To prologue or not to prologue? That is the question. The problem with the prologue is it has kind of gotten a bad rap over the years, especially with agents. They generally hate them. Why? In my opinion, it is because far too many writers don’t use prologues properly and that, in itself, has created its own problem. Because of the steady misuse of prologues, most readers skip them. Thus, the question of whether or not the prologue is even considered the beginning of your novel can become a gray area if the reader just thumbs pages until she sees Chapter One.
So without further ado…
The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues
Sin #1 If your prologue is really just a vehicle for massive information dump…
In my critique group, one of the first tasks each member must do is they must write detailed backgrounds of all characters. I make them get all of that precious backstory out of their system. This is a useful tactic in that first, it can help us see if a) our characters are psychologically consistent, b) can provide us with a feel for the characters’ psychological motivations, which will help later in plotting. I have a little formula: background–> motivations –>goals–>a plan–>a detailed plan, which = plot and c) can help us as writers honestly see what details are salient to the plot. This helps us better fold the key details into the plotting process so that this vital information can be blended expertly into the story real-time.
Many new writers bungle the prologue because they lack a system that allows them to discern key details or keep track of key background details. This makes for clumsy writing, namely a giant “fish head” labeled prologue. What do we do with fish heads? We cut them off and throw them away.
Sin #2 If your prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.
This point ties into the earlier sin. Do this. Cut off the prologue. Now ask, “Has this integrally affected the story?” If it hasn’t, it’s likely a fish head masquerading as a prologue.
Sin #3 If your prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader…
If readers have a bad tendency to skip past prologues, and the only point of your prologue is to hook the reader, then you have just effectively shot yourself in the foot. You must have a great hook in a prologue, but then you need to also have a hook in Chapter One. If you can merely move the prologue to Chapter One and it not upset the flow of the story, then that is a lot of pressure off your shoulders to be “doubly” interesting.
Sin #4 If your prologue is overly long…
Prologues need to be short and sweet and to the point. Get too long and that is a warning flag that this prologue is being used to cover for sloppy writing.
Sin #5 If your prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story…
Sin #6 If your prologue is über-condensed world-building…
World-building is generally one of those things, like backstory, that can and should be folded into the narrative. Sometimes it might be necessary to do a little world-building, but think “floating words in Star Wars.” The yellow floating words that drift off into space help the reader get grounded in the larger picture before the story begins. But note the floating words are not super-detailed Tolkien world-building. They are simple and, above all, brief.
Sin #7 If your prologue is there solely to “set the mood…”
You have to set the mood in Chapter One anyway, so like the hook, why do it twice?
The Prologue Virtues
Now that we have discussed the 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues, you might be asking yourself, “So when is it okay to use a prologue?” Glad you asked.
Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.
Genre will have a lot to do with whether one uses a prologue or not. Thrillers generally employ prologues because what our hero is up against may be an old enemy. In James Rollins’s The Doomsday Key the prologue introduces the “adversary” Sigma will face in the book. Two monks come upon a village where every person has literally starved to death when there is more than an abundance of food. Many centuries pass and the very thing that laid waste to that small village is now once more a threat. But this gives the reader a feel for the fact that this is an old adversary. The prologue also paints a gripping picture of what this “adversary” can do if unleashed once more.
The prologue allows the reader to pass centuries of time without getting a brain cramp. Prologue is set in medieval times. Chapter One is in modern times. Prologue is also pivotal for understanding all that is to follow.
Virtue # 2
Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the backstory relevant to the plot.
The first Harry Potter book is a good example of a book that could have used a prologue, but didn’t (likely because Rowling knew it would likely get skipped). Therese Walsh in her blog Once Before A Time Part 2 said this:
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is told in a close 3rd person POV (Harry’s), but her first chapter is quite different, told when Harry is a baby and switching between omniscient and 3rd person POVs (Mr. Dursley’s and Dumbledore’s). Rowling may have considered setting this information aside as a prologue because of those different voices and the ten-year lag between it and the next scene, but she didn’t do it. The info contained in those first pages is critical, it helps to set the story up and makes it more easily digested for readers. And it’s 17 pages long.
This battle is vital for the reader to be able to understand the following events and thus would have been an excellent example of a good prologue. But, Rowling, despite the fact this chapter would have made a prime prologue still chose to make it Chapter One so the reader would actually read this essential piece of story information.
Food for thought for sure.
Yes, I had Seven Sins and only Two Virtues. So sue me . That should be a huge hint that there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one (that and I didn’t want this blog to be 10,000 words long). Prologues, when done properly can be amazing literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one. Make sure you ask yourself honest questions about what purpose these pages are really serving. Are they an essential component of a larger whole? Or are you using Bondo to patch together a weak plot or lazy writing?
But, don’t take my word for it. I actually scoured the Internet for some great blogs regarding prologues to help you guys become stronger in your craft:
Once Before a Time: Prologues Part 1 by Therese Walsh
Once Before a Time Part 2 by Therese Walsh
Agent Nathan Bransford offers his opinion as does literary agent Kristin Nelson
Carol Benedict’s blog Story Elements: Using a Prologue
To Prologue or Not To Prologue by Holly Jennings
If after all of this information, you decide you must have a prologue because all the coolest kids have one, then at least do it properly. Here is a great e-how article.
