Thursday, July 28, 2011

Should your novel have a prologue?

Should your novel have a prologue? Hmm, that depends. If it provides information essential to the plot and reveals significant facts that can’t be shown as well in any other way, then go for it. (Like everything else—if it doesn’t work, you can always delete. You’re the boss, at least until you have an editor!)

Still, we need a good reason to add a prologue. Maybe the prologue scene happens during another time and at another location so it doesn’t quite fit with the first chapter. Here’s a test: try to leave it out—is anything important missing? Or try to change it to Chapter One—does it damage the integrity of the plot? If the answers to these two questions are yes, then you probably need to consider writing a prologue.

There are four major types of prologues.

According to Lital Talmore the first kind, ‘the future protagonist’ prologue, shows the hero or heroine after the main portion of the story has already taken place. It primary purpose is to give the end of the story first, while the rest of the book tells what leads up to it--the book backtracks from the end to the beginning. A first person POV memoir is a good example of this.

The second type of prologue is called ‘past protagonist.’ It’s usually used as an important or defining moment from the heroine’s past that impacts upon the present story. It can explain some of the motivations and conflicts in a hero or heroines’ life in a much more dramatic way than just weaving the information into the main body of the novel. It can also keep the author from having to write a long flashback. Putting a strong, emotional event in the prologue starts the book off to a dynamic start. It also will probably make the hero/heroine sympathetic and begin to create a bond with the reader.

The next kind, called the ‘different POV’ prologue, describes a particular event from the POV of a character who isn’t the hero/heroine. This important event can take place during the same timeframe as chapter one, or before or after. But eventually it will connect with some part of the novel and its significance will become apparent. It’ll be relevant and effect the plot. If the book is written in first person then the prologue may be in some other character’s third person POV.

In this type of prologue the writer can introduce a danger that the reader should know about, but the hero shouldn’t, at least not now. This is often used in suspense stories where the prologue is in the villain’s POV.

The last kind is the ‘background’ prologue. These are common in science-fiction and fantasy stories where the reader needs to know some information about the special world. But keep it interesting or the reader skip over it.

I was surprised when my editor asked me to write a prologue for Love on a Dime, my first book in the Ladies of Summerhill series. I was under the impression that prologues were usually frowned upon by editors. But she thought it was important to show the break up of my heroine and hero, Lilly and Jack, which occurred several years before the actual story begins. I’d told all about it, but I hadn’t shown it in the first few chapters. At the time I didn’t realize how much more effective showing can be over just telling. What happened to tear the couple apart impacted greatly upon their relationship in the story. So I did what any new writer does--I took my editor’s suggestions. It turned out to be excellent advice and just a small amount of extra work.

First of all, through writing the prologue I discovered so much about my hero and heroine I hadn’t thought about before. Okay, I should’ve already known all about this crucial event in great detail, but I’m afraid I didn’t know enough. I also learned more about Lilly and Jack’s emotions and how their break up affected their future lives. Lilly’s parents came to life, too. Now I understood the entire story better and could improve the manuscript.

Book three in the series, Love by the Book, also has a prologue. This time I wrote one without any prompting from my editor. It was obvious right from the beginning that I needed to show Melinda and Jack’s reactions to the news they were going to share guardianship of their niece Nell. The prologue shows their immediate reactions to each other and the new, unexpected situation that turns their lives upside down. This is the beginning of their character arcs.

Six months later when the three of them come together at Summerhill (chapter one) they’ve already started to change. We see their goals, motivations, and conflicts in the prologues and can look ahead to anticipate the problems they’ll encounter during the summer. The setting has changed from New York City to Newport, Rhode Island.

Since the prologue is the opening scene you’ll have to write two opening scenes—the prologue and chapter one. I found that a prologue made the first chapter easier to write because I didn’t have to weave in so much information the reader needed right at the beginning.

Here’s the first page of the Love by the Book prologue.

