Prologues are one of the most asked-about subjects in the publishingosphere. Do agents like them? Should I include mine in a partial? How many people dying at the hands of zombie mutants in the first page of my prologue is too many? And so on.
My post on all things prologue is here. But what I am curious about today is: do you like prologues? How strongly do you feel about them either way? Do your feelings run hot, cold, or lukewarm?
If you’re reading via a feed reader or by e-mail you’ll need to click through to see the poll.
I do not get the hatred of prologues. It's just another part of the book! Its just like… more story for free!! ????? And if everyone supposedly hates prologues, now come every fantasy I pick up (my genre!) has one?!
Angelica Weatherby says
Usually if it's a stand alone novel I never read the prologue. However if it's in a series I can see where a prologue is helpful. I've decided a prologue is useless in any books I've written though. Still have a lot to learn.
I love well-written books, prologue or no prologue — if it's there I'll read it. It all hinges on the quality of the writing for me.
I like prologues when they're a little bit of story. I tolerate them if they're telling me something about the world and they're short (an example is the brief intro in the Pern books, which is basically there to tell you the dragons are science fiction).
Unfortunately, most prologues in SFF are the boring infodump variety (and usually a really long infodump). You couldn't call them 'chapter one' and get away with it, because it's obvious they're intended as an infodump rather than a piece of story. I don't like that sort.
Emily Anderson says
It depends on the point of a prologue. I can't stand prologues that are a tease about what comes later in the novel. But if they're information from a different point of view or a different time or anything you're not going to get from the MC in the story told in the novel, I don't always mind them. If they work. It's like with a lot of rules about writing: in general, avoid prologues, but if it works for your novel, use it. Some books with good prologues: Unwind, Sabriel, Fire, The Book Thief (can you tell i write YA?). I liked the comment about the first chapter in Sorcerer's Stone basically being a prologue but shown as chapter one (same goes for Half-blood Prince). And like some have mentioned, they can't be long.
My first and only attempt at a novel has a prologue (and 3 chapters so far).
The prologue has been revised. At first all I did was to introduce my main character, set the theme of the story by having her eccentric (but lovable) uncle arrive at her middle school graduation party with a bouquet of dandelions and some cryptic philosophy. And we see a bit more backstory when her dad gives her a used Fender P-Bass.
After months online reading writing advice, most of which I rejected, I accepted the advice about having an attention-grabbing opening, and decided mine failed. So, I wrote a flash-forward to very near the climax of the story. Our girl, and her band, Dandelion Lawn, are onstage at the Wood City Civic Areana, opening for well-known Midwest rockers Northern Heart.
Afte their first encore, the crowd takes up the chant "Forest Fire, Forest Fire!" The song that got her kicked out of exclusive Forest Academy, and almost sent to jail! The song they haven't played in almost two years.
She decides there and then that the music is no longer enough – she wants people to know their story.
Transition to the rest of prologue as originally written.
P.S. I plan to revise the graduation party scene further to establish that she has a brother Chip serving in Iraq. He will die from an IED during early fall of her freshman year.
I just start at the beginning regardless of whether it says Prologue or Chapter 1. It amazes me how many people skip the prologue.
I'll start on page 1 but one time – i did wonder whether to skip the prologue but that particular prologue was interesting.
I think prologue's could be like voiceovers in tv and show that another part of the writing is off but sometimes it works to have the prologue.
I once read one of Alex Rider novels by Anthony Horowitz and for the first time it had a prologue. The prologue was about Alex's dad so didn't quite fit into the main novel and happened 13/4 years before the action of the main story and was vital in showing characterisation and the motivation of a character later in the story so to all those naysayers about prologues – sometime they have their place and shouldn't just be chapter 1. A piece of information that is important enough to go in but does not fit with the main story should be a prologue and not chapter 1 but they need to be done well.
For my taste, if a prologue is absolutely necessary then OK. But only 2-2 1/2 pages of fast-paced action, even if the work is produced in a literary style. A lot of back story and explanation is not for me.
I once read a historical novel where the author put the back story in the first third of the book, after the first 30 pages. After another 30 pages of this I put the book down and never went back to it. I kept wanting to get back to the real story. I suspect the author originally placed this portion as the prologue (the book didn't officially have one) but when her editor pointed out that it was too long to be a prologue and "Do you really need one? where does your story start?" the author thought that putting it into the book as a chapter (a very long one, too) was a clever way of saving it, which was needed to have the story make sense. But this structure seemed to me ill-conceived. Some of that back story could have been woven in as blurbs or into the dialog.
Anyway, my point is if the story needs an info dump as a prologue, a back story, or extraneous info in order to ground the reader for chapter one, then I think the story hasn't been honed well enough and it ought to go back to the drawing board and structured a little better.