So if you must write a prologue, then write one that will blow a reader away.
What are some of the questions, concerns, troubles you guys have had with prologues? Which ones worked? Which ones bombed? What are your solutions or suggestions?
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Comprehensive long view of the prologue. I particularly love your example from Harry Potter. I agree. It was probably meant as a prologue.
After reading this I feel as if my prologue is actually well placed. I expected just the opposite. Thanks.
My currrent WIP’s prologue is just a page long, but it managed to fall into your virtue 1 (introducing the adversary and the time gap issue) and avoid the 7 sins. Yay!
Still, I’m worried about it, though my beta-readers didn’t raise any concerns about it. We’ll see what the editor is going to say 🙂
great post, Kristen 🙂
I love this! I will be saving this and coming back to it if I ever try to put a prologue in a novel of mine. My husband is one of those people who skips prologues and epilogues, too. I read them. I can’t help it. I read every page. Even the title pages and the dedication and acknowledgment pages. I love words. 🙂
Great post, Kristen. As always. 🙂
Is nonfiction different especially of you have a famous person do it? Or an
I originally replied to your second post, but now I see that you’re actually asking about a foreword, which is usually written by someone other than the author. A foreword written by a famous person can be wonderful for pulling in new readers.
Is it different for non fiction?
It would be called a preface (to discuss why you wrote the book, or how it came about) or an introduction (to discuss the actual content of the book) in nonfiction.
I think most of what Kristen discusses here is specific to fiction. One thing I can share (as a voracious reader of both fiction and nonfiction) is that I’m often very grateful for a well-written introduction to a nonfiction piece. The best introductions set up a reader’s expectations and understanding about the themes or overall structure of the book, and they greatly aid in comprehension. Prefaces can be very interesting, assuming the author has a very interesting story about how she came to write the book, of course.
Yes, that is a foreword and doesn’t have to worry about the “Sins” ;).
Kristen, can there be a prologue without an epilogue?
Yes there can! If you are writing it, you get to choose from beginning to end how your book will look. I like to get advice for writing from other fiction writers. Best word of advice I’ve ever received is “Write what you want to read, not what you want to write.”
If you love reading prologues, write a prologue. If you don’t like to read epilogues, don’t write an epilogue.
Also, don’t let someone else tell you how to write your book or what to put in it or not to put in it. They are not the creator of your work, you are.
Good stuff. When I initially wrote my WIP, I started with a prologue to set apart a crucial narrative that happens in the middle of the story, and in my first chapter I went back to the beginning. When I got to the point in the story where the event in the prologue actually happened, I realized it would be better chronologically, so I simply moved what had been the prologue into its proper place. In other words, I didn’t have a fish head. I had the fish’s middle where the front of his body should have been.
This is a post that I will definitely place in my writing folder to refer back. I’ve always wondered what the purpose of a prologue was and whether I might use one 🙂
I personally read a prologue because I figure it’s there for a reason. That and I just love reading so I read everything….like cereal boxes and shampoo bottles and gum wrappers…
More excellent information. Whew! I’ve written a virtuous prologue! It’s only one page and it’s really the last page of the story, without giving anything away. The reader understands the time gap that follows in Chapter One and has a sense of pending crisis. I may never do it again but the story called for it in The Bridge Club … and as a newbie author, the truth is, I didn’t know any better! Thanks for this!
Prologue writers should be taken out and shot. If it’s worth putting in the book, put it in the book, don’t prologue it.
Introductions, prologues and everything else should be dispensed with entirely. The are the root of all boredom and twaddle.
They are the last bastion of the criminally lazy writer.
Mr. Stallard–I wish you would stop with the pleasantries and just tell us what you really want to say.
Yeah! Ditto, Mr. Stallard!
Boy, is this post ever timely for me. I was just contemplating the question for a WIP: to Prologue or not to Prologue. That is the Final Jeopardy question. This will help a lot. Thank you!
Thanks for this indepth post…I never considered writing a prologue and admit to always skipping them. If so important, then make it chap 1 – right? I dont read epilogues either. I like how you broke out the no-no’s and the yes, when to write one! This clears it up for me…but I dont I will convert to read them! Seems like there’s more reasons not to write one then to write one. 🙂
I think writers like me get confused between backstory and prologues. The way it works for me is that I write the first chapter or two then leave them out because they’re full of info which I need but the reader doesn’t.
If I write a prologue it’s because it has to be in another voice, point of view or tense to the rest of the book AND my editor has made me do it!
Some terrific information. Thank you also for supplying links to further reading!
After reading, I certainly agree with the majority of your points. I have gone back to read my “prologue” which I at least kept short and sweet (1/3 page I think). I don’t mind the double effort of keeping the book interesting between the prologue and chapter one however. I believe that the book should be interesting throughout and if you have trouble getting someone interested in chapter one, then maybe you need to rethink what you are writing in the first place. I think that in storytelling, if you hook the reader in, and keep that momentum with some rise and falls, then you can keep them reading and resisting that need to put the book down. Thanks for the article and thanks so much for references! I will certainly be checking them out.