Melinda’s sharp intake of breath shattered the silence. All eyes turned toward her, but Melinda could do nothing but stare at the attorney. Had she misheard her sister’s will? Or had he misread it? How could Cora leave her daughter to Melinda’s care—as well as Nick’s? She couldn’t imagine.
Cora had never mentioned such an odd arrangement, but then again her sister normally avoided unpleasant subjects. A wave of panic swept through Melinda. No one loved Nell more than she. No one. But being a mother was far different than being the doting aunt...
Attention shifted from her to Nick. Seated at the other end of the semicircle of family members, Nick’s blue-gray eyes were still wide with shock. The minutes dragged by until finally, mercifully, Mr. Ricker concluded the reading and dismissed the others. Nick immediately rose and walked over to join them.
Mr. Ricker cleared his throat and spoke in a hushed tone. “You both seem surprised by the custody situation. But let me assure you Mrs. Parker Bryson insisted you two share guardianship—for reasons of her own.” He looked from Melinda to Nick, frowning.

If you’d like to read the rest of the prologue and chapter one of Love by the Book, you can find it at my website

Oops, I just realized I forgot to mention I'll be giving away a copy of Love by the Book. If you'd prefer either Love on a Dime or Love on Assignment I'll send one of them. Either print or e-book.


Vince said...

Hi Cara:

I liked your prologues. I’m now reading “Love by the Book”.

I don’t know if it is a convention but I want prologues to be no longer than half the length of a chapter. I always felt that a long prologue should have been called a chapter. I always think of a prologue as something to get over with so the story can start.

I also think there is a danger when the prologue is very much more interesting than chapter one. I just want to prologue to continue beause it was just getting good!

I just wonder if anyone could write a medilogue. That’s a prologue/epilogue type creature that falls in the middle of the novel. Can anyone think of a good reason to do this?


Anonymous said...

aw man! I wanna read this one but need to read book 2 first!

Vince I've had prologues tick me off by ending when they were better than the actual story! epilogues too...


Carla Olson Gade said...

Thanks, Cara. This was a good lesson about prologues. I like to read prologues if they have enough meat and are set in an earlier time period where it would be too difficult to scatter bits and pieces of the backstory throughout the novel. Although I would still expect that some, even with the prologue. But a powerful prologue can real get me revved up for a great story. I'm a backstory junkie anyway!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

I can think of good reasons to hug Vince because I love prologues, too. When they're needed.

Cara I loved yours in Love on a Dime. And when I turned in a recent book, I was asked if they could restructure and make the opening pages a prologue...

So I think editors are more in tune with things than we might have thought, but don't want every manuscript to fall into the 'explain it all in a prologue' trap.

Can't wait to read Love by the Book. Rejoin Summerhill. And Susanna, that's usually a sign the author did his/her job well! When you want it to go on and on, or when they just leave you wanting more of ... something.

Hey, Jamaiican Me Crazy coffee today! And plain old joe. Also bagels from Union Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Amazing. Perfect. Every one!

Assorted cream cheese, too. Forgot the lox. Forgive me? ;)

Ausjenny said...

Thanks for the info on prologues. it does make sense to me now. I read an aussie book recently where they had the past protagonist prologue but it frustrated me as at the very end of the book I still dont know who was being chased and possibly murdered. I know why and who the bad guy was but not the one running from them.
But I do like the ones setting up the story.

Edwina said...

Hi Cara,

What a timely post for me! I was just discussing with my alternate self - to prologue or not to prologue! Thanks for helping me and my alternate self make that decision!!

Christy LaShea said...

Hi Cara, this post is also timely for me. I've written a prologue for my story, but it is in a different POV than my hero/heroine. Right now I've deleted it, but still have it tucked away as a maybe. You have given some good thoughts to consider. So, thank you!

Christy LaShea said...

Vince, Interesting idea. I would be concerned that the medilogue would ruin the pace of the story. I love prologues and epilogues, haven't had one disappoint me.

Cara Lynn James said...

Good morning! I'm drinking a latte--I hope you're having something equally as delicious!

Vince, I have to agree that prologues shouldn't be too long. Sometimes they can be more effective than weaving important info from the past into the first chapter or two. It was make a real impact.

I didn't want to make my prologue in Love by the Book more interesting than the first chapter. So I had another crucial event take place which complicated the situation in the prologue.

Cara Lynn James said...

