To Prologue or Not To Prologue

I was asked recently about my thoughts on prologues. Prologues are those pre-chapter chapters in some books that serve as an introduction into the story. The prologue’s purpose is generally to provide a backstory to the main story, and/or to give some insight into one of the characters, or the prologue will give some insight into the plot. In effect, the prologue allows the author to begin their story twice, at two different points in time.

A good example of a well-written prologue is Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity where the inciting Incident is Bourne waking up with amnesia and having to remember the events in the prologue.

Prologues seem most prevalent in crime fiction such as the Bourne books,  and fantasy novels where they describe the other world.

Let’s be clear upfront. I am not a fan of the prologue most of the time. Because prologue is usually backstory that could be spoon fed to the reader in small bites during important moments of the story, I find them unnecessary. I might even be anti-prologue. I reserve the right to change my mind at a later time, but in this moment, I usually find them a waste of time and I don’t want to read them.

Consequently, if you’ve written a prologue, I have some questions for you.

  • Do you genuinely need a prologue in your story?
  • Why?
  • Are you sure?
  • Can you give the reader the information contained in the prologue elsewhere in your novel? Yes? Delete your prologue and add the information elsewhere in your novel.
  • What does your prologue do for your story? This is important. Make sure you can answer this question. If you can’t, you may want to re-think having a prologue.
  • If you genuinely need it, is your prologue written well? No? Re-write it.
  • Is your prologue boring? Revise it.
  • Is your prologue an information dump? Ugh. Delete it. Please.

If you are going to write a prologue, do make sure that it is essential to the story. It must contribute to the plot, and not be a device to inform the reader of some bit of information because you are being a lazy writer.

  • If you leave the prologue out, how does that effect the story? It doesn’t? Delete it.
  • Will anyone notice if it’s not there? No? Delete it.
  • Are you using your prologue to introduce your main character? Delete it. Introduce your main character in your novel.

If you truly need a prologue, make sure you do it well.

  • Grab the reader’s attention with a hook in the first couple of sentences.
  • Make sure the prologue somehow foreshadows events in the novel.
  • If the prologue’s purpose is to showcase the inciting incident, make sure it is pertinent information that piques the reader’s interest.
  • Make it evocative with sensory information, setting, mood, etc.
  • Make the prologue dynamic.
  • Your prologue should be structured like a mini-story with a beginning and middle and a hook ending.
  • Do not drone on with boring backstory, I beg of you.
  • Illustrate useful information that is necessary for the reader to understand the novel.
  • If the prologue is from the protagonist’s past, make sure that it’s important and has an effect on the current protagonist. Think about a movie for a moment. Think of Raider of the Lost Arc. No one knew why Indiana Jones hated snakes and didn’t find that out until two movies later. If that WHY sequence had been in Raiders of the Lost Arc it would have dragged the story down. Don’t drag the story down. The fact that Indy hated snakes was intriguing, but it didn’t take away from the story that the backstory of Indy’s hate was absent.
  • Ensure that your prologue is not too long.

If you are going to write a prologue, study prologues written by master authors. Make sure your prologue is there for a reason. Do your best. Work hard. I’d love you to change my mind about prologues.

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