Typically, if prologues are included they are necessary in some way. You can't say that they didn't include it in the book. It is in the book. It's in the prologue.
They are events that happen well before the beginning of the story. Sometimes they set up mood. Sometimes they give necessary information (like in a fantasy book you often see them as set up for a prophesy that was written thousands of years before, or used like a flashback). I don't think that they should be longer than a page or two though.
I chose option 3 because when they are well done, they're interesting and important. If they're poorly done, it can be distracting. Either way, the author did include it in the book.
I sometimes (not always) put a "prologue" of something that happens years before the start of the actual book and gives some indsight on a character or foreshadows the rest… sort of a short story before the actual novel. Do you think it could work?
India Drummond says
I think it's important to put something as a prologue if it's out of character with the rest of the book, like a flashback, a dream… something like that. I see this a lot in spec fiction.
I would never put the word PROLOGUE above it though. I've heard too many people say they skip them! Eeeek!
Wordy Birdie says
Although I prefer to start with chapter one in my own writing, it does essentially depend on how good the prologue is. But in my line of work I see so many irrelevant, misplaced, jarring, and obscure prologues to be wary (and a little irritated) by them all. What I'm seeing more and more in unpublished work is the 'preface,' which I find off-putting in too many ways to list here, (especially when there's a prologue after it, too).
Nathan, would it be possible for there to be a sort of definition discussion of the differences between prologues, prefaces, forwards, introductions etc.
I don't generally love prologues, as a reader or a writer, but they have their place. For me, a prologue works when there's information that isn't part of the forward moving story arc that's necessary for the reader to know. I don't like the data-dump type of prologues either, though, with all the backstory; it has to be delicately handled, in my opinion.
I use a prologue in the rough draft of my fantasy novel, and it can go or not in revisions, but I do think it gives a helpful handle on other happenings in the world beside my MC's narrow viewpoint. It's the scene where her father dies, before she's ever born, and she's lied to about it – so I think the prologue helps set that up. But it doesn't belong as chapter one, because it's fifteen years before and not part of the "story" once it takes off, kwim? You can certainly argue the point, though.
Cynthia Wilson says
I'm using a prologue in a work-in-process to tell the reader something that the main character doesn't know in order to build tension.
I recently read a book that would have benefitted from a prologue. The beginning of the book was really hard to follow. If another reader hadn't told me that it was about a human with an alien inside her, I would have been lost.
That all being said, I voted that it depends on how "good" the prologue is, but I think it's whether or not the prologue is needed.
I have never understood the loathing for prologues. (And those people who say they don't even read them??? Hello! They're not the author's introduction–this is the start of the story!) I totally see their worth in the grand set-up of a book.
But I've found that prologues work best in thriller-type books. The promise of things to come. A thriller does need that Ordinary World set-up, and getting tortured/dismembered/psychologically played with in Ch. 1 makes me, the reader, feel a bit off-kilter. But a prologue with that bad stuff? Or the prologue in the killer's point of view? Maybe cliche, but I loves it!
I can tell you one author who would have benefitted greatly from a prologue–Judith McNaught (massive bestseller). She started at a wedding on Ch. 1, then had the girl think about what led up to that wedding for 200 PAGES OF BACKSTORY!
I think she was afraid to use a prologue (because of this inane fear of prologues). And the telling of the book suffered a bit because of it.
After reading most the responses, I have a question for you, Nathan.
Do you think that most agents' fear of prologues come from reading so many bad ones? And has this fear rubbed off on the writing community to the point that many hate them because that's what they're supposed to do, even though (when you truly get down to it) they don't know the difference between a prologue, a preface, and an introduction??
I tell my writing students to avoid semicolons if possible until they know how to use them properly–a misused semicolon is the surest way to screw up the credibility of a paper.
Is the prologue the agent's semicolon?
I like prologues as long as they're crisp and short. A good one is a great teaser for the story to come.
L.R. Giles says
I find it odd to apply a hard and fast rule to anything in writing. 'Prologues are bad/unnecessary', 'The story should always begin in Chapter 1'…it all depends. We read things about Big Publishing looking for a new, original voice…that being said, that new original voice may need a prologue for their blockbuster bestseller, or maybe they don't. A number of my favorite books have prologues, while others favorites start a chapter 1. As I've seen most agents post in their blogs, isn't good writing the key?
I don't like prologues in any shape or form, period. Even — especially!! — when they're well-written, all prologues are standalone things, followed by a huge jump in time, space, POV, etc. You've just tuned in to follow a good story when you're torn away from it and relocated to a totally different setting (often in a very different style and even genre), and you have to start tuning in all over again! No, thank you very much 🙂 Absolutely no prologues for me.
K.L. Brady says
I have never read a prologue to my knowledge. If I did, it was by accident. I figure the important stuff is in chapter one.
