The Great Prologue Debate: Examining the Do's and Don'ts
Nothing annoys me more than a debate, especially one that I have to take part in.
Presidential candidates arguing on television? Not watching. Two sportscasters talking about whose gonna win the big game? Not listening. Youtube comments? I don’t even go there.
As a through and through introvert, I despise all conflict. That’s why I want to clear the air in today’s post!
There is a great prologue debate happening out there; I’ve seen people fighting tooth and nail on forums over whether or not a prologue is acceptable. It’s insane! That’s why I am laying it all out there right now. Let me start with this:
Yes, you can write a successful prologue.
There will always be the few that refuse to read any book with a prologue, even if it’s high quality. But they aren’t the type of readers you want anyway. If you do your prologue right, there’s no reason that you can’t garner a massive, dedicated following.
Think I’m lying? Take a look at the bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin (you may know it better as Game of Thrones). Every book in that series is a New York Times Bestseller, and every one of them begins with a prologue. Clearly, Martin is doing something right.
So if you are considering including a prologue in your own book, or if you just want to pick apart all my points so you can yell at me later (please don’t do that), this is the article for you. Shall we begin?
What is a prologue anyway?
A prologue is a separate portion of writing placed before the first chapter of your novel. I say a portion of writing because your prologue doesn’t have to be prose.
You could use lyrics or a poem, a diary entry or letter, a descriptive paragraph about an important topic, a newspaper clipping (real or fictional), a quote, or anything else your creative little brain can conjure up.
Keep in mind that a prologue is a separate piece of information. In essence, by including a prologue in your story you are forcing the reader to begin twice.
If you do so poorly, it can be a bit overwhelming, confusing, or disappointing for your readers. That is why some people have a big issue with prologues. So let’s talk about that a little bit…
4 Major Prologue Mistakes
A good prologue serves one overarching purpose: it relays a bit of information to the reader that adds to the main body of work without being a part of the main body of work.
If you publish a prologue without that purpose in mind, readers are going to have issue with your story, whether they like prologues or not. So what in particular drives some people insane?
Here are four common mistakes that writers make when drafting their prologues:
1. The prologue is an info-dump. So your story has a lot of exposition or backstory. The idea of working all that knowledge into the plot of your story is daunting. It may even seem impossible.
The easy conclusion is to take all that information, dump it into a prologue, and allow your readers to get everything they need to know about your world before the story begins. But easy isn’t always right.
Let me make this clear: info-dumping will make your reader hate you. No joke. They opened the book expecting a story that would sweep them off their feet, not an encyclopedia to put them to sleep.
By stuffing all that information into a prologue, you are being a lazy writer.
Consider this: does your story really need all that information anyway? If you left the majority of that information out, would your story still be the same? I’d be willing to bet my bottom dollar that the answer is yes.
2. The prologue has no relation to the story. You’ve got a really cool idea for a story. It takes place within the realm of your novel, and it offers a little insight into the story’s basic ideas. But in truth, it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of your story.
It doesn’t foreshadow an event, set the mood, or relay anything critical. It’s just kind of…there. Trust me, your readers will notice and they will not think it’s cool.
3. Your prologue could very well be chapter one. Who are the characters in your prologue? Does the prologue hook the reader and set up the rest of the story? If you answered ‘my main character’ and ‘yes’, then allow me to let you in on a little secret: you just wrote an awesome first chapter. Now go ditch the prologue tag!
4. The prologue is just there as a hook. Boom! Flash! Pow! There’s some crazy stuff going on in your prologue. It’s gripping and it hooks your reader into the story…but does it really? Does your flashy prologue have anything to do with the book, or is it just there to attract readers to the first few pages?
On the other hand, do the events in your prologue become apparent in the first few chapters of your story anyway? In either case, you don’t need your flashy prologue.
The only exception to #4 might be in the case of a thriller or mystery. Your reader will find out in the first chapter or two that someone has been kidnapped or murdered. Still, it might make for a deeper connection to actually write about the events of the crime in a prologue.
When To Use a Prologue
Remember, there is a purpose to a good prologue. If you are using your prologue to relay an overarching piece of information that adds to the main body of the work without being a part of it, then you are off to a good start.