Vince, would your medilogue be like a flashback? Personally, I like flashbacks and they don't stop the forward movement of the story to me. Most people would probably disagree. But then again head hopping never bothered me (I don't think I even noticed) until I started to read how-to write books.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Morning Cara, What a way to start the day with a piece of Love by the Book. You just love to tease don't you?

I'm like you Cara, I love prologues, head hopping, flowery prose and like you, didn't know what they were until I started writing again in the 2001.

I loved your prologue in Love on a Dime. Loved the book.

And Vince, I think Cara is right. A medilogue could be a flashback and I love those too if done right.

Boy, I'm agreeable this morning. Must still be asleep. lol And Ruthy don't you say a word. smile

Anonymous said...

Thank you. You've confirmed for me that it's okay to keep my villian prologue. SO many people tell me editors don't want prologues. But I need it.

Patsy said...

I enjoy reading prologues, however if they are too long I want to hurry up and start the book.

Tina Radcliffe said...

I'm with Vince. I always skim prologues and think of them as stuff on the way to the beginning in MOST cases.

Of course yours made me hungry to read your book Cara. That doesn't usually happen.

Cara Lynn James said...

Susanna, all three books are stand alones and not dependent upon the previous one. Some of the characters make cameo appearances in the other stories, but each book is complete. I don't like books where you have to wait 6 months or a year to learn what happens next. I like the book to have a resolution.

Cara Lynn James said...

Carla, I'm glad I'm not the only one who enjoys backstory! In GWTW (waving to Julie) Scarlett's mother Ellen has a whole chapter at least devoted to her past. It was really unnecessary to the main plot, but I loved reading about her. I bet an editor wouldn't let Margaret Mitchell get away with that these days. Well, maybe she could. I couldn't.

Hey, Ruthy! Thanks for the breakfast. I love bagels AND lox.

KC Frantzen said...


Good morning! Great way to start the day. Thanks for the good session.

I've been wondering how to start book 2 in the May the K9 Spy series. Still chewing over possibilities so this tossed me a bone.

(Sorry-weird mood. Pass the bagels please. And regular joe with cream.)

Say, someone should write a romance about an anti-barrista named Regular Joe!

Anonymous said...

I didn't know they were stand alones...I know the first book was resolved but the 2nd is about the brother isn't it?

ooh bagels! carb city! yum! off to bed - one more night shift..


Mary Connealy said...

I've never done a prologue, which isn't to say I never would. But I always try to plunge into the action, right at a moment of crisis.

I've definitely read prologues that work, though, yours included, Cara.

But one of my favorite books, which I reread every once in a while, has two prologues, one for the hero one for the heroine. I never (when I reread) read those prologues.

Cara Lynn James said...

Oops, I just realized I forgot to mention I'll be giving away a copy of Love by the Book. Don't worry if you win I'll contact you. If you'd prefer either Love on a Dime or Love on Assignment I'll send one of them. Either print or e-book.

Sorry about my mistake!!!

Janet Dean said...

Good morning, Cara! I didn't realize your editor suggested the prologue in Love on a Dime. Like you, I'd believed prologues were no-nos. I've never written a prologue or epilogue. Thanks for the definitions and for the peek at Love by the Book! You have me wanting more. Obviously the prologue worked.

Thanks for the bagels and cream cheese, Ruthy.


Cara Lynn James said...

Jenny, that prologue you recently read sounds very strange!

Edwina and Christy, I think I'd try a prologue and see how it goes. If you don't like it then don't keep it. That's one thing I love about writing--I'm the boss!

Sandra, I think you're always agreeable.

Vince said...

Hi Cara:

I was actually thinking of a medilogue as a way to condense a ‘sagging middle’ down to four or five pages. Then you can jump the reader right back into the really good stuff. I see it as a ‘flash-forward’. I’m sure this has been done before but it was never given a chapter heading of ‘medilogue’.

I don’t see a prologue in the same light as an epilogue. A prologue is like having to take a prerequisite course in order to take the course you actually wanted to enroll in. An epilogue, in a romance at least, is like getting a second helping of the HEA. Having a second unexpected happy event in an epilogue can double the emotional payoff of the HEA. I think if a book does not need an epilogue, rewrite it so that it does! Send the reader to your next book on a HEA high!!

A prologue needs a good reason to exist but an epilogue needs a good reason to be omitted.