Seriously, people don’t read prologues?? When you have a book, you should read it all–without doing so, you can’t say you finished it and can’t have a fully-fleshed opinion of the work as a whole! How lazy! Perhaps it’s because I grew up on high fantasy and other works that are frequently prologue-heavy. Kristen and everyone, what are your opinions regarding prologues in high fantasy, where they are often used as “info dumps”? I’m thinking Robert Jordan here, king of the long (but awesome) prologue. I ask because it’s very relevant:I have an editing client whose high fantasy work is exceedingly cumbersome in lore, and her methods of introducing that lore during the course of storytelling is not working out well. I actually feel that having a prologue introducing the key elements might be a good thing, as long as she does it right. Opinions?
I have a similar issue in that I’ve just added a prologue to help me foreshadow the fantasy elements later on. After reading this though, I’m going to put it straight into Chapter One. Thanks Kristen.
I agree with you, Jessica, in that I can’t conceive of not reading a prologue or epilogue, just as I can’t conceive of skipping over a chapter in the middle of a novel. I also agree with Kristen, in that the prologue, just like every other part of the story, must be done well. A prologue can be an important part of the structure of the story, for those willing to appreciate it as such. I have no problem with people who don’t like prologues, epilogues, or whatever. Some people like ranch-style homes with no basement or no second storey, too. But it’s just silly to say that every house should be one level because poorly-built basement walls will crack and stairs are too hard to climb.
LOL. Fantastic analogy. Yes, part of the reason I wrote this was so writers could clearly understand the purpose of a prologue and how to do one well…if they so chose to use one. Many stories are fantastic on their own and the story doesn’t call for a prologue but writers (especially new, insecure writers) believe they need one. Hey, I was once a green pea writer, too!
Joseph, I was going to say the same thing! That I read every page of a book because I assume the author wouldn’t have put it there unless it was important. I give the author that much credit. I wouldn’t think of skipping anything!
I like how you structured you post to make it a debate subject, rather than straight up advice. Because the use of prologues in creative writing IS debatable. I use to put a prologue to every freaking thing I did, but after a while I gave up the idea altogether.
While I don’t think as violently as Brendan about them, I do think they are useless. A writer will use them to give himself the impression of doing something longer and important. I would agree that they are the bastion of laziness.
But I do think there is a proper way to write one. AFTER you wrote the goddamn novel, if there are any information gap like Kristen pointed out.
When I started my book my first chapter was a mess! It was an information dump, and I was told so by more then one. So I scraped it and made a hole new first chapter. Then I was told I needed a prologue to round it out, give some of the information I no longer had but needed in a way. After writing that I have gotten mixed messages, I need it, I don’t. So I have been on the fence as to wether or not I will be using it. You see, I am writing a post apocalypse/si-fi/fantasy(?) novel. My first chapter takes place 1018 years before after my prologue, I have fixed it 4 or 5 times now to get it just write, its written in 3rd person POV but my novel in first person POV. I still don’t know whether I will be using it, but after reading this I am leaning toward using it.
I, myself, enjoy a good prologue.
I started my present WIP with a prolog because I wanted to show how my MC gained her special talent, even though her story, as such, doesn’t begin until 8 years later. I thought I was safe because of the “time-lag” issue. The more time I spent on the main story, though, the more the prologue became irrelevant because I could “fold what information needed to be known into the narrative.” My poor, funny, informative prolog. Now I’m thinking I’ll probably offer it as a freebie on my blog/website if and when I ever make that move. (Don’t get your knickers in a twist, Kristen. I know I’ll need one eventually, but I’m dealing with a DH who barely tolerates my writing; blogging is out of the question right now.)
“I’m dealing with a DH who barely tolerates my writing;”
That is terrible. At times I’m ashamed to be a bloke, right now, shame is well to the fore.
I know what I would say to your DH, but as that would involve stevedore language in a pleasant environment, I’ll say no more.
Ahem, thanks Brendan for saying something, when I read this comment I was floored, but decided initially not to butt into someone else’s life by being judgmental…and now I’ve changed my mind. Suzanne, for real??? Is this 2012 or 1912? What do you mean he “barely tolerates” your writing? Does he refuse to allow you to write unless his underwear have been properly starched and his nose hairs trimmed? Does he take away your computer if you forgot to line up the hand towels in the guest room with a ruler? For real? My husband can be a massive prick when he wants to be; for instance, he refuses to read my writing because I refuse to play WoW (I’m completely serious here, not joking or exaggerating); for some reason he equates my not wanting to play a computer game that eats one’s soul and valuable time with my writing and editing, which brings in money and fulfills me professionally and emotionally. Go figure…BUT, he is supportive of my writing itself, meaning he doesn’t stand in my way, and he brags about me and wants me to do well. He just doesn’t read it. Weird, yeah, but it’s ok. If you want to write, dammit, write! Does he have any hobbies? If so, you need to let him know that you “won’t tolerate” them unless he “tolerates” your writing. If you want to blog, blog! Relationships are give and take, and if you want to write and you don’t neglect him or your kids in the pursuit of your writing career (and by neglect I mean, his socks don’t have to be folded into origami and his boots hand-polished every other hour), then he needs to get off his high horse and support you, and be proud of his creative wife!!
