The prologue debate is one that sticks its head above the parapet in writing circles every now and again, and since I’ve come across that debate again recently, I thought I’d take the time to sketch out my thoughts on them.
If you’re a new writer, just don’t bother with a prologue.
Don’t get me wrong, prologues done well can work, but the vast majority I’ve read don’t. And even when they work by themselves, within the context of the rest of the novel they often mess something or other up. Some people don’t even read prologues – assuming that they’re either irrelevant, info dumping, or just plain badly written.
The All the Background the Reader Should Know Prologue
The worst kind of prologue is the one where the author dumps all the world background – including in one book I‘ve read, how the universe was created, but usually this kind of prologue has regional history going back a few hundred years, some recent politics, or some specific historical events, populated by historical figures written about in biographical terms rather than by characters.
So what’s wrong with this? It’s dull. You might have done the legwork for the worldbuilding, but the reader has no reason to care about the world when they’ve yet to meet characters. Worldbuilding, or indeed any background information the reader needs to know, should be included in bitesized chunks when relevant, not at the front end. And often, a lot of this information isn’t even necessary to the reader’s enjoyment and understanding of the novel – and so should be cut.
If you absolutely must include the information, even though it isn’t relevant or necessary, put it in an Appendix, where a reader can read it at their leisure, once you’ve already made them care about the world, not right at the start where you need a hook.
The Vague and Nebulous Prologue
Some prologues have shadowy figures talking about destinies, or an unnamed character fleeing something which is also not named, or some secret ritual with chanting participants, cut off before the fun stuff happens. Don’t ever write one of these.
Why? Because you have one chance to get the reader to care about your book long enough to get to page 2 and using vague allusions to a future threat against an as yet unknown character is not the way to do it. Start with making the reader care. Secret meetings of cloaked figures are all mystery and no substance, no character, no conflict – because whatever they are planning, why should the reader care if they’re trying to hurt Bob or help him? The reader doesn’t know if Bob deserves either one, and doesn’t much care yet either. If you want the reader to care about Bob, don’t have other characters talking about what they have planned for him, start with Bob himself and show the reader why they should care about Bob.
The other problem with the vague type of prologue is that they are so incredibly clichéd. Now, I’ve gone on about cliché before and how it doesn’t really matter as long as the writing is good, but there are certain tropes that have been so overused that even parodying them is old hat now. Secret meetings, unnamed characters running through the woods and forbidden rituals in prologues all number in this category. Honestly, they’re best avoided.
Start the story with conflict and character, not with a forced attempt at creating mystery.
If you really have a mystery to start the story up, make the reader work for the answers. Feed into the mystery, offering little answers and bigger questions. Don’t just set it all up with a prologue then completely jump to something else happening somewhere else, and when the mystery raises its head again the reader already has some of the answers. That is poor pacing and lacks tension.
The Relevant Later Prologue
So you start with characters who are named. Their actions and discussions are interesting and full of conflict and character. And then you don’t see any of those characters, or the fallout of their actions or conversations, until half a book later – or worse, book two in the planned trilogy.
Introduce information when it is relevant to the story. That way, the reader won’t forget it in the meantime and get confused because they feel like they’ve missed something. They’ll make the links between relevant information and where this information is used because one will closely follow the other. The reader will be able to determine what is important and relevant and what is scenery because the relevant information is shortly used and demonstrated.
The Protagonists When They Were Younger Prologue
Here you’re starting with the right characters, making the reader care about the characters you’re going to follow the whole book – so that’s a good start. But you’ve set this prologue ten years before the events of the rest of the book, thus introducing a gap between the prologue and the first chapter the reader must then bridge. If your characters have experienced character growth, your reader misses it and still has to catch up. The same goes for changing circumstances or socio-political structures. You’ve introduced a world or character, and then changed them for the next bit.
If the events of the prologue are relevant, this prologue might work, maybe, but it’s not the only way to present this information. As with the above, you can put the backstory in when backstory is needed, and start with character and conflict for the opening. And if you absolutely must have this information, and maybe there’s not ten years gap but three months, then why not call it chapter 1?
Prologues in context
So let’s say you’ve got a good prologue. It’s relevant, the events lead nicely into chapter 1 and it sets up the core conflict nicely. You’ve still got a hurdle to jump, though. You’re starting the story twice, once with the prologue, once with chapter 1. You’ve got two sets of characters to make the reader care about, or two sets of events. Between the prologue and chapter 1 is a chasm far wider than between chapters, and often without a cliff-hanger or hook to keep the reader reading. With chapter 1, you have to start all over again at making the reader care.
If the prologue was fast paced, chapter 1 often gets bogged down in all of the information the writer didn’t want to slow the prologue with – background, character descriptions and so on, so there’s often a contrast between the quick-paced prologue and the suddenly very slow first chapter. In these cases, the author used the prologue as a hook and to avoid starting with background – good motives, but bad execution, because you’d still got the dull background left behind, just a bit further in.
As described under the Relevant Later Prologues, information should be revealed when relevant. Don’t start the main part of the story with physical descriptions of every character in the scene and the political or personal histories of half of them. It puts off action, contains no conflict, and really damages your pacing. In some cases, the reader doesn’t need to know at all (how often do you recall the colour of a character’s eyes in books you’ve read?) and in other cases the reader doesn’t need to know yet. A sentence alluding to the information might be appropriate, but detail can be built up gradually over several scenes.
And I said above, some readers skip the prologue altogether, having been burned too many times by bad prologues. If yours is good, they’ve lost some of the story they need to know. If there’s nothing they’ve missed, if they can understand what’s going on without having read the prologue, then why is it even there?
All in all, a prologue just isn’t worth it.