What is past is prologue.
The Tempest, William Shakespeare
Everyone seems to have a strong opinion on prologues. Do a quick search online and you’ll find plenty of articles advising you to ditch the prologue. As I’ve been frequently told, editors don’t like them. They’re seen as the equivalent of clearing your throat before getting started on the story. Not only that but at my writer’s group, I was amazed at the number of people who confessed to skipping the prologue and only going back to read it after the main story. That was something of a horrifying revelation to me.
There are plenty of reasons why you should skip the prologue. Often, it’s providing unnecessary context. Sometimes you’ll write something so wonderful which doesn’t actually need to be in the story. In those cases, maybe you figure ‘well, I’ll just stick it in the front as a prologue.’ This is a terrible reason to have a prologue.
An example which has always stood out for me is Harry Potter. There are two books which start with chapters which are not from Harry’s perspective. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Chapter 1 The Boy Who Lived, Harry is a baby and not involved in the narrative. In The Half-Blood Prince, Chapters 1 The Other Minister and Chapter 2 Spinners End are written from others perspectives without Harry featuring at all.
For me, the two chapters in The Half-Blood Prince begged to be prologues as they feel they are so completely from a different book. We are so used to Harry’s limited view of the wizarding world that seeing the story through another’s viewpoint seems out of place. They also honestly don’t feel needed. While it’s fascinating to get some wider context for what’s going on in the world, I don’t feel as though I would miss them if they weren’t there.
Some writers think that a prologue ‘feels right’ for their story. However, this is often shaped by television and movies where a context establishing flashback is necessary. That’s not always true for books. I often think of the television series Castle which without fail starts with the obligatory murder scene at the beginning of the episode. Do they further the actual investigation? No, it’s actually often misleading. Could these easily be ditched? Yes, but in television, it feels right. In books, it could and probably will be skipped for a more realistic feel where the detective arrives on location and are confronted with the scene at the same point the reader is. I sometimes feel that Rowling wrote the unbreakable vow scene in the Spinners End chapter with her producer hat on, as it works well in the movie.
I also feel there is a lot to be said for the genre in the prologue debate. Would I expect a prologue before a family saga or crime novel? Probably not. But in epic fantasy, I would argue it’s very important. Think of Tolkien’s which covers the Ring’s history and hobbit culture we need to read the novel with which we’d be lost without. Same with George RR Martin’s prologue to A Game of Thrones. Not to mention the iconic fanfare of Star Wars.
Having said all that, I love prologues when they’re done right. But, if editors, agents and publishers tell us they don’t want prologues, I’m not going to go down with this particular ship. If we want to be published then no prologues. Well, not until they’re back in fashion which they will enviably be one day.
What about you? Are you a prologue lover or skipper? Where and when do you think a prologue is needed, if at all?