I’m sorry to hear your DH barely tolerates your writing. I hope you can both find ways to bring about a more supportive response from him. I can’t imagine living with someone who doesn’t support my passions. Hugs to you, along with hopes that the situation evolves with time.
Great list! 🙂
Thanks for this, Kristen! Newbie writers looooove their prologues. What they don’t realize is that the prologue is mostly for the writer, not the reader. So they should write away and throw everything they want into that prologue in the first draft. Then cut it for the final draft and put any essential info into the main body of the book and toss the rest. You explain exactly why that is with all those prologue sins..
But you’re also right that some books do need prologues. But if you’re a newbie trying to get an agent, don’t write those books. Not yet.
Thanks, Anne, for your insight. Not yet, huh?
Thanks so much for gathering all of this information in one spot for easy reference and for your explanations. The prologue often is the subject in the on-line writers’ groups in which I participate, and your post will be shared and appreciated!
Must be ESP! I was wondering about this issue for my book. Your post helped me realize how little I know about the structure and techniques of a novel.
After a career in writing and editing, mostly at newspapers, I thought a novel was just a long story. I jumped and started telling the story, without understanding what makes a novel tick. Now I realize I’m flying blind. But I’m still attached to the “just tell the story” approach. Probably I’ll have to crash into a mountain before I come to my senses.
Thanks for the great post. I didn’t use a prologue and now am wondering if it would make my life easier and things less confusing. I’ll have to add this to my list of questions for my beta readers.
I read everything in a novel. I’m surprised to learn that a lot of people don’t. I guess we are all different.
A tough decision–whether to prologue or not–but like you said, perhaps starting with the first chap is the answer.
Great post. Until I read this, I was a staunch defender of prologues, but you are right. Too often a prologue is a sign of an inexperienced or inept writer. Readers today are more sophisticated and expect to piece together the back story as they go. What I’ve noticed, though, is that as writers dump prologues, they lean heavily on flashbacks. I’d love to read your take on that.
YES! GREAT post!
Requiring everyone in your crit group to write extensive backgrounds for every character? Genius. I hope you won’t mind if I steal that approach and share it with every writing instructor I know. I’ll give you credit, of course. 🙂
I’ve been seeing a lot of superfluous prologues lately. I really hope this post gets circulated around the Twitterverse.
Okay, you inspired me to do some research. I read this post and then consulted my Kindle.
Of the 30 indie novels I downloaded for FREE! during the months of December and January:
15 have prologues
2 have forwards in addition to the prologues (Yes, that’s right: Forwards. Not forewords. Is this is *thing* I missed? Or just a really obvious error?)
1 has a foreword in addition to the prologue
3 have introductions in addition to the prologue
3 have author’s notes in addition to one or two of the above
15 have none of the above
Furthermore, two of the eight short stories I downloaded during this time contain prologues. That’s right, prologues for short stories.
So, 50% of the novels contain prologues, and 30% contain a prologue PLUS at least one additional introductory piece.
25% of the short stories contain prologues.
Interesting numbers, eh? My experience with traditionally published novels is very different. I’d be willing to bet the numbers are much lower, there.
P.S. I wish all of my research numbers turned out to be so nice and rounded. This never happens in real research. And I know this is an extremely small sample. I will share that I downloaded every FREE! book I saw advertised on Twitter during December and January, so those books are the source of this sample. I haven’t downloaded any free books since.
In his book The First 50 Pages, Jeff Gerke (of Marcher Lord Press) suggests that even if you want a prologue and have good reason to use a prologue, you should just call is chapter 1 (as it seems J.K. Rowling did). He says too many agents and editors are biased against prologues and will refuse to read them. If there’s something necessary (really necessary) in the prologue that means they’ll have missed it, and your story will be maimed.
As a reader, though, if there’s a big time gap, I’d rather the author call it a prologue because that’s a quick way to signal to me to take the prologue as intimately connected to but different from the main story in some way.
Prologue certainly are tricky territory 🙂
So far, all my “prologues” are simply called “Chapter 1” 😀 works for me so far!
Kristen, you have helped me solve a problem in my novel. I can hardly wait to get home to re-read this blog in depth. (
Great post! Makes me glad I decided to add a Prologue to my WIP. I think it really needed it to help set the story.
If I’d known the risks involved I never would have begun my first ever novel with a prologue. Still, it seems to have worked, and then the pelude scene developed into a finale for the first movement, which ran into a prelude to the second and a finale at the end of that, The construction turned out necessary for a certain pathos at the end.
Don’t think I’ll ever try it again, though!
Great post. Used a prologue once on a longish short story to give the protagonist a beginning. It was less than 500 wds. and accomplished what I wanted. Had to put him in an orphanage and a little backstory seemed to do it. Also it helped set atmosphere. Thanks.
Interesting! And I’m so deep into my thang right now, I’m happy to report I do not have a prologue. *wipes brow*
Thank you so much! I had wondered about this and was leaning towards skipping it. You have convinced me.
It would seem that, as long as you handle it masterfully, choosing whether to call it “Prologue” or “Chapter 1” is really just a matter of semantics.
