Chip MacGregor

March 11, 2015

The Pros and Cons of Prologues


brick green no smile b:wThis week’s post is one I always think about writing after attending a writer’s conference, the reason being that, for every three manuscripts I’m handed at a conference, two of them (on average) begin with a prologue. Now, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with starting your book with a prologue, but over the past few years, there seems to have been an increase in authors treating a prologue like a required element of a novel. It’s not.  The problem with this trend is that, in many cases, these prologues are either boring, unnecessary, or straight-up misnamed, so that, right off the bat, I’m distracted or distanced from the story rather than drawn in the way I want to be by the first page of a manuscript. This doesn’t mean beginning with a prologue is always a bad idea, just that you should be sure you understand the function of a prologue and whether your story is best-served by one.

What is a prologue? A prologue is an introductory part of the story (meaning, it’s fictional– not to be confused with a forward or an introduction, which are written from the point of view of a real person such as an author, as opposed to a character or the narrator) that, for whatever reason, doesn’t “match” the rest of the story. Examples include a piece of the story told from a different perspective, such as when the prologue is told from the point of view of the murder victim while the rest of the story is told from the point of view of the murderer, or taking place in a different time period, such as when the prologue shows a scene which takes place during the Civil War while the rest of the story takes place in 1978. A prologue along these lines is used when an author wants to make sure the reader has a certain piece of information or sees the beginning events of the story through a specific lens. So, sure, there are times when a prologue is completely appropriate, even necessary, but there are more when it’s not. Here are a few of them:

  • When it’s an info-dump. There’s a difference between necessary backstory or an important scene/event from the past and an entire chapter of background information on your main character. I’d say about half of the prologues I see fall into this category. It makes sense– the backstory of your main character is often some of the first writing you do as you’re getting to know your characters and where they’re coming from, so it’s fine for a birth-to-present account of your main character’s life to be the first thing that ends up on the page, but it’s not where the story starts. It’s not the first thing you want people reading (which works out real well, since it’s also not the first thing people want to read). All that development is important for you to know, but your reader doesn’t need to know it all right at the beginning (and sometimes, they never need to know it). Let that information inform your writing, but don’t expect the reader to wade through it all to get to the story of what’s happening to your main character now. Note: this is especially applicable to fantasy novels– I need to be drawn immediately into the story and connect with the characters, and a “prologue” that’s really just a detailed history of your world’s politics and flora and fauna and warring unicorn herds doesn’t do that. Sow the information we NEED artfully throughout the novel, and get us involved and caring about the main characters in the present moment as soon as possible, keeping in mind that this doesn’t usually happen in a prologue.
  • When it’s unnecessary. Every character has defining moments in their past, every story is informed by past events, and sometimes, showing the reader one of these moments or events is an effective way to establish the stakes or set a certain tone– if the reader knows from the prologue that the main character watched his sister drown when he was seven, they’re immediately going to understand what’s at stake when he gets assigned to investigate a child’s drowning death. There’s a lot to be said, however, for letting some suspense build about why a character is so afraid of a particular circumstance or why she has such a problem with commitment– not every break-up or parents’ divorce or traumatic experience in a character’s past needs to be shown in a prologue, and I see a lot of manuscripts starting out with an unremarkable or non-compelling scene from the past; your story is often better served by starting with the events of your unique story rather than a scene that feels familiar. If a prologue doesn’t drastically affect the way the reader experiences the story, why include it?
  • When it’s mislabeled. Finally, I’ve seen plenty of manuscripts  in which the author seemed to think “prologue” is just what you’re supposed to call the first chapter– truly, “prologues” which are no different in tone or timeline or perspective from the rest of the manuscript are not prologues! Labeling them such doesn’t make your book fancier or more complex, it makes your reader confused about why content that’s part of the story proper has been labeled prologue.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not against a prologue that immediately draws me into the story by giving me vital information or sets the tone in an importent way, but it shouldn’t be used as a lazy substitute  for sowing backstory artfully throughout a book or thrown in just because you think you need one. Bring your reader into the book at the moment your story starts and get him to connect with your characters as soon as possible (and make sure the first pages an agent or editor read are representative of your writing skill– prologues sometimes don’t reflect the voice/technique of the rest of the manuscript). If the best way to do that is with a prologue, write a great one, and if your prologue gets in the way of that, get rid of it and good riddance!

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