To Prologue or Not To Prologue
by Ryan Lanz (originally posted on ryanlanz.com) Should you include a prologue in your novel? I have known writer friends who have debated this for years. Some love them, some hate them, but in this post I’ll detail what I think of them.
There are many different schools of thought when it comes to prologues, and the truth is, no one person is right about them. Sure, I’ll offer my opinions, but ultimately you’ll have to gauge its usefulness yourself. I touched on them briefly on the post concerning First Chapter Blunders. Here goes. 95% of the time, prologues are not necessary, in many cases bothersome, and in all cases, tricky to get right.
I can already feel the hackles raising on some of you. I can appreciate that. I follow-up my statement with one question: how many of you always read a book’s prologue? I might wager that if you do, you’re not in the majority. In fact, I know people who read books regularly, yet have never read a prologue in their lives.
Does that mean that all prologues are garbage? Of course not. Some of them are enjoyable to read. But then again, in today’s competitive literary market, can they still be called effective? Can anyone else admit to being bored during the rolling words at the beginning of Star Wars?
Let’s take a step back to understand prologues. Why might someone use a prologue?
To explain something to the audience
To fill in back-story
To catch the reader up to speed
To give the reader a sense of scope (typically most applicable in sci-fi and fantasy)
To let the reader know that a different flavor is coming later in the book
In my humble opinion, the last item is probably the only decent reason to use a prologue. Any info-dump is not a good idea, whether it’s in the prologue or the first chapter. A decent example of a prologue is in the first book of the Game of Thrones series. The prologue told the readers that there’s magic in the world. Without that, the reader wouldn’t have known there’s any magic at all until at least halfway through the book. It gave the hardcore fantasy readers something to hold on to. Reasons why a prologue might not be a good idea
It’s often used as an excuse to massively info-dump
If it’s too different of a flavor, it risks making people put down the book at the first chapter
It’s usually not necessary to read (from the reader’s point of view)
It might take some time for the stuff in the prologue to become applicable
It often doesn’t have a hook and can ramble
I’ve personally never heard of a literary agent recommend writing one, but I’ve heard plenty that recommend against it
A fair amount of readers will skip it anyway
It sometimes has a crammed-in feel, where a writer didn’t have enough room in chapter one, and it spilled into the prologue
Here’s the thing, we’re all told how important chapter one’s hook is. The first 250 words is so important, that it can make or break your novel. You have to carefully craft your first sentence, then your first paragraph, then your first page. Now, add another equally crafted chapter one before your chapter one. That’s a lot of pressure! Essentially, now you have two sets of all those crucial facets. You can quickly see how prologues are rarely done well.
If you’re thinking that you need a prologue, think again. Anything that a prologue can do, a first chapter can (and often does) do better. If you have a ton of back-story to share with the reader, for goodness sake, don’t clump it all together, thinking that it’s alright as long as it has “Prologue” above it.
Back-story can be sprinkled into the first chapter through what the protagonist notices, dialogue, (small) bits of description here and there, etc. It won’t be as much, but is that entirely a bad thing? Conclusion I don’t want to give the perception that I’m totally against prologues, but as with everything in my novels, I want to consider how effective and necessary anything is that I’m tempted to put into it. It could be that your prologue falls within the category of trimming the fat of your novel. Guest post contributed by Ryan Lanz. Ryan is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Image courtesy of Todd Dailey via Flickr, Creative Commons.