To Prologue or NOT To Prologue? That is the Question

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, via Mikko Luntiala

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, via Mikko Luntiala

Publishing, like most other things, is not immune to fashion. This is what makes teaching craft a moving target. What is en vogue today could be passé tomorrow. And yes we are artists, but I believe most of us are artists who’ve grown rather fond of eating. This means we do need to keep audience tastes in mind when we are “creating” since they will be the ones who fork over cold hard cash.

Today we will touch on a question I get a lot from new writers.

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.

Before we get started, I will say that genre often dictates whether or not to use a prologue. But, keep in mind that, even if our genre—I.e. thriller—allows for a common use of prologues, it still is wise to learn to do them well 😉 .

So without further ado…

The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues

Sin #1 If your prologue is really just a vehicle for massive information dump…

This is one of the reasons I recommend writing detailed backgrounds of all main characters before we begin (especially when we are new writers). Get all of that precious backstory out of your 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…unless you are my mother’s Scandinavian family and then they make soup *shivers*.

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 our prologue is to hook the reader, then we have just effectively shot ourselves in the foot. We must have a great hook in a prologue, but then we need to also have a hook in Chapter One. If we 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 our 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 or really should have just been Chapter One.

Sin #5 If your prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story…

Pretty self-explanatory.

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…”

We 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.

Virtue #1

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 pivotal for understanding all that is to follow.

Prologues are used a lot in thrillers and mysteries to see the crime or event that sets off the story. Readers of these genres have been trained to read prologues and generally won’t skip. The serial killer dumping his latest victim is important to the story. It’s a genre thing. Yet, still? Keep it brief. Reveal too much and readers won’t want to turn pages to learn more.

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 :P . 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?

But, don’t take my word for it. Over the ages, I’ve collected great blogs regarding prologues to help you guys become stronger in your craft. These are older posts, but timeless:

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.

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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    • Rachel Thompson on September 22, 2015 at 9:31 am
    • Reply

    Yup, well stated. If it makes you feel better write one, then leave it out.

  1. Timely article in that a friend just gave me her prologue. I am now copying the link to her so she can decide for herself the relevant risks and rewards. Thank you.

  2. Reblogged this on authorkdrose and commented:
    Prologues Yep, I skip right over them unless literally the very first sentence in the prologue hooks me. Read Kristen’s take.

  3. I have both a prologue, (4 pages) and an epilogue, (also 4 pages). The prologue is set in 2048. One of my main characters, at an advanced age and with failing memory, finds the diary of his lost love in the attic in order to try and remember her better. The main bulk of the book is her diary set in 2009. The epilogue is what happens after he puts the book down in 2048. I don’t think that breaks any of the cardinal sins, does it? 🙂

    1. No idea, but I will say that prologues and epilogues are not used nearly as much as they used to be.

      1. By the way, it’s a time travel/fantasy/love story 🙂

  4. Reblogged this on Alice White Author and commented:
    Kristen Lamb gives some great insight into prologues.

  5. I am reading books right now from a myriad of NY Times #1 bestselling authors. I’m astounded that these books have prologues because of the “don’t-you-dare-do-it” rap. If a prologue is needed, write one. When I asked Robert Crais about them, he said, “Sure you can write a prologue, just don’t write a bad one.”

    Sandra Brown has one of the best prologues ever in “Envy.” Brad Thor in “Code of Conduct” has a prologue. Catriona McPherson, “Child Garden” has a :: gasp:: prologue. Grant McKenzie’s, “Speak the Dead” doesn’t list a prologue, his book simply begins “Twenty Five Years Ago.”

    And don’t even get me started on Harlan Coben, he simply inserts an opening without a label. Stop tying writers’ hands with this it’s-not-done philosophy. Storytelling comes in all shapes and sizes and muses. If someone doesn’t understand craft, his book won’t do well. But if a person does understand craft, it’s his story–don’t stifle his genius before he even gets started. “Sure you can write a prologue, just down write a bad one.”

    1. I don’t feel I am tying anyone’s hands. I stated genre will dictate prologue use and most of the authors you mentioned are genres that commonly use prologues. I agree. Write one if needed just write a good one 😀 .

  6. helpful, thank you!

  7. I do tend to skip over prologue’s because the author is usually guilty of Sin #2 (What was the point?), Sin # 4 (a 50-page prologue? REALLY?!?!?), and finally Sin #3 (the prologue was the best thing about the book – it went downhill from there).

  8. What I like to do is write some of the backstory elements in narrative form (like a separate short story) and see if it matters. If it does, it might go as a prologue. If not, I have my precious and the reader doesn’t have to be bored.

  9. I have written prologues as part of rough drafts, but always cut them off prior to publishing…. very convenient place to store information while in the creative stage 😉

  10. Reblogged this on Mystery and Romance.

  11. I loved the time-lapse virtue and using J.K. Rowling as an example. Leads me to wondering what would have happened with The Sorcerer’s Stone had that first portion been a prologue rather than a Chapter 1. Either a lot of confused readers or a new generation of young writers who would have mimicked Rowling’s choice of using a prologue in their own work. What kind of alternate reality would that have been?