If the information is truly part of the story, then– using Rowling as an example– it would be wiser to simply begin it with “Chapter 1” since most readers seem disinterested in prologues in general.
Me, I have an almost obsessive-compulsive tendency to read every word of everything. Even if the prologue is a simple poem (like at the beginning of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books), I feel like I’d be missing something important if I skipped it. Then again, his real prologue at the beginning of The Eye of the World was rather long, rather bizarre, and rather irrelevant and could be skipped without sacrificing too much comprehension of the overall story.
Great post. Very informative, far more detailed than many articles I’ve read on the subject.
Though as you’ve said, prologues do tend to be a grey area.
Oddly enough, my personal reading experience has taught me that a “good” prologue is often the kind that CAN be skipped if the reader so chooses, but provides interesting information if the reader chooses not to skip.
But I’m saying this as a reader, not a writer or insert-related-job-here. My examples, in that regard, actually come from your list of when you SHOULDN’T write a prologue.
One of them is from Edding’s Belgariad/Malloreon series, in which you either find out why the world is the way it is (which prologues were later expanded into full-length books of their own), or a quick recap of previous books.
These are safely skipped if the reader chooses, BECAUSE you can get that information in full from other books.
But even if you haven’t read the other books: the information is of interest, but certainly not critical, so there’s little harm if you skip them; it’s the readers decision whether to miss out on those extra details.
Another example would be from Clive Cussler’s Sahara–the prologue lets readers see where that plane even came from, but otherwise, it amounted to an unrelated short story.
This would be equatable to buying an anthology of unrelated stories and choosing whether to read all or only some of the stories; you’re not missing any critical information if you don’t read all of them, but you get extra entertainment if you DO read it all.
Likewise, my personal experience would say a good epilogue would follow similar rules.
That being said, as a WRITER, I have a couple of prologues that part of me wants to leave out of the finished work.
One is another “why the world is the way it is” quick blurb. Something that gives the “history,” so to speak, but may not fit easily within the main storyline without info-dumping.
Another is the events that happened around the main character’s birth…about eight years before the main story happens. (This prologue is told in everybody else’s point of view, whereas the main story should be told in his POV alone.)
I like Suzanne’s idea: stick the prologue on the website and leave it out of the story.
I may well do that in both these cases; one is already on my site (my OTHER other site) and simply needs revising for style and technical errors. And maybe revising for content if the story scope changes (the prologue is ALL I’ve written of that one).
The other…needs revising because it’s a different world’s version of the events. Or I may just leave it as is; leaving it alone WOULD fit the “many worlds” theme on my other other site. 😉
But I think I still need the epilogue on the second one, though it violates my “can be skipped if the reader chooses” experience.
It’s told from yet another POV, thus calling it an “epilogue,” but without it, the ending of the story would just dangle somewhere in the middle of a war.
Whew! That didn’t seem like a lot in my head, but when I typed it out…wow, that’s a long comment. ^^;
I have a short prologue in my current (first) WIP. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary for the story, but it drops in a some piece of information which lets the readers know something that the main characters don’t figure out for a long time — much like what Rowling did in the first chapter of “The Goblet of Fire,” another chapter that could just as well been a prologue.
One little nitpick, however. Theresa Walsh is wrong when she says that the subsequent chapters in “The Sorceror’s Stone” were written in close third person. They were mostly distant third person — sometimes even switching to omniscient POV — with only the occasional close third person scenes when she wanted us to experience what Harry was feeling. Like I said, just a nitpick.
I got blasted for a prologue by a judge because the character in my prologue was the body on page 2 of Chapter 1. She was mad because she started liking that character and then had to deal with her being killed off.
I think the Prologue in that situation was good, but I found a way to replace the critical information it provided about the murder another way. I don’t like it as much without the prologue, but it works.
I would take this as really encouraging feedback–she really liked your character, and was crushed when she died. That tells me you wrote a great character! 🙂
Wow! You actually triggered an emotional response that hit the reader very hard. I’d say that’s pretty good writin’.
I’d be interested to know how e-books have affected the reading of prologues by consumers. My Kindle throws me right to the first page of the book–be that prologue or chapter 1. Has anyone collected data on that?
I still skip them. Tempus fugit. Get to the story already. But that’s me *shrugs*
When you create your ebook, you can control what pops up first, and maybe most readers want to cut right to the story. But it does raise a few Interesting questions. How do consumers of electronic information differ from those that read traditional print? What are their reading habits? How can you influence (guide) their journey through your book?
As a reader, I’m guilty. I’ve skipped all the front matter and gone straight to the story, but in almost all cases, I will go back and look at the prologue after the fact, especially if I liked the story.
I decided to bookend my trilogy of books with prologues and epilogues so I read this post with interest. Fortunately for me, I didn’t fit under any of the deadly sins!! Thank goodness, because they became such an integral part of the stories that I love them to bits….
p.s. I notice other folks have their photos on their comments, how do I get my pic on mine?
You need a Gravatar.
I don’t know why people skip prologues. It’s basically chapter one, which brings me to my next point that I don’t know why writers don’t title it chapter one to begin with!
One of my favorite prologues is in The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. So good!