As Hemingway says in “Midnight in Paris”: “Think about it.”


Vince said...

A prologue is like the opening act at a concert. It better not be better than the main act!

An epilogue is like an encore at a concert. It's not the best idea not to give one!

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

Great info on prologues, Cara. I loved the one for Love on a Dime. Like you I'd been told not to use one. I've also been told no backstory in the first few chapters and then very little. So a prologue seems the best way to get in relevant material.In your novel it lured me into the story. Nice to know that it also gave you greater insight into Jack and Lilly's experience before Chapter 1 begins.

Myra Johnson said...

Interesting info on prologues, Cara! I don't recall using one in any of my published novels, but my agent did suggest I write one for a book she's been shopping around. The prologue introduces the antagonist many years before the central story begins, setting up motivation and foreshadowing the connection to the heroine.

I have used epilogues, though. Seems like in a romance they're a good way to show the characters farther along in their relationship--the expanded "happy ending," if you will. But I always try to make them relevant and meaningful, not just a portrait of their trip down the aisle.

Hoping to read LBTB soon, Cara!

Linnette R Mullin said...

I have all three and Love By the Book is in my TBR pile! So, don't count me in the drawing. Can't wait to read it!

Great post! Very interesting and informative. I hear so many absolutes in the writing business that really aren't absolutes, but it leaves things muddled and confusing.

Where's the food? Ruthy, did you bring any of your fried dough today? I have hot tea, if anyone wants to join me: British Breakfast, Ginger Peach, and Irish Breakfast. Help yourself... cream and sugar available, too.

Joanne Sher said...

Great thoughts! Need to ponder this on my current WIP. Hmmmm (that's me pondering LOL)

I've read Love on Assignment, but neither of the other two. Enter me, and I'll take whichever one of the first and third you wanna send. IF I win! ;)


Cara Lynn James said...

Vince, your idea of a medilogue condensing the sagging middle down to 4 or 5 pages is brilliant! I have trouble with the middle because it's too long. Beginnings and endings are easy to write, but the middle is hard.

Pat, it was really eye opening for me to write the prologue to Love on a Dime. My idea for what happened to cause Lilly and Jack to break up initially was vague in my mind. I didn't realize it should be much clearer and that I could use the info throughout the story. I guess I should have spent more time on the backstory.

Digging for Pearls said...

Hi Cara,

When I started writing my current novel, I began with a prologue to show what happened in the past which is what drives my heroine. After much prayer and thought, in the editing process I've opted to drop it and instead work the background in throughout the book. Rough decision, but hopefully a better choice.

Jodie Wolfe

Susan Anne Mason said...


Thanks for the great information on prologues. They are tricky things!

As a reader, I don't really like them, but as long as they are short, I put up with them.

On the other hand, I LOVE epilogues! A future glimpse into the HEA!

Sorry I've been absent lately. My mom had a stroke on the weekend and I've been at the hospital A LOT! Haven't been able to catch up with my usual activities, but managed to sneak a few minutes today. Luckily mom is doing well - except for her speech which should come back with therapy.

sbmason at sympatico dot ca

PatriciaW said...

How enlightening. I don't love or hate prologues or epilogues. Depends on the story and how well they are done.

I think my current story needs a prologue because there's about a year's time that passes before the story begins from the event that kind of sets everything in motion in dramatic fashion. I want to show what happened a year ago as it happened, I think. Other things that speak to character motivation can be woven into the story.

Vince said...

Hi Cara:

I’m just 22% into “Love by the Book” but I do have a question (if it won’t result in a spoiler).

Why was it necessary to start the story six months after the reading of the will? It seemed to me like two gunfighters agreeing to shoot it out at high noon -- six months from now. The sparks are hotter closer to the fire.


Cara Lynn James said...

Susan, I'm so sorry to hear about your mother's stroke. Prayers coming her way. It must be a really difficult time for you and your family.

I've never written an epilogue, but I'll have to think about it. I like to read them.

Sometimes prologues bother me--when the characters are different from the ones in chapter one and they don't seem related. Later I'll go back to re-read the prologue and it'll make more sense. However, I do like prologues starring the villain.

Missy Tippens said...

