I don't know why I'm thinking about prologues. Nothing I'm reading or writing has one. But I'm thinking about them, now you get to, too.

What is a Prologue?

It won't do much good to talk about prologues if we don't agree on what they are. In fiction, there are three things that make something a prologue: (1) it comes before the first chapter, (2) it is a part of the story (as opposed to an introduction, preface, or forward, which are about the story, but not part of it), and (3) it says "Prologue" at the top.

Simple, right? That's what makes something a prologue instead of, say, "Chapter One," but it doesn't explain what makes a good prologue. That's what this post is about.

When Not to Prologue

A lot of people don't like prologues. Some people skip them entirely (which, to me, is way wacky). That's because a lot of writers use prologues as a band-aid for a bad beginning. Which is to say:
  1. Don't use a prologue because you need a better beginning. Fix your beginning.
This is important. It's hard for a reader to get involved in a new story, with unfamiliar characters and situations. Adding a prologue requires the reader to start your story twice; when the prologue's over, your reader has to get into the rest of the story. So:
  1. Don't use a prologue just to suck the reader in. You'll only have to suck them in a second time when the prologue's over.
These prologues are trying to create artificial excitement. Some prologues have the opposite problem. Instead of providing an exciting false start, they begin with boring exposition because the author is afraid the reader will become lost without all the background.

Like every prologue, this creates two beginnings, but instead of Exciting followed by Flat, the expository prologue starts Flat, with the Exciting beginning buried beneath it. Sci-fi and fantasy are notorious for this. A good genre writer, though, is able to mix telling details into the story so they don't have to put it all up front in one big exposition. So:
  1. Don't use a prologue to explain the world or backstory or any other kind of telling exposition.
When to Prologue

Everybody has had a bad experience with prologues, but I don't think they're all bad. If used wisely, they can be quite effective. For example, sometimes a story is told entirely from one point of view, but you need to clue the reader into some event the protagonist never witnessed (and it needs the impact of being dramatized). In this case:
  1. Use a prologue to show a point of view that doesn't appear anywhere else, or doesn't appear until the end.
This can be especially effective in mysteries and thrillers, where there is tension behind the scenes that the protagonist is unaware of. Say the Villain shows up in a prologue, kills somebody (so we know he's bad), and says, "Where's Paul Protagonist? He's next!" Now, when we meet Paul in Chapter One, whatever he's doing will be flavored with this tension because we know someone's after him. So:
  1. Use a prologue to create tension that the protagonist is not immediately aware of.
Lastly, have you ever gotten into a story that was all dragons and swords and magic, only to discover that the evil villain is a space alien with his own spaceship? Genre blending like this can be done well, but if it's done poorly you end up sucker-punching the reader (helpful tip: readers don't appreciate being sucker-punched).

Orson Scott Card's Homecoming saga is about a low-tech society of people whose religious values are challenged by a boy that hears from God. This would be fine except it later turns out that the boy's God is an artificial intelligence orbiting the planet and watching over their society. That's the kind of thing that would make a reader throw the book across the room unless there's a prologue (in this case, from the AI's point of view) to show or hint at the truth of the situation. So:
  1. Use a prologue to manage the reader's expectations about your story.
Final Tip

The main point of all this is that a prologue isn't an easy way out of anything, least of all out of grabbing the reader's attention - that still needs to be done in Chapter One, whether there's a prologue or not. So how do you know if you need one, or if you're just being lazy? From Nathan Bransford:
  1. Take out the prologue. If the book makes sense without it, you don't need it.
Note it doesn't say, "If the book is boring without it, then put it back in." If the book is boring without the prologue, something's wrong with the book, and a prologue won't fix it. Remember, the reader will be spending most of their time in the book, not the prologue, so put most of your work there.

I have some additional examples in the comments. Feel free to add your own, good or bad (or even to contradict what I just said!).


Adam Heine said...

* A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. This prologue shows strange creatures, called The Others, killing a group of rangers on the borderlands. It establishes that (1) yes, this is fantasy (even though there’s no further proof of magic until the very end) and (2) something terrible is about to sweep in on good guys and bad guys alike unless something is done about it (while the rest of the plot is mostly concerned with good guys vs. bad guys).

* Crystal Rain, by Tobias Buckell. Like the prologue in Memory of Earth, it establishes tension (somebody’s after the protagonist, though he doesn’t know it) and genre (there’s a spaceship, though there’s few other hints of sci-fi until near the end of the story).

BAD EXAMPLES (I could only think of movie examples, probably because I have a bad memory for bad books):
* Star Wars. As much as the scrolling text is a tradition of the saga, it’s boring (and poorly written) exposition.

* Eragon (the movie) begins with a voiceover explaining the countries, the history, and many of the major characters for like 5 minutes before finally letting us experience the story for ourselves. The voiceover is a prologue, and not a good one.

MattyDub said...

I was going to mention Game of Thrones. Does that count as a Prologue? I don't have it here with me, so I don't know if it's titled "Prologue" or if it has the character name as the title like the other chapters.