The kind of prologues I don’t like at all are the paragraph snippets of a tension-filled part that’s going to come at the end of the book. Hate that! There’s no point to it and it ruins the book. I don’t like knowing what’s coming at the end yet when I’m only at the beginning.
Yeah I’m with you Laura. I read a lot of middle grade fiction which is my genre and I especially loved the prologues/epilogues in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. They were like a gentle lead-in to that world and at the end it was like taking a breath and having a cup of tea afterwards….
“It’s basically chapter one, which brings me to my next point…”
I’m so-so on that one. If it’s “just” chapter one, then by all means, call it chapter one already.
But not all prologues are “just” chapter one. There’s something that sets it aside, some critical detail that separates it from the main story, that the author felt justified calling it a prologue.
“The Sorcerer’s Stone” works as an example–about eleven years before the actual story begins; even then, Rowling chose not to call it a prologue. Any story with that kind of time lapse works as an example, really.
As do “this is what the gods did millions of years ago, now the main story has mere mortals cleaniung up their mess/fulfilling some destiny” stories, or even stories with clear differences in point of view (e.g. main story is told by one character, prologue is told by someone else).
Or “here’s something else that happened in this world that affects the main story, even though the main characters never really know it” like in Sahara (where did that plane come from?).
I’ll agree that prologues shouldn’t be spoilers. I’ve seen lists that say those are a common, even acceptable kind, but it makes no sense to me.
On the other hand, I AM debating using this ONE SINGLE LINE as both an opening and an ending to a story (with the story leading up to why the line was said in the first place). Hard to say whether that has the same problem.
In the case of some of my own writing, though, the dilemma isn’t about whether to CALL it a prologue.
It’s about whether to use the relevant chapter at all; the chapters I have in mind would be prologues, whether I called them “Prologue,” “Chapter 1,” or “Diary of the Spaghetti Monster.” The question, then, is whether I tell the story without including them in the first place.
Reblogged this on Hunter's Writing and commented:
There’s been a lot on the blogosphere lately about the evils of prologues. It’s been going on for years. But if Harry Potter can start off in book one with Chapter 1 being basically a disguised prologue, then so can I. My first thriller has one, as Chapter One – it’s brief and sets the scene, following some of the principles Kristen Lamb is talking about here.
Thank you for recommending my post, Story Elements: Using a Prologue.
I’m enjoying reading your posts, and have added a link to your blog on the Blogs I Like page of my blog.
My current WIP doesn’t have a prologue, but there’s a story resting in a file on my computer that may end up with one.
So great to see you here, Carol! Thanks for the great material to help us out!
Thanks for the info. I’m glad I made chapter one my prologue
You know… I love a good prologue. But yeah, they’ve been ruined so many times over the years that I’ve begun to fear them a little. Hamburgers are good, but if you get ten badly made ones (dried out, raw, no condiments, etc.) in a row then you might start to wondering if prologues are worth the trouble.
Good points. Made me think.
Thanks, Kristen, great points as always. By the way, is it just me, or does this post seem veeerrry familiar? *exaggerated wink* 🙂 Note to self: If I ever win Kristen’s drawing again (can one win more than once?), don’t send her a Prologue.
I posted this lesson before, over a year ago. I have writers ask questions and it might be from an older article. So, yes, I do recycle lessons since many people haven’t read it and those who have can use a refresher :D.
And actually a lot of the submissions I have gotten have come with prologues used improperly which is a huge part of why I decided to address this again. We can always learn :D.
I love your posts and I love recycling. Many thanks for doing both.
Thanks for these fantastic points. Really drives how what a prologue shouldn’t do and why it is one of the most hated things. 🙂
Reblogged this on Parchment Place and commented:
I am one of those people who often write prologues, and then I end up editing them out. I am also one of those people who hate reading them, unless they are done really well.
Epic fantasy novels often have amazing prologues. Young Adult novels – I could probably pass on. A damn good thriller often has a damn good prologue…
And after reading Kristen Lamb’s blog this morning – I agree with her on almost every point – so I thought that I would repost her blog to serve as a good reminder to all of us writers. There are 7 deadly sins with prologues, and there is damn good reasoning behind them. Take heed… pay attention.
I think I shall avoid a prologue at all costs.
I actually had not considered one at all; seems just as well!
in looking over my past novels, I see I have committed at least 5 of those sins, all in the belief that it would improve my work. But you make some very good points that have opened my eyes.
However, I would like to argue number 3 (purpose to hook). It has been my experience that some readers actually read the prologue in order to decide if they will read the book (me for one). So it seems that providing a hook can’t be all bad.
Still, it seems that if you do not include a chapter titled “prologue” it will force the potential reader to look over the first chapter, and from a marketing standpoint that is probably a safer approach.
I also feel like a prologue might be appropriate for sequels. Sometimes a reader doesn’t have access to the first book and might require a little appetizer in order for them to want to read the sequel. Sequels should stand on their own and not absolutely require that you read part one.
That being said, I do think that a prologue should be short and sweet with just enough information to arouse interest… (which might be construed as setting the mood, #7)… or maybe take a sneakier approach and call it something else, like Horse Doovers (Hors d’oeuvres).
So am I a sinner? Am I so far gone as not to be saved? What’s your take on multi-book novels?
