When (and When Not) to Prologue


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).
  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.

A lot of writers use prologues as a band-aid for a bad beginning. This doesn't work (I'll explain why in a second). It actually has the opposite effect, to the point where some people skip prologues entirely. TIP #1: Don't use a prologue because you need a better beginning. Fix your beginning.

There are generally two kinds of band-aid prologues. The first is the FALSE ACTION SCENE, in which the writer is told he should start with action, so he inserts a scene that has nothing to do with the inciting incident. Sometimes the writer will use a flash-forward, inserting a tense scene from the climax and letting that be the tension that drives the reader through their boring beginning.

The reason this doesn't work is because starting a story is hard, and when you add a prologue, you require the reader to start your story twice. TIP #2: 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.

The second band-aid prologue is the BACKSTORY INFODUMP. This happens when the writer is afraid the reader will become lost without all the background. 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. TIP #3: Don't use a prologue to explain the world or backstory or any other kind of telling exposition. 

 Once again, George Lucas shows us what not to do.

Despite their downsides, I like prologues. Used wisely, they can be very effective. Here are some situations in which a prologue can be useful.
  1. To show a point of view that doesn't appear anywhere else, or doesn't appear until the end. For example, if you need to dramatize some event the protagonist never witnesses, like, say, the mysterious circumstances of their birth.
  2. To create tension that the protagonist is not immediately aware of. This can be especially effective in mysteries and thrillers, where the real tension (e.g. When will the killer strike next? Will the protagonist learn the truth before the killer comes for him?) is behind the scenes. Then the opening scene, in which the protagonist is going through their daily life, is flavored by the tension that the reader knows something is wrong.
  3. To manage the reader's expectations about your story. Have you ever read a story that was all dragons and swords and magic, only to discover 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. A prologue establishing that your fantasy world is a forgotten Earth colony, or that "God" in your story is an intelligent super-computer orbiting the planet, can sometimes go a long way towards easing the reader into the weirdness.
Keep in mind, though, that these are all guidelines. There are no rules in this business. That's why the best tip is this one, from the illustrious Nathan Bransford:
Take out the prologue and see if your book still makes sense. If it does, you didn't need it.
    What do you think about prologues? Love 'em? Hate 'em? To the comments!


    Sarah said...

    In my last project, my agent had me add a prologue. In my current project, I had a prologue and she told me to slash it. Obviously, I have the worst prologue judgment EVER.

    Ishta Mercurio said...

    Great post!

    I love prologues that illuminate and add to the story, but don't really like the "flash-forward" version. When I open a book that has one of those, I immediately suspect a slow beginning - and I'm usually right.

    Aurora Smith said...

    i havnt yet. and honestly I dont look forawrd to it. Maybe becuase im not wild about reading them.

    Matthew MacNish said...

    I happen to love prologues, when I'm reading, but I'm not sure I could pull one off properly in my own writing.

    Nancy Thompson said...

    This is a great post, and quite timely for me. My first chapter is only 250 words. It reads like a prologue in that it is a brief foreshadowing by the protagonist where he laments missing that moment he changed into a different man, a villian in his own eyes. I use it a bookend since he talks about it again in the end & how he overcomes it. I feel in my gut it should be labeled as a prologue but too many people suggest calling it chapter 1 to avoid controversy. And while the story can ultimately stand without it, it offers a chilling look into what the story is all about. I'd be interested in knowing what you & your readers think about it. My novel is an adult thriller about a man avenging the death of his wife, only to mistake the wrong person for the deed & therefore has to somehow make up for his error. So what do you think?

    Adam Heine said...

    @Nancy: Obviously it's hard to say, without having read your book. But from what you said...

    It's short. That's good.

    It sounds like it's internal, as opposed to the protagonist being active. Again, I haven't read it. It totally might work, but in general that's a red flag.

    As for what you label it, I don't think it matters, so long as it doesn't confuse the reader. You could even leave it unlabeled, and call the next chapter "Chapter One". Even though that breaks my Rule #3 above, that's what I do when I send my novel (with a short prologue) to agents, only because I don't want the first word they read to be "prologue," you know?

    Nick said...

    I'm still kind of in shock about how awesome Brandon Sanderson's prologue in "The Way of Kings" was. I think it satisfies all three of your points, but even if it didn't, it has a great "coolness" factor.

    Seriously, even if you don't want to read a 1,000 page book, I recommend reading the prologue at a bookstore!

    Usually, I just forget prologues, you know? I think this one just speaks to my inner nerd completely....

    Anonymous said...

    I actually think prologue's are over used, as such being the described "band-aid" for a slow or bad beginning.

    Maybe that's because I'm of the type who don't really read them and usually just skips them over. In my book, what could be considered the prologue is actually a small part of the first chapter. I cover Adam's first 2 points (and #3 somewhat, it doesn't really apply).

    Still, I agree that a good prologue should meet that criteria and be used sparingly...like it was said, fix up that first chapter!

    Adam Heine said...

    @Nick: I keep hearing awesome things about WAY OF KINGS. I will pick it up one of these days.

    dolorah said...

    I'm not a fan of prologues cb/c the info is almost always repeated in the story. I agree that most prologues try to make up for a poor novel beginning.

    This is sound guidelines :)


    Michael LaRocca said...

    Since I didn't write this, I had to settle for tweeting it.