Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Every piece of advice that we talk about in this series has good intentions at its origin but has evolved into something either misused or inviolable. Because I believe in being honest about my biases, I must say that I do have some stakes in the prologue debate, having written a couple myself. However, before you dismiss this whole post, know that I am not going to argue that every story needs a prologue or that all prologues are valid. “All or nothing” tends to make poor writing advice for any side, so let’s take a deeper dive into what to do with this much-maligned chapter type.
Why All the Hate?
Oh, how some people hate prologues. Let them count all the ways. And they do, all the time. Check any writers’ forum or social media community on any given day, and you’re likely to find someone spouting their utter loathing for them. (If this is news to you at all, welcome, newbie! Enjoy your blissful ignorance of ceaseless writer debates while it lasts.) Honestly, as we’ve seen in submissions we receive at Authors 4 Authors Publishing, many of the complaints about prologues are generally valid. They can often be dry and boring or unnecessary.
Twice the Risk, Half the Reward
This is one of the biggest strikes against prologues, and there’s no getting around it: they force you to open your story twice. Authors spend a long time perfecting those opening lines because of the power of first impressions. You don’t have much time to hook your audience into reading the rest of your story. Used correctly, prologues are mini-stories that set the reader up for the main story, which means you’ll need openers for both. If you’re going to write a prologue, you’d better be prepared to work twice as hard on the beginning of your story.
Ain't Nobody Got Time For That
Yes, there are agents out there who claim they will pass on anything with a prologue. Some readers will proudly acknowledge that they always skip prologues and start with chapter one. As someone who immediately backtracks to the title page when I open an ebook to make sure I haven’t missed anything, I find the notion completely bizarre, but these people do exist.
The Ol’ Bait ’n’ Switch
Given the hatred many people have for prologues, one commonly-touted solution is to call yours chapter one. Many argue that nobody will notice the difference if you just change the name and that it will con those who are prejudiced against prologues to read yours. But if you are able to rename your chapter with nobody being the wiser, did you truly have a prologue to start with? Probably not. In which case, good for you, your life just got easier.
For someone with an actual prologue, changing the name won’t fool anyone, nor will it miraculously make the chapter more enjoyable. The real problem isn’t with the word “prologue”; it’s with how poorly written many are.
To Prologue Or Not to Prologue
A prologue shouldn’t exist for the sake of existing; it needs to have a purpose. Why does this particular scene or chapter need to be shown before the rest of the story? What separates it from everything else?
History of the World: Part I: Cliffnotes Edition: Narrated by Ben Stein
This is the hardest raison d’être to justify for a prologue. When you can, it’s better to weave exposition naturally throughout the story than to dump a chunk of information in front of the story. Doing that is what gives most prologues a bad name. How truly essential is the backstory from a thousand years ago to understanding the first chapter or two of your story? Is it at all possible that readers can learn some of it later? If exposition must be done in the prologue, it’s best if combined with one of the other purposes.
And Who Might You Be?
If this one scene is in a different POV from the rest of the book, that’s a good reason to set it apart. This is seen often in mystery or horror with a scene of a victim’s last moments, but it’s used in other genres too. For example, Fyr by Lisa Borne Graves opens with a prologue from the POV of Ruby, who is never seen again for the rest of the book. It’s essential because it brings the main characters where they need to be, and it wouldn’t make sense for any other character to explain it later because she acts alone.
The one problem with this type of prologue is that readers can identify too readily with the POV character, only to be disappointed when they realize the main character is someone else. In Fyr, this is avoided because Graves makes it clear from the outset that Ruby is doomed, and more of the focus is on her observations of one of the main characters than on herself. In a way, she hands off the story as much as she does the object she’s holding.
I’m Sorry, Are You From the Past?
No, exposition lovers, this isn’t the excuse to write about the history of your world. This is a scene from POV of your usual characters but with a larger-than-usual time jump before the main story. This was the type of prologue I used for A Seer’s Daughter. Though my characters are adults, it opens with a scene of them as children, which sets it apart. Yes, it gives backstory but by showing what happened at a specific event, not by giving a dry rundown of their personal history. In fact, every effort to write the story without the prologue resulted in the story coming to a screeching halt to either give a flashback right away or drop all the important information in a chunk of information that didn’t suit the character’s voice at all. Telling that particular piece of the story in order came out much more naturally.
Like with a different POV, a problem with this type of prologue is that readers may get too comfortable with where the story starts or dislike how the characters may change during the time skip. In my case, I didn’t want readers to get too used to them as children and have trouble investing in their love life as adults.
It’s Been 84 Years…
Okay, fine. There is a place for history. Maybe you have a scene from a hundred years before the start of the main story in the POV character of someone’s great-grandparent. You’re going to end up with the combined issues of being in the past and in another POV, so you’d better make it worthwhile. Remember that the prologue is still a chapter in the novel, so it should read like a story, not like a history text. And if you’re setting this particular scene, why? It’s definitely separate enough to be a prologue, but what parts of the main story cannot be told without it? If it’s not essential, it might make an interesting expositional note somewhere, rather than being a full prologue. If it is essential, make sure your story is epic enough to justify it.
Time to Go Back to the Future
Some prologues are actually an event from later in the book or series, with the main story being about how they got to that point. It’s often used to create excitement and tension in the opening of a story that otherwise has a sleepy beginning. Some will argue that this is a cheat or lazy because it’s copying a later scene instead of making the story start somewhere more interesting. However, paranormal is a huge genre for this one for good reason. The point of these stories is often that something supernatural is lurking behind an idyllic and boring façade, which means that the story won’t make much sense if exciting things are happening from the start. In these books, the prologue is a promise to the reader that there really are paranormal happenings coming, even if the beginning feels like a more realistic genre.
It’s All True, I Swear
You may not even realize this last type is a prologue, but it is. Some books will have a fake letter, foreword, preface, or introduction. Maybe it warns the reader to put the book down, relying on reverse psychology to reel them in. Maybe it recounts how the book came into the writer’s possession or claims that the story is real. What makes these prologues rather than frame narratives is that they stay at the beginning instead of reappearing in the middle of the book. Occasionally, you’ll see a frame narrative with a prologue and epilogue only, though.
Prologues do have a purpose and can be done well, but they need to have a good reason to be there. If your story truly needs one, make it worth the readers’ while.
Have you ever heard writing advice that seemed odd? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook! Keep an eye out for next month’s Misused Writing Advice: Don’t Use “Be” Verbs.
And join us next week for an interview with author Lisa Bourgon, to talk about her upcoming novel, Ma’am Is a Four-Letter Word.
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