Ironically, I started the sequel to one book with a prologue and then nixed it because I realized I wouldn't even read it if I bought my own book. lol
I'm firmly anti-prologue.
Christi Goddard says
I don't understand the venom against prologues. Most of my favorite stories have them. I enjoy anything extra an artist can give me, whether it's deleted scenes on a DVD from a movie or a scene that happened ten years prior to the actual story that follows the prologue. To say that all prologues are the creation of lazy writers is like saying all *insert stereotype person* likes *stereotype thing* because they are *stereotype*. Most stories don't need a prologue because the story is self-contained. But sometimes a story is so vast and complex, a bit of a heads up is needed for a reader.
K Simmons says
It doesn't depend on how good the prologue is, it depends on whether the story requires a prologue. Some do, some don't. I see no point in stripping out a prologue that you (the author) think serves an important purpose in a story, at least not before an agent or editor sees it. If the general feedback is to cut it, then obviously it's time to reassess how important you think that prologue is. But I view this question the same way I view writing to a hot trend – ultimately, your success comes from writing your story, not what other people think your story should be.
Joseph L. Selby says
Sometimes I think prologues can just be chapter 1 or just dropped all together. Sometimes they create a good frame of reference for the author but not the reader, in which case the author can write it, use it, but when he's finished drop it.
Pat Rothfuss' prologue to THE NAME OF THE WIND is the greatest prologue I've ever read. Ever.
Jane Harmony says
I voted on it depending on how good the prologue is.
In my first and second drafts, I took about two chapters to convey some background to the story. It was really slow (though it had its moments), and there was a lot that was unimportant.
So I changed it to a first-person present-tense, italicized preface, only writing the "moments" and I'm so glad I did. It's more exciting, and it sets up the conflict a lot faster. This is probably the best move I have made.
However – I don't think every book needs a preface. Actually, if every book had a preface, we could call it…Chapter 1.
Watery Tart says
I think it depends a lot on the genre of the book, and frankly, I LOVE the idea that the prologue can be from another PoV than the rest of the book–I don't see it as lazy at all if used right. I like a mystery where it gives what the rest is pulling toward, or suspense where the reader gets a hint just how dark things ARE.
Probably YA isn't the place for them… no matter how much I love prologues, neither of my kids has ever been willing to listen to one (or read one)–they are for a better attention span, I guess.
The blanket "all prologues are bad" statements are amusing. I've read some realy bad prologues and I've read some very good ones.
The best ones in my mind (or at least for the types of books I read) serve as a hook or set up a mystery that the protagonist can't know about in chapter 1. For books written in very limited 3rd person with only one or a few POV narrators, a prologue can give the reader a glimpse into something the POV characters won't see for a hundred pages or more. It can create suspense, letting the reader glimpse the shadow at the end of the tunnel that's await the hero(ine).
Most books don't need prologues, but some books can use them to great effect.
I think part of the dislike of prologues stems from the fact that most aren't very good or are, good or bad, are unnecessary. But sometimes, they're brilliant. I love the prologue from Steinbeck's "Sweet Thursday," for example.
The rare good prologue is from a different POV, and might contain some sort of setup, like something that happened centuries before. It is not an info dump, but more like a very short story on its own.
Now epilogues–I hate epilogues, especially the kind that tell you what happened to every character years later. So many good books have been spoiled by those.
Debra L. Schubert says
I almost always like them. Love an appetizer before the meal.
Jill Elizabeth says
Liberty Speidel–I agree. I have a prologue in my current WIP. I call it chapter 1.
John C says
It's a shame nobody seems to have an opinion or bothered sharing their thoughts about prologues.
I prefer epiprologues which appear at the center of the novel, are usually told in 2nd person perspective, and generally attempt to insult the reader with comments about their questionable legitimacy, oral hygiene, and toe fungus.
Reena Jacobs says
I don't mind prologues which are purposeful. For example, if it explains how a house became haunted (two children were murdered and buried in the basement). Then chapter 1 begins with the new family moving in. I like that. It's just a little back story which answers questions a writer doesn't want to put in the main story for whatever reason.
What I don't like are prologues which really aren't prologues. For example, an italicized prologue which seems like it'll explain something later in the novel, only to find the writer has italicized whole chapters within the novel which continue the story of the prologue. That's not a prologue; it's a separate story meshed in with the main plot. Personally, I think it's deceptive.
I've read my share of bad prologues (preambles, preludes,prefaces, etc), but when they work, they work. I can't condemn a whole novel because someone's style preference is to include a prologue. Plus, I just love getting a lil morsel before the real show starts. As I've seen a lot of people state in the comments, my favorites are the ones that come from a different voice/character than the protagonist.
