2015 Update: I have to admit that I am guilty of loving a prologue. Since getting published, I've used them in a number of books. However, generally, I'm using them for reunion stories. Like Melt Into You, I show what happened between the hero and heroine when they were teens then jump forward in time to the present. I think it builds their characters quickly, and I can show the past in "real time" instead of dropping in chunks of past backstory later. My prologues are always real time, action-oriented scenes. They are always about the hero or heroine, not an outside character. And sometimes I won't even label them the prologue, I'll just call it chapter one and put a time stamp on it. My editor has never pushed back. I've learned over the years that if you can figure out how to do something well, most rules can be broken. ;) The important part is to make sure you're not using it as a cheat.
Today, I'm resurrecting an old debate--the loved/dreaded/maligned prologue. The rumor is that writers love them and agents/publishers hate them. Some quotes from our favorite blogging agents:
99.9% of the time, the prologue is vague or doesn’t really give me a sense of the writing or the story that’s going to unfold. I skip them as a general rule. --Kristin Nelson, Pub Rants
It is 3-5 pages of introductory material that is written while the author is procrastinating from writing a more difficult section of the book. --Nathan Bransford's definition
Previously, I talked about the written and unwritten rules of writing I have discovered along the way. The one that many of you had pain over was the fact that prologues are frowned upon. So, I thought I would delve deeper into that topic today.
First, let's define a few types of "pre-chapters":
Prologue is a preface to the story, setting up the story, giving background information and other miscellaneous information. --wiki
A preface is an introduction to a book written by the author of the book. A preface generally covers the story of how the book came into being, or how the idea for the book was developed; this is often followed by thanks and acknowledgments to people who were helpful to the author during the time of writing. --wiki
A foreword is a (usually short) piece of writing often found at the beginning of a book or other piece of literature, before the introduction, and written by someone other than the author of the book. --wiki
Okay, so what most of us are dealing with is the first one, as the preface and foreward are typically used for non-fiction works. (However, Twilight breaks this rule--what's new--and uses the term preface for its prologue.)
Prologues are seen in all genres, but are particularly popular in fantasy/sci-fi and thriller/suspense. In fantasy, the prologue often provides information to help the reader understand the strange world that they are about to enter. In suspense, a prologue can contain the killer's point of view or one of his first victims points of view to ratchet up the tension instantly.
So those seem valid reasons to use one, right? What's the problem?
The problem can lie in the fact that the prologue is almost always a big chunk of backstory. And backstory can be dangerous--it risks boring the reader and makes your pace drag. Prologues can also be a sneaky way to hide a slow-moving first chapter. The latter is how it's used in Twilight. We get a glimpse of the end action--an unnamed victim being stalked by a unknown predator--before we enter into chapter one where nothing much interesting happens for many pages.
However, prologues aren't always terrible. Hush, Hush had a prologue. The brief pages showed a scene that explained what happened to one of the characters to make him the way he was. In this novel, I didn't mind the prologue and its purpose was clear. Could the story have been sprinkled in later? Perhaps, but the prologue was a big shining billboard that said--"hey this is about angels!" and the scene had tension and action, not just flowery language about some random legend.
So when is it a good idea to include a prologue and when do you need to cut it?
Prologue vs. No Prologue
For love of the prologue:
- Fantasy/Sci-fi/Paranormal can be difficult to jump into without explaining a bit of the mythology/legend/world first.
- Some of the greats used prologues
- It can build tension early
- You have a helluva twist coming later that you need to foreshadow
- There is history that is vital to your story that must be introduced early
Nix the prologue because you are probably using it to cheat and do one of the following:
- Set the mood/atmosphere because you failed to do so in the opening chapter
- Info dump because you can't figure out where to sprinkle in the backstory
- Create tension because your chapter one is slow and you can't bear to edit it again
- Not trusting that your reader is smart enough to understand the world you created
- Your story or fantasy world is overly complicated and you want to get the reader a school lesson on it first
"Writers hope to create suspense and interest by writing a prologue about the person who turns out to be the villain but without identifying that person by name or gender. Sorry, but in my opinion, that's a cheap parlor trick and your reader knows it. You're better off doing the hard work of creating suspense and tension with your hero and heroine."--author Carolyn Jewel
So what's your opinion? How do you feel about prologues in the stories your read? Do you have a prologue in any of your stories? Are you using it for the right reasons or are you worried it's a cheat? Do you think they should be used only as a last resort?