I think Prologues do work well for sequels. The thing is this. The prologue itself isn’t, per se, BAD. It has just been misused so much that it has gotten a bad rap and many people skip it. Our job as writers then is to make that discernment. Do we need a prologue THAT badly when we understand it is likely to be skipped? Prologues are great when executed properly. Problem is most of the time they are just…executed.
Very well put, Kristen. *imagines guillotine* :0
In the words of George Takei, “Oh My!” I won last week’s 5 page critique. May I *squee* with glee?
Hm, better not. I might hurt myself and I have physical therapy to go to today. I’ll just say thank you! That made my day, Kristen.
I wrote a prologue once and discovered it was a a part of the story that I needed to tell. It doubled the size of my then-WIP. The finished story became the first novel for which I sent a cover letter and sample out to an agent way back in the early ’90’s. I even let my father read it (he said there was too much sex and how did I know so much about war?). I received an incredibly nice rejection letter with specific suggestions to make the work better for another publisher. It was one of the best rejections a person could ever get and it utterly depressed me. I shelved the novel and did not touch it again until the beginning of this year. I thought, “Maybe I can edit this, make it work…” It’s still not my current WIP.
I am reading We Are Not Alone and groaning as I go, wishing I’d read it sooner. Thank you for your experiences and for another invaluable blog article.
Very useful to keep in mind! Thanks for the great post. 🙂
Also, I’ve named you for a blog award!
Nothing better than opening a Blog to Elizabeth Hurley in red leather. Oh wait, I get the reference of the prologue as a temptress that can lead us down the road of pain and disappointment.
The prologue has often screwed with me when I have an opening I want but it always seems too long. I never liked prologues that go on forever. I’m a firm believer of build the backstory in the story. Maybe it’s just me, but I like to reveal (or if I’m the reader, to discover) the new world as I go. Too much world building too early is like introducing too many characters early on. Mind boggling.
I do like the introduction of the villain idea. Keeping it short and mysterious but revealing how bad things could end up builds suspense. I must try that.
Never having been a great fan of prologues, I have no argument with you listing seven sins and only two virtues. I agree that there should be very limited use of prologues. After all, this is not yet another synopsis! Hook the reader in the first line of the first chapter, as in “It was the worst of times, and it was the best of times.” Maybe an overused example, but still applicable, I say.
I think a prologue, if done well, will move the story forward. It has to be told in an active voice and pull the reader in. Some get carried away with prologues and information dumps. One author I love is James Michener – but his books take two hundred pages to get to the main plot – some even start at the first cell. This was informative and I appreciated the links to the other posts.
Nice post. I was freaked until I got to the part where it’s okay to use a prologue when going from say the 14th century to the 21st century- which I have done…but now I am questioning eveb that. Merde!
An exception would be the Twilight prologue, written, IMO, with the sole purpose of hooking readers. It worked, though most likely because at one page in length, few people probably skipped it.
I’ve heard many knowledgeable people decry the use of prologues, but until today, I’ve never heard anyone point out that readers tend to skip them.
Frankly, that settles it for me! Case closed,
I’ve never written a prologue before in my life until I began my WIP, and it fits the story and what I want to do with (or to! ) the characters, so I’m going to keep it.
Me too Evangeline! I had my book assessed and the professional assessor advised me to lose the prologue. But I believe it adds depth and another aspect to the story I can’t present otherwise. So it stays. This is my first prologue also and I don’t intend to use this device with every book I write but I preserve the option of using it when I deem fit.
Great post on prologues. I have attempted it once. Your post offers a lot for me to consider the next time around.
I had a prologue, hen changed it to ‘Eleven Hours Earlier’. Still not sure if I’m going to move it to Chapter One.
My two cents worth – make it Chapter 2
Excellent article and very useful for the ms I’m working on now. Gave me lots to think about. Thanks!
Awesome article. Thanks. I hadn’t thought much about the positive of prologues, but the ones you presented are great.
I’m trying to decide if I should have a prologue or not. It’s the only way my novel will make sense. It also does not commit any of the sins you present, and it meets the two virtues (more the second one). But once I finish writing the novel, I will have a better idea about how to write it into the story or if I should have a prologue. I never noticed that before about the first book in the Harry Potter series. Thanks for pointing that out.
What I like about reading Kristen’s blog is she either shows me how far off I am in left field, or that I’m not doing as bad as I thought. This post in particular was very useful and eye-opening. She’s right on the money with her “a prologue shouldn’t be world building comment”–a concept I have struggled against myself a few times, and appreciate being reminded of. Thanks Kristen!
Reblogged this on Drifter and commented:
Kristen Lamb’s blog is an excellent resource for any aspiring writer, and even the professionals! If you’re not following her, and you are or want to be a writer, start following her today! You won’t regret it.
Reblogged this on My Passion's Pen and commented:
I had started writing a ranty-ragey post about my frustration with prologues in the romance books I’ve recently read; however, in my search for supporting evidence for why prologues are bad, I came across this post. Kristen, as per usual, explains this topic with tact and clarity.
Bookmark this. Print it. Post it wherever you write. This is valuable information.