What a great post, Cara! I haven't ever heard anyone talk about the different kinds of prologues before. Very helpful!

I love your prologue opening!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Susan, so sorry to hear about your Mom. God bless all of you and the doctors involved. And I miss you when you're gone, but just figured you were off on vacation or something.

No such luck!

I LOVE epilogues. Just love 'em. And working to leave room for them in a 60K word count has helped me CUT DOWN UNNECESSARY RUTHY-NONSENSE.

I love that writing for LI has taught me to condense, be concise, play angles, re-examine. I seriously think every author should have a category side because it's very easy for us to fall in love with our 'voices'...

I'm gagging, just a little, but raising my hand, guilty as any.

Cara- Vince asked an interesting question and I hadn't thought of it that way, but now I'm wondering, too. I don't have Love by the Book yet, so why the wait of six months? Just wondering...

Cara Lynn James said...

Vince and Ruthy, I had a 6 month interval between the prologue and first chapter because I wanted them to be finished with their mourning period--6 months for a sibling. I figured they'd both be too upset to even begin a romance. Also, I didn't want Melinda to have to wear black and be unable to attend all the Newport entertainment. I wanted them both to be somewhat back to normal and at least partly over the deaths.

Faye said...

It's great to know the reasons for a prologue. Thanks Cara! Really excited for your newest book. The prologue was awesome.

crazi.swans at gmail dot com

Linnette R Mullin said...

Ruthy! I love epilogues, too!!! Love that little glimpse into the future. :D

connie said...

Thank You, Cara.

I have prolouges in 2 of my stories. I've tried to work in the info as backstory but it loses so much of the punch I can't stand to do it.
Several contest judges have told me editors to don't like them.

I like reading interesting prologues, especially yours.

bcountryqueen6 at msn dot com

Jan Drexler said...

Sometimes I think you Seekers have a hidden camera in my office - I can't believe the perfect timing of so many of these posts! This one is so perfect it's almost...a God-incidence?

I thought and thought about writing a prologue for my WIP, and ended up deciding yes. My hero is living a double-identity kind of life, and therefore much of his background is kept hidden from the other characters in the story. I revealed that background in the prologue because writing it into the main body of the book just wasn't working.

Susan - so sorry about your mother's stroke. Happy to hear she's doing well, though.

I'm giving myself limited computer time today. I had cataract surgery yesterday, and although my eyes are tired today the improved vision is worth it. I can hardly wait to get the other eye done in a couple weeks!

And please enter me in the drawing!

Pam Hillman said...

This post is right on the money, Cara. If a book needs a prologue, you just know it.

When I decided to weave Luke's story into Stealing Jake, I didn't even want to start the book with Luke, but once I found out how Luke GOT to Chestnut, I had to let readers know. It was so important to the story. Or at least I felt that it was!

It worked, and if anything, it added to, rather than took away from, Jake and Livy's romance.

Cara Lynn James said...

Connie, I also thought editors didn't like prologues and I can understand why. But sometimes if an event is so important it can't be effectively woven into the fabric of the novel without losing its punch. At least that's my take on it.

If your editor wants a prologue she'll tell you. Editors aren't bashful about what they think will make the story better. And they're right since they can look at the story objectively. A writer is so close to her work it's hard to always tell what's the most effective.

Pam Hillman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pam Hillman said...

Vince, I love the idea of a medilogue. Can you get that approved by the publishers? lol

travelingstacey said...

Hi Cara, I found your post very interesting as I started my first attempt at writing with a prologue. I didn't plan on it, but once I got started with chapter one it made sense to me to put it in. I was wondering, though, how soon in a novel should you connect what was written in the prologue to the main body of the story? Is there a rule on that or just kind of go with the flow? My prologue is pretty intense, and then in my first chapter I skip ahead a few years to a time that wasn't as intense. One of my critiquers said that I should give some reference to what happened after the prologue in chapter one to give the reader some relief. I thought that was good advice, but wondered what you thought. Thanks! : ) I loved Love on a Dime and I know would enjoy reading one of the others in the series! Blessings~Stacey

Cara Lynn James said...

Stacey, I prefer prologues that quickly connect to the main body of the story. But it's not necessary. It just flows better. The prologue can be part of the middle or the end of the story. It just has to be an important event that justifies its being there. Sometimes the prologue is the end of the story and the main body of the book is the journey to the end.

