Should You Include a Prologue in Your Story?
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Ah, the Great Prologue Debate. Should they or should they not have a place in fiction?
The necessity of prologues (or lack thereof) is a topic that’s frequently discussed in online writing circles, and today I’d like to add my two cents to the clamor. You see, I feel pretty strongly about the power of a prologue well written. It’s a story element I’ve enjoyed time and time again as a reader, and also one that I’ve worked to emulate in many of my own stories.
Why do I think that prologues have their place? And what defines a prologue as well-written in my eyes? Allow me to share my thoughts with you in today’s article, writers.
Why is there such a debate about prologues?
Prologues are often a hot topic in creative writing circles. Most stories don’t need them, yet many writers choose to include them in their stories. Because of this, there are far too many poorly written prologues in this world, leading many experienced writers to villainize prologues as a whole. But why do so many writers choose to write prologues in the first place?
Often it comes down to a lack of developed skill. Unsure of how to effectively weave backstory into the body of a novel (or overestimating the importance of certain expositional details), many writers choose to dump it all in a prologue instead.
Even when prologues have the potential to serve a valuable role in a story, many writers fail to execute them effectively. We’ll talk more about where writers often go wrong when writing prologues below, but first I’d like to share a few of the ways that prologues can indeed prove valuable to a story:
#1: A prologue can create dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony is a form of suspense that occurs when readers are privy to valuable knowledge that the main characters do not have. Often, this knowledge endangers the main characters, their loved ones, or those they’re responsible for, thus creating stakes that build suspense.
You see this form of prologue most often in murder mysteries and thrillers, though it’s not uncommonly seen in other genres as well. Often an antagonist is introduced in this style of prologue.
#2: A prologue can foreshadow pivotal plot events.
Similar to dramatic irony, foreshadowing can also create a measure of suspense in readers, though it’s not uncommon for elements of foreshadowing to also go unnoticed.
In both cases, hindsight is twenty-twenty. By foreshadowing pivotal future events, a prologue can kick off a plot that runs full circle while also establishing the story’s tone and dropping breadcrumbs for readers to discover the next time they pick up the book.
#3: A prologue can showcase the inciting incident.
The Inciting Incident is the event that thrusts the main character into the heart of the story, even if they don’t yet know it. Many such incidents take place during the opening chapters of a story, but some occur before the story begins — often without the main character’s knowledge.
When they do, including a prologue that gives readers a glimpse of the Inciting Incident can be a great way to pique their interest (and, in some cases, create a little of that aforementioned dramatic irony).
As you can see, there is a place for prologues that share critical backstory and/or necessary expositional details. But all too often, these valuable prologues fall short of their potential because writers fail to execute them to the best of their ability. But where is it that writers often go wrong?
Let’s discuss a few common prologue pitfalls…
The good news is that most prologue pitfalls are simply a result of inexperience. Though there will also be exceptions that prove the rule, here are the biggest prologue complaints and why they pose a threat to your story as a whole:
Pitfall #1: Your Prologue is too lengthy.
Prologues are a warm-up. They’re meant to stir the waters, draw the crowd. To prep readers for their very best dive into the heart of your story. The longer a prologue runs, the more it draws attention to itself, encouraging readers to invest in the characters or conflict taking place therein.
Ultimately, this can prove jarring when readers at last make their way to chapter one and find a new character, conflict, or timeline waiting for them, making it all the more difficult for them to invest in your story.
Pitfall #2: Your prologue is too on-the-nose.
There’s a common fear among writers, especially inexperienced ones, that if readers don’t understand exactly what’s going on in their story from page one, they won’t have any interest in continuing.
This leads writers to dump far too much information in the openings pages of their stories — prologues included — rather than slowly unfolding the details of their characters’ lives and worlds as their stories progress. Such heavy-handed writing can often spoil a prologue’s potential, making that pivotal backstory or exposition read far more like a textbook than the promise of adventure to come.
Pitfall #3: Your Prologue Introduces Your Main Character.
Prologues are a tease, a taste of wonders or dangers to come, but they aren’t the true hook of your story. They shouldn’t introduce readers to your main character.
Granted, this doesn’t mean that your prologue can’t feature your main character. They can indeed be the subject of your prologue. But if they are, I would caution against introducing as many details about them as you can — name included, if possible. Why?
Because the person your character is in the prologue isn’t likely to be the person they are in chapter one. And again, you don’t want readers to invest too deeply in the happenings or characters found in your prologue, as that will only make the transition into chapter one all the more jarring.
Pitfall #4: Your Prologue doesn’t set up your story.
Some prologues drop readers into the middle of the action, while others wend through layers of intricate world-building or showcase events filled with tension. But what many of these same prologues fail to do is actually lay the foundations for the story to come.
If your prologue doesn’t serve a very specific purpose, especially one of those we discussed in the last section of our article, then it’s likely self-indulgent and needs to go.
Pitfall #5: Your Prologue is pretty boring.
Prologues shouldn’t be short stories in and of themselves, but they should contain several elements of story that ensure they grab readers’ interest. In particular: a subject and a source of tension.
A subject is most often a character, throwaway or otherwise, though it could also be an object of sorts: a rope, a bomb, a magical sword. Apply a source of tension to that subject — a character in conflict, the whisper of a curse, a timer set to go kaboom! — and you’ll ensure your prologue isn’t the driest in the land.
Combine that compelling interest with a little purpose and tight prose, and you’re well on your way to a successfully executed prologue.
A few final notes on crafting prologues…
Still not sure if your prologue has a place in your story? Not every prologue is best woven into the main body of a story, but if your own prologue could be fit elsewhere, it’s an option worth considering. But if you’re holding onto your prologue simply because it’s a piece of work you love, it may be time to kill your darling.
I know from experience that it’s not easy to let go of a prologue you adore. I’ve even struggled to cut an unnecessary prologue simply because of the time and effort I put into writing it. But there’s too much at stake in the opening pages of your story to risk including a prologue that does more to put off readers than to draw them in.
All that said, you must also recognize that not every reader will love your prologue, no matter how well you’ve crafted it. There’s a great debate for a reason, after all, and some readers simply aren’t enthralled by what any prologue has to offer. And that’s okay! It’s simply a fact of life, and that same principle applies to pretty much every element of your story.
Write what you love and do a damn good job of writing it, and I promise you’ll have no regrets.