  12. Wow, I’m so glad I read this. Clearly I’m out of the loop. It would never occur to me to not read a prologue, or to assume that anyone else skipped it. After reading all the links you included, the lesson I’m hearing is, “Some people will skip your prologue no matter how good it is, and they will never know or care what they missed. So just call it chapter 1, even if it fits all the characteristics that make a good prologue.”

  13. I always read the prologue. It wouldn’t occur to me to skip it. Am I really in the minority? I actually thought prologues are a good way to introduce the antagonistic force that the protagonist will eventually face. Like in Star Wars, where we meet Darth Vader as he takes Princess Leia and her ship captive. That was a great hook.

    1. It’s hard to tell if we’re in the minority or if the Hate Prologue camp is simply louder.

      I’m so gratified to hear the way you phrased that — introducing the antagonistic force the protagonist will eventually face — because that’s what I do in my prologue. (whew) So at least you would read my prologue.

      1. I would read your prologue, Joy! But a market of 1 person isn’t enough…… 😉

    2. Depends on the genres you like to read. Thrillers, suspense and mystery commonly use prologues so you might not be trained as much to skip them. Other genres don’t use them as much and as I said, prologues aren’t bad, it’s because so many writers didn’t do them well that gave them a bad rap.

      1. Right, and lob epic fantasy on the pile (how often is there a bad guy who’s been plotting for centuries, etc.). I’m horrified that anyone would consider skipping a prologue, but one of my most loyal readers did (fortunately, he read all my stuff three times!). And it would be odd, to me, to see a Prologue in a book set in the Alleged Real World.
        But skip it? Why did you buy the book then?
        Brilliant post, totally stealing.

      2. Thank you for your response, Kristen! I guess I’ll just do what you recommended and avoid the hassle. Whatever I end up submitting will just have a “Chapter 1” instead of a “Prologue.” It doesn’t sound as if it’s worth the risk!

        1. Like I said, it seems to be a “style” thing. It is still essentially a “prologue” but readers just expect that to be Chapter One (I.e. the Harry Potter example). But trends change all the time in writing. Often an agent or editor will help you make the right call for where it should go or if it is even needed.

  14. An instructive post, as always!

    • Melissa Keaster on September 22, 2015 at 11:50 am
    • Reply

    I appreciate that you spoke on the virtues of prologues at all. In the end, I decided against one for my WIP, but it’s nice to know they have a place.

  15. The only question that you need to ask is… does it work?

  16. Reblogged this on Lori Beasley Bradley my writing and commented:
    This is a very informative piece.

  17. Reblogged this on ellDimensional and commented:
    Excellent points, excellent article. I’m definitely reconsidering my prologues, I don’t think I’ve ever written a story without one. I usually use one to set up the story, but I know I’ve flubbed up more than one (and many more). Thanks for the advice. I’ve always figured that if the prologue doesn’t set up the story, then there’s no reason for it.

    And it still surprises me that people don’t read prologues! I always found prologues to be one of the most important parts of a story, if the author chooses to have one.

  18. As a voice in the wilderness then, I’m a big fan of using a prologue. BUT in my opinion, it needs to be short ( no more that two pages max), and be a hook for the reader not an info dump.

    After all, what exactly is meant to be wrong with hooking the reader twice in a few pages (Prologue and Chapter one)? Done right, that’s twice the hit…

    Although I agree too many try and use them as mistimed info dumps where the info is better introduced in stages during the story – that’s why they have a bad reputation of course

  19. Yay! I wanna start my next novel with a prologue and it passed this acid test. Now to write it 😉

  20. Prologues used to be all but expected in fantasy. They’re was a time when I wouldn’t read a fantasy without a prologue (not entirely true, but almost). Robert Jordan ruined me on that with his fifty-page prologue to Eye of the World (I think that was the book).

    I’ve also heard recently that if you have a prologue you must have an epilogue and vice-versa. Now, I’ve seen lots of books with one or the other but not both. What are your thoughts on this idea?

    (BTW, I always read prologues and can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t.)

    1. I think these days it is just expected for it to be in the book as a chapter. I will admit that I have found the epilogues in Sue Grafton’s books very jarring. They were published in the 80s so things have changed. But the last chapter will be some knock-down-drag-out with the bad guy, her character will get shot or drugged or whatever and then the book ENDS. We finally find out who was arrested and what happened in the epilogue. Why not just make it the final chapter?

      I think we can do anything we want to if we do it well. I got to where I skipped prologues because so many of them were just poorly written. They were too long or not salient and more self-indulgence than necessity for the author. But this is why I write posts like these. If we can use this list as a litmus against a prologue and it PASSES? Use away!

  21. Great post. I totally agree that there is a place for a prologue and there doesn’t have to be one in every book we write.

    • jorgekafkazar on September 22, 2015 at 6:33 pm
    • Reply

    An informal poll on Goodreads revealed that with only one or two exceptions out of several dozen responses, readers DO read prologues. It’s forewords and introductions that they skip. A short, half-page opening that isn’t really Chapter One masquerading as a prologue is perfectly acceptable. There are no other rules. Or, at least, a half-page doesn’t give you much chance to violate them, assuming they exist.