So…how would you borderline pro-prologuers feel about a scene that happens over 50 years after the main action of the novel? So it's like an epilogue-ish prologue thingy.
Alright… yay prologues! the end.
Also! Also! I read a lot of complaints about prologues being a trust-deterrent for readers, BUT I like to see more than one side of a writer. For me, it demonstrates control and precision when an author contrasts the voice in the prologue with the voice of the novel, especially if writing the the rest of the novel in first person or an intimate 3rd person.
Amy Lundebrek says
I think the well-written prologue can be a tasty morsel to ease into an epic science fiction or fantasy novel. But then again, if you are writing something that can be described as both "well-written" and "epic," you'll probably already know whether or not your intended prologue will work.
I'd say in most other cases it should either be cut, or it should be chapter one.
Prologues have never bothered me. Honestly while reading I never put much thought into them.
Forwards & any form of explanatory letter before a novel…now those are another story
Amy Lundebrek says
The other thing about a prologue is that if it's well done, you can either read it or skip it. If you read it, your experience of the story will be slightly enriched, if you don't it's no big deal. I am sad that some people won't even read a book if they see it has a prologue.
I chose option 3. For me, a good prologue will set up a question or a scene that you want answered or to know more about by reading the subsequent chapters. It's a teaser. They don't always work, however, and that's where the problem lies.
Samantha Royce says
I voted that it depends on how good the prologue is. It also depends sometimes on the chronology and structure of the story. Think "Love in the Time of Cholera." (Although now that I do think of it, I don't think "Love in the Time of Cholera" actually has a prologue. Hmmmm…)
David Kubicek says
I voted that it depends on how good the prologue is, but I can't think of many situations where a prologue is necessary. If it's to provide back story, I would work it into the novel later. If it's to provide action, character development, etc., why not call it Chapter 1?
Amanda Sablan says
If there's a good reason for a prologue, then sure, throw it in there. The problem is that some prologues don't feel necessary, as if they're just there to take up space because the info. provided isn't too important and/or could be placed elsewhere in the novel.
Ishta Mercurio says
Without reading any of the comments, because it is LATE and I have a big day tomorrow (but I will read over the weekend):
It depends on how good the prologue is. I hate prologues that are actually an excerpt from later in the book; that's cheating the reader out of the pleasure of not knowing what is coming next, and it isn't a prologue anyway, it's a trailer (or, as we call it when we go to the movies, a preview or a teaser). Besides, if I'm holding the book, I can just flip through it to find the exciting parts anyway if I need to know that there are exciting parts before I'll commit to reading the book. No need to just paste them onto the first page.
I also hate prologues that are really the author talking about how they wrote the book, or why they wrote the book, or whatever. I just want to read the book, and if I want that other stuff, I'll look for an appendix. And if I need to know why or how an author wrote a book in order to properly appreciate the book, the book probably wasn't written as well as it could have been.
I really like prologues that give us some important backstory – for example, if the book starts when the MC is 16, but we need to know that the MC was raped by her uncle at the age of 9, I wouldn't mind a prologue that showed that happening so that we are grounded in this important part of who our MC is.
Claire Dawn says
One of my WIPs has a prologue. It's a war scene which occurs a decade before the rest of the action. While it is set up, it is fast-paced and interesting. In fact it's so good, that I had to start upgrading the rest of the book after I added it! lol!
IMO, a prologue should show us a scene we would otherwise not have seen, but it shouldn't be an info dump. A trend I've noticed of late is the prologue, which isn't really a PROlogue, but actually something which happens somewhere near the climax of the story. I'm a pretty impatient person, so knowing what's going to happen, but not how it happens, usually just bugs me.
I tend to skim through prologues because they don't make much sense at the beginning. But I always go back at the end to read them again. At that point the prologues are really interesting. And I think it's because the author writes his/her prologue after the novel is finished and of course knows exactly what the story is about.
Tiger Princess says
I decided long ago that I liked prologues.
I feel that a prologue should be part of your writing style and not just a tool.
But at the same time, your prologue should be useful in someway, not just an info dump. I like to use mine to set up the story in some way…
…and I also like to make sure that they hook the reader into chapter one. They should be short and sweet as well. The days of having a chapter long prologue have disappeared.
I suppose, in the end, the choice to have a prologue is a personal one!
It depends. Some Prologues seem to kill the book, sometimes I wonder why others are there to begin with, and some are actually very well done.
Samantha G says
I'm a bit late on this post, I know. But I keep reading on how agents hate prologues calling them something lazy that couldn't fit somewhere else in the book. I have therefore, just changed my prologue to chapter one and I will work around the fact that it currently does not fit. I will MAKE it fit. I will not be called lazy and I WILL make my book marketable to a wider audience.
Believing in yourself is the first secret to success. Thanks for sharing your knowledge 🙂