Reblogged this on My Fifth Journal and commented:
I was struggling with whether or not to do a prologue. I had one in mind. My gut says “do it!”
Reblogged this on Sound Bites with TyCobbsTeeth.
If you say never or if you say always you’re really saying formula.
When things are done well, a prologue is beautiful. “The Book Thief” has a prologue, and it’s one of the best I have read. My new novel begins with a prologue. Go with your gut. Interesting post.
Reblogged this on Publishing Prowess.
This article was great. I have been asked to write an auto biography for someone and trying to decide if a prologue is essential to the beginning or not has been tough. I think it could work, since there will be a significant time lapse between what I include in the prologue and where chapter 1 starts out. It feels like the “write” thing to do…..Thanks for the input!
Take this brain wrinkle, I ripped out my dream sequence, revised it, turned it into a prolong hated, it revised it again set in ‘now’ time and ta da the chapter one that was missing. 😀 It wasn’t to hard. The hook however … well thats another thing altogether.:P
Great article. I stumbled on this post when I was googling to find out how long a prologue should be. Now I wonder if I should have a prologue at all. Gotta read those other blogs you linked and decide what is best for my story.
Beta readers are great for this, too. Have them read it with and without then vote what they preferred. Glad to help!
Has anyone ever thought that this whole concept (of the “evil” Prologue) only really applies to editors and wannabe writers? i.e. those who’ve given it too much thought.
As a reader, mainly of horror and fantasy (but having delved into a mixture of all sorts at some point or another), I have never even considered skipping a Prologue. If a Prologue is poor, it’s generally a fair indication the book will be poor. If Chapter One is poor, ditto.
You read a book to immerse yourself for a time in that world. You don’t read a book with preformed prejudices relating to a literary device that is simply another vehicle of storytelling. I must be the odd one out in that the Prologues I’ve read have never really left a bad impression on me (no more so than the rest of said novel), but now I suspect I’ll have a little niggling voice each time I read one that says: “beware ye fool a prologue beckons… an insane author this way comes…”
Anyhoo, just my tuppence worth. O and I notice I’m around a year or so late with my reply 🙂
Just remember as a reader you are, for the most part, seeing prologues that we (editors) would consider good. This blog caters to those who are creating the final product you enjoy, but there is a LOT of content that will end up on the cutting floor 😉 .
I’m in the middle of writing a novel, and I decided a prologue would be a good thing. Now after reading this, I’m not so sure…
Currently, my prologue takes place in 2003 – fifty years before the “beginning” of the story so I have the time jump thing going for me. I wanted to set up that the main couple was given a gift of all the letters written to each other throughout their relationship and reveal the contents of these letters throughout the rest of the story. I feel at this point that I’m falling into the trap of giving away too much information too soon and can easily find a way to weave the excess into the “real time” storyline. However, I feel the gift idea is essential to tying everything together and allows for a through line in the story.
Would it work better if I flipped my idea and made the gift giving portion an epilogue? Is the tying together of loose ends more of an epilogue thing than a prologue thing anyway?
I love reading long information dumps in fiction, as written already Victor Hugo and Herman Melville. Consequently, I will never be deterred from writing lengthy fourth-wall-breaking and information-dumpiong prologues, metalogues, and epilogues on my own. Those who don’t like it don’t have to read my story.
This definitely reassures me that my prologue is necessary. I was a little unsure at first, but now I know my purpose is correct. I am just really wondering how long should it be. I understand that it needs to be short, but can it be around three pages or is that just going to make people angry.
So I used a prologue to introduce an unnamed character and the awful situation she is in. I didn’t want to get too much into it just a hint to a more formal and complicated introduction in later chapters. If I want someone to read it, and it’s only a page long should I still use it as a prologue?
can a prologue be used for a book of poetry. The poems are a compilation written about the subject in the prologue
That would be an Intro or a Foreword, not a prologue.
I’ve read this post about prologues with interest. However it has served to make me feel lousy because MY prologue is much longer than you advise, approx 6200 words. In my defense, its purpose is to give the reader the how and why (as well as the date, thirty five years prior to present day) for the murder and other crimes that take place. It’s just not possible to shorten it without sorely short changing the importance of the incident–another murder–and how they relate to the present day story. Now I wonder if I should just begin the book with this ‘prologue’ as Chapter 1 with a race forward in time by Chapter 2? Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.
What genre? Could answer better knowing this.
The genre is mystery/suspense.
I would make it Chapter One and label it with a date or something like 35 Years Ago. This gets into the mystery and makes it clear the past is salient to what is going on today and less chance being skipped. Hope that helps!
Thank you for the advice Kristen
I enjoyed reading this article as I’m struggling to decide if I should throw a prologue in my latest book. I’m leaning towards putting it in. I usually include a preface or introduction but for this book I’m managed to leave both of these out (I’m proud of myself) Maybe I should stay on course and leave out the prologue too … jury still out on this one …
Thanks for the tips! my prologue was getting pretty long, and I wasn’t sure if I should continue it as is or just make it a chapter. The thing is, it’s one of those time jumps. Chapter one takes place about three years later after what happens in the prologue, so i’m hoping it’s ok? I may just have to cut out some of it and make things a bit shorter. 😉