    • elizabethellencarter on September 22, 2015 at 6:55 pm
    • Reply

    I’ve used prologues for my first three novels because they really worked for the scene setting and character motivation, but I completely agree that prologues have to justify their existence!

    Funnily enough I haven’t used a prologue in y current WIP, it just didn’t need it.

    As with everything prologues, chapter lengths, epilogues – it all has to serve a purpose of advancing the story and then bringing it to a satisfactory conclusion.

    • Raewyn Bright on September 22, 2015 at 7:08 pm
    • Reply

    I always read prologues but if they are boring or an info-dump then chapter one better be great – I’ve already decided at this point my enjoyment of the story and it’s then hard to be hooked after that.

    I think this is a genre thing also, I’ll read them quite happily in thrillers and fantasy. I do have a problem with prologues in romance, I’m struggling to think of one where it was necessary or good. I have the same issue with epilogues in romance, I’ll skim read these because they’re printed and I’m compelled to (I often read acknowledgements too?) but often see no value.

    gillmiller, I’ve read Robert Jordan’s series and still wonder what the point was of his prologues were – they never seemed to tie in with anything else happening and you never saw the characters again. Still read them though ??

    I work for an editor and after reading lots and lots and lots of ms, my opinion is they’re used predominantly by beginner writers. Usually they show an event in the hero or heroine’s past that leads to their inner wound – nothing that can’t be shown as the story unfolds.

    Best advice I’ve ever read for using a prologue is to finish your ms, then decide if a prologue is necessary. Most times it’s not.

  22. I have been playing with this for a while. My WIP starts with something that’s functionally a prologue, but structurally, it’s introducing a device that appears throughout the novel (class assignments from the YA MCs). I included it because a mentor indicated that the assignments started appearing partway through and it was disorienting, but my critique group is on the fence about including it because it feels prologuey. Interesting thoughts.

    • Jim on September 23, 2015 at 3:12 am
    • Reply

    I think prologues are fine, but if they’re more than a few short pages, aren’t they really just a summary of the previous book you haven’t written yet?

  23. I think it depends on the Genre. Fantasy has kind of an expectation to have prologues, especially wordy prologues. Especially in big Epic Fantasy. I think if you’re on the fence about it- Just don’t call it a prologue. Call it chapter one and move on. If it’s relevant to the story leave it, just call it something else.

  24. Eheh…all the advice about prologues I’ve ever received is “please just don’t.”
    But I just have a fondness for prologues and epilogues…It’s something I suppose I should get over. I put both in my current WIP originally, but was convinced to cut off the epilogue…my style for writing the prologue as recommended by my group was to make it include something of value on its own but not so important that when readers skip it, the story becomes confusing. But…well, in line with “kill your darlings”, even though I made what I feel is a well-crafted prologue, and as a section itself others agree I wrote it well, I think you’re probably right that in a way it’s still a fish head. Even if a really, really pretty fish head that does contain a tiny bit of unique information that makes the rest of the story more interesting. I guess that’s the last “Maybe you shouldn’t do a prologue” I need to cut mine off. /overly dramatic sigh

  25. Given the current “no prologue is a good prologue” mood, was torn about having a prologue.After reading all the pros and cons listed here, I see I made the right decision to include one. After I did, then read it and my first chapter back to back, it really made the first chapter POP.

  26. Great post !

  27. Thank you for this great, well balanced article. I am still revising a manuscript I think has too much backstory so seriously considering a prologue. Had to share this with writer friends on Facebook.

  28. Any more classes coming up? I have a feeling I seriously need some of them.

  29. Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    This is another great blog post which might help many writers. It’s written by Kristen Lamb and does answer a lot of my questions. I’m sure I won’t be the only author who learns a lot from this article.

  30. I always read the prologues. I can’t imagine skipping over them. Most hook me into the story and make me want to find out more.

  31. I read a lot of non-fiction and I habitually skip the Introduction, Preface, Foreword and what have you. So I don’t often read Prologues. I’m very much into real-time narrative and prefer watching everything unfold in front of me.

  32. The advice in your article is great and worth sharing with my fellow writers. I just came back from NYC having attended Writers Digest annual conference. Very mixed feelings on this subject between successfully published authors and agents. My take away, if you’re trying to get that debut novel, avoid it, if you have to call it chapter one. If already traditionally published, write what works best.

    • John Terpack on February 7, 2020 at 8:10 am
    • Reply

    I think the fact prologues are often skipped says more about the arrogance of readers than it says about prologues. They are a perfectly valid, useful, tool. That’s not to say they are *always* useful or well-executed. But skipping it basically says you know better than the author. I’m planning one for my current story because the only alternative is paragraphs of exposition scattered throughout the first few chapters. I know readers will have questions about some things. And the characters won’t always know the answers. When they do know the answers, it would take a contrived scene to cause them to explain it–like an adult “teaching” a child. Instead, I can answer all the questions and establish the setting in a few pages of prologue then let the story flow naturally.

  1. […] Kristen Lamb’s “To Prologue or NOT to Prologue? That is the Question” […]

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