Prologues: Love ’em or Hate ’em

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?

13 thoughts on “Prologues: Love ’em or Hate ’em

  1. Good points! I have ended up using prologues because I get part way through a book and I just can’t make it work. An example is in the first of my series with the murders being in the 1930’s and 40’s so I ended up putting a prologue in so readers could at least identify a little bit with what happened because it was going to be difficult to solve all these years later.

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    1. I think stories which are period such as yours often deserve a prologue – it gets you into the right head space. It’s either that or a slow first chapter and unnecessary backstory.

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  2. If the author thought that their story-before-the-story was important then why not make it part of the book, proper?

    And additionally, are there two beginnings to this book now? Does the author get two strikes to capture our interest?

    Another aspect of some novels I find irritating are the pre-scripts, quotes and extracts at the start chapters. Some novelists feel compelled to add some barely associated quote, or two or three, and then some teaser found later in the text. “Are you trying to disconnect me from your story, author? If so, then you’re doing a great job. Slam-shut. Next.”

    In today’s “millions of available novels” era an author has approximately sixty seconds to capture my attention. 1 minute, 200-300 words, if the author wants to waste those on a prologue… It has better be one helluva prologue.

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    1. Great to hear a differing opinion! A lot of authours, like Rowling and Pratchett, have included these ‘prologues’ as part of the book proper. All it means is that the first chapter is entirely removed from the rest of the story by either time or place, which can be a little jarring. If it’s labelled a prologue, at least it’s set apart from the main body of the story, while still being connected.

      But I entirely agree with you that a prologue is chances to hook a reader, which can be a real cheat if that’s the only reason you’re using it. And it can be very frustrating for the reader. Sounds as though you’re very clear on what you’re looking for in a novel!

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      1. It’s certainly a contentious topic – and fun because of it! What’s an argument without strong opinions, eh?
        I post articles on the topic of writing as well, and my discoveries as I they occur, re: to become a writer. Some of the metrics I’ve come across astound me. Although most are generally hearsay, things like AVG novels read/year by adults in the US: four, or the number of newly published novels (self+traditional) 100k / year! (maybe as many as 200k!)
        Knowing this I have become extremely discerning. I will not let an author waste my reading entertainment time. Not with so much selection out there.
        Thanks for the courteous response – AM.

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  3. This is a great writing topic, Melanie. I’m at the point in a draft of my own novel where a lengthy prologue has shrunk down to a handful of paragraphs. You’ve given me much to think about — I wonder if I have the courage to actually pull the trigger and let it go.

    Still, I think a prologue can be useful if it doesn’t go on too long — I have had trouble with George R.R. Martin’s use of them. His prologues never give any clarity — he intentionally uses them as puzzles that frustrate me. When I’m editing a client’s manuscript, I usually advise them to go very short on the prologue if they don’t wish to take it out.

    thanks for provoking all of us with this topic!

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    1. It’s terrible sometimes because you can be so proud of those few paragraphs but in the end, as Stephen King says, ‘Kill your darlings’. The fact is, if it doesn’t really add to the story then let it go. Readers simply don’t have the patience. As you say about G.R.R.Martin – his prologues frustrate and for a new reader, that can be enough to make them put the book down.

      Still, I’m personally still a fan of a well-crafted prologue. If it’s written beautifully as a stand along scene which will later make sense and add to the story as a whole, I see it as the seductive glance before the story kicks off. Useless prologues which are just there as an extra hook is just a waste of time.

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