologue accomplishes what you set out to do. Prologues are a much finer art than many realize. Here’s some common mistakes and ways to correct them.

First, did you spend your prologue dropping a bunch of world-specific terminology without much explanation? You probably have a problem. If readers are on page one or two of your book and don’t understand what you’re saying because of world-specific words, you’re going to lose a bunch of readers. And I completely understand that the prologue is not the place to explain those words. Please, for the love of all decent writing, do not edit your prologue to have a definition after every world-specific word. Instead, find ways to make clear through context what the words mean. My husband uses the Rage of Dragons prologue as an example here (and not a good example). See below for his full opinions on that prologue. The important part of this point is, it doesn’t matter if the word has a typical meaning that you’re leaning on. Evan Winter uses “the Chosen” and “the Gifted” as world-specific words, which can easily be assumed to mean something we understand. But it’s clear that the usage isn’t the general sense, and as a result, the lack of clarification can be confusing. If possible, don’t use words which have world-specific meanings in your prologue, or if you must, make clear through the immediate context what the word means.

Now let’s talk about how long your prologue is. Is it more than 3 or 4 pages in the printed book? This is typically about 1500 words on the high end, and shorter is almost always better. If your prologue is longer than this, you’re probably not focusing on the correct elements, or you’re explaining too much context, or maybe even mixing goals. Chapters can have multiple reasons for existing. Prologues must be lean, precise, and clearly understandable. Evaluating a prologue that is too long can be a challenge, so get some beta reader feedback to determine how to cut it down.

Prologues are typically designed to hint at information that will be important later in the book, but this often leads to an additional problem. Does your prologue go out of its way to avoid explaining what’s going on in that specific moment, and/or intentionally end without resolving the scene in an attempt to be mysterious? Stop that. You’re trying too hard and I guarantee it will fall flat for a lot of readers. If you’re writing from a POV you don’t want to go into too deeply for fear of breaking a later reveal, change the POV. Nothing frustrates a reader more than feeling like the author is intentionally hiding things from them. We are, but they shouldn’t feel it.

Finally, what’s the effect on the book if you remove the prologue entirely? Does the story remain completely unchanged by dropping the prologue, including context and reader engagement? If so, cut that thing. It might be the coolest scene in your mind, but if it doesn’t enhance the story, the reader doesn’t care. Conversely, does your book fail to make any sense or feel like it’s missing major story elements if you pull the prologue? Well, turns out, you don’t have a prologue at all. What you actually have is a first chapter and you need to connect it more directly to the main story. If the events are too removed to fit in the story arc there, find ways to drop the information throughout the narrative (or, if it fits your book, through the dreaded flashback) instead of in a prologue. Or maybe consider if your story starts in the right place.

Why even try?

As disliked as prologues are in the modern publishing world, you may be wondering if it’s even worth trying to write one. Some agents will reject on the prologue alone and those that don’t are extremely critical of prologues. Maybe even more critical of prologues than of first pages.

Absolutely you should write one.

Despite everything I’ve said about the dangers and pitfalls of prologues, I would never tell you not to write one if you think it fits your story. Prologues serve a very specific set of uses and are often misunderstood and misapplied. But in those instances where they are done right, they are absolutely critical to the story. I’m going to use my own work as an example here.

I went back and forth on a prologue several times and had several different drafts of my potential prologues. I queried initially without a prologue. Rewrote to improve flow and queried with a prologue, but got some backlash over my prologue. Pulled the prologue and got significant reader feedback that my opening was too abrupt. I finally settled on the prologue I have because it fits my rule above. The story was complete without it, but my prologue gave readers a chance to explore the political landscape and underlying tensions between a handful of important side characters. It was a short, direct scene that addressed the setup of the story without giving you a full history of the world, or even the recent war. This is the sort of prologue that supports the main narrative without frustrating the reader with world-building details or being so removed that the reader only understands the context several books later.

The same can be said for the Harry Potter prologue (you don’t have to like the books or the author, but the prologue does it’s job: telling you that Harry is important); the Game of Thrones prologue (you, the reader, have knowledge that the characters only learn later, so you feel more tension when Eddard Stark says that White Walkers are myths); the Red Sister prologue (you know from page one that “a nun” has a very different training than in our modern world and that becoming a nun must be dangerous); and many others.

A final, cautionary comment

Many epic/high fantasy authors and epic science fiction authors make a very specific faux pas that is often credited as the reason prologues have a bad name. They use the prologue to info-dump setting or history. I’ve even seen numerous advice web sites describe this as a potential use of a prologue.

Do Not Do This!

Unless you are well-established author with a loyal following of dedicated readers, you will, not get away with this. An agent who sees this in a debut author’s submission will auto-reject (if they even look at a submission with a prologue at all). A reader who picks up your book without knowing you as an author will look at this and skip it–or they might just put the book down. Either way, that prologue isn’t helping and might be hurting. Feel free to add an appendix discussing these things if you think some readers might be interested. Some people will be. But placing it in a prologue has a very, very high likelihood of harming the marketability of your book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s