But what circumstances fulfill that overarching purpose? Here are seven ideas to get your creative juices flowing. And yes, you read that right. There are 3 more pros than cons in this article!
1. Your prologue introduces the villain. Your reader needs to know about the power of the antagonist early on in the novel. But what can you do if the protagonist doesn’t meet up with the villain or walk in their wake in the first several chapters?
You can introduce the villain in a prologue! To do this effectively, make sure that whatever evil act your antagonist commits is related to the events of the story.
2. The prologue can humanize the antagonist. Not every villain is pure evil, but if you are writing your story in deep POV then your character might present them as such. If you need to humanize your antagonist - to show that they truly are a grey villain - try telling the prologue from their POV and setting it during a time when they were not the one is power.
3. Your prologue can include critical backstory. If you are thinking about pulling a flashback, really consider if the information has an effect on the rest of your story. If it does, you have the go ahead to write a prologue. Just remember to relay the backstory as a flashback and not as a history lesson.
If you don't put your reader in the midst of the action, they will quickly grow bored.
4. The prologue can introduce an underlying belief. Is there a certain mantra, philosophy, or religious belief that is imperative to your reader’s understanding of the MC’s actions? A prologue would be an effective way to introduce this belief in a simplistic and understandable manner.
As an example, go read the prologue to The White Queen. It’s one of my favorites!
5. Your prologue can foreshadow future events to create suspense. Is there a specific person, object, or movement in your story that has a major effect on the climax but doesn’t appear for some time?
You can create suspense by introducing this idea in your prologue. Your readers will view it as a bit of mystery, a sign of danger, and a lick of foreshadowing for future events.
6. The prologue can introduce something that your POV character doesn’t know. Dramatic irony is when the reader knows something about the story that the characters do not.
A prologue could be the perfect place to introduce a bit of juicy information that eludes your MC for the majority of the plot, only to reveal itself in the middle of chaos. This dramatic irony will keep your reader on the edge of their seat.
7. Your prologue can set up conflict. Is something happening in the world of your story that will create trouble for the MC in a few chapters? A prologue could be the perfect place to lay the groundwork for this conflict so that readers don't feel sidelined when it next appears.
The important thing to remember when considering any of these circumstances is this: if you can work this separate information into the main body of your story without harming its quality then you don’t need to write a prologue.
Sometimes prologues are necessary, and that isn’t a bad thing, but give the reader one small hint that your prologue wasn’t worth its salt and they’ll know that you got lazy with your writing.
A Few Things to Consider
So you are pretty darn sure that your prologue is necessary for your story to reach its full potential. Great, fantastic! I love to see a good prologue succeed. Here are a few tips to keep you on track while you pen your little masterpiece.
1. Keep in mind, it is a little masterpiece. The prologue should be as short as possible. Your readers know that it doesn't contain the story of the MC, so they will try to remain unattached to the POV character.
By keeping it brief, you allow your readers to absorb the information they need to know without getting bored or overwhelmed. And no, I still haven’t figured out how George RR Martin gets away with such long prologues. Discussion in the comments!
2. Don’t directly introduce any main characters. Even the ones that aren’t POV characters. Your prologue might mention them in passing, but, for the most part, you should avoid talking about characters from the main body of work.
Your prologue isn’t about them, it’s about one of the seven circumstances listed above. Let’s keep it that way. Your villain is the only good exception to this rule. Take a look at circumstances #1 and #2.
3. Don’t use your prologue's POV character ever again. Your prologue's POV character should be a throwaway. Your readers are trying not to get attached, so don’t confuse them by bringing back this POV character later in the story.
That's like playing a cruel game of Keep Away with them in the middle. Not cool! That doesn’t mean that you can’t ever bring this character back, but if they reappear make sure they aren't the POV.
Alright, that sums up my view on the great prologue debate. I’m certainly not the ultimate authority on the situation, but I like to think I've got a few good points to share. I am a bit partial though since I use a prologue in my WIP.
You can hound me in the comments if you think I’m making a mistake!
Are you a fan of well written prologues? Or do they immediately put you off? And, gosh darn it, how do you feel about Martin’s million page intros? Help me figure this out!