If enough critiquers advice you to weave in the prologue instead of keeping it separate, then try it and see what you think. Consider other opinions, but in the end you have to go with what you thinks works best.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Cara, that makes perfect sense. Can't wait to read it. And I LOVED Raising Helen, the movie where the older sister leaves her kids to the crazy-Manhattan-agent younger sister and not the staid, sensible sister that already had a family and knit A LOT....

I love the drama that comes from leaving children to someone...

So natural. So organic.

Ausjenny said...

Cara, it was a bit strange it did set up the book it is kinda about the end times where people are put in zones without cash and then microchipped.
The prologue did set it up well but there is a reporter who has the evidence and is being tracked down. You have an idea who it maybe but it ends before the prologue ended. I know there has been a rewrite where some issues have been changed and the ending is better now but still a couple of unanswered questions although that could also be deliberate to make the reader use there own imagination. Apart from that it was a really good book.

Jackie S. said...

Cara, I would love to win and read your book! I have read your others and really enjoyed them!

Julie Lessman said...

Cara!!! I'm late again, two days in a row. Normally I check in to Seekerville early in the morning, but it's been one of those weeks. But I am SO glad I checked in tonight, because this is a great subject!!

I personally have always HATED prologues, not in other books so much, but in mine, and I had NO intention of ever writing one.

But ... after I wrote book 2 of The Daughters of Boston Series, A Passion Redeemed, I felt this sense of dissatisfaction over unfinished business from book 1, A Passion Most Pure. You see, the hero and the heroine's father were SO close, that when tragedy befell one of them, I desperately wanted to see some reconciliation between them in book 1, but never could find the right opportunity in that book.

Then one day when I was editing the finished ms. of book 2, the longing for closure between the hero and heroine's father was SO strong, that I decided to write a prologue that picked up exactly where the 1st book left off instead of starting the book a year later as I'd done. I did it TOTALLY to appease this strong sense of longing for it, and I am SO glad I did. Not only did it make me feel good as the writer, but I've received letters from readers telling me how grateful they were to see that prologue pick up from the end of book 1 because it kicked off book 2 so well.

Even so, I had no intention of doing anymore prologues after that and then BOOM ... the same thing happened on my upcoming release, A Heart Revealed. The book was written and done and when I was editing it, I realized the easy-breezy first chapter did not depict the seriousness of the subject matter of the book, which is spousal abuse. So I decided to write a short prologue that dramatically demonstrated where my heroine had come from, which I feel sets the stage for the drama that unfolds. And, obviously, I hope my readers agree.

So I would say go with your gut ... or your editor's gut ... in deciding whether or not to write a prologue because sometimes, whether you like them or not, they can add to a story immeasurably.


Cara Lynn James said...

Hi, Julie! I agree--when a prologue is needed put it in even if others don't especially like them!

I wouldn't have written a prologue if I didn't have a 6 month interval between the first event--Melinda and Nick learning they were co-guardians of Nell--and the beginning chapter. As I said earlier, I had to have that mourning period to make the story really work. And that prologue scene took place in NYC and the rest of the story in Newport.

If they didn't have all the mourning customs to deal with I probably would have had the prologue as the first chapter. One event could have easily flowed into another.

Cathy Shouse said...

I am not a fan of prologues, unless they are well done like yours. :)

I would love to win your book.

cathy underscore shouse at yahoo dot com

cynthia said...

What a great way to show how prologues can act as a hook. It's an interesting way to lead into a story. Can't wait to read your latest book and find out why the guardianship was done this way. Thanks for the book drawing.

Cindy W. said...

I just wanted to tell you Cara that I love all the covers of your books. Did you have a say in the finished product? Beautiful!

Thank you for the great post today. I've been going back and forth on whether I should use a proogue or not. Your post has helped a great deal.

Smiles & Blessings,
Cindy W.


Emma said...

Love by the Book sound wonderful.Please enter me in the giveaway.Thanks for the chance! augustlily06(at)aim(dot)com.

Katy said...

That's very helpful, Cara! Thanks! I originally had a prologue...but after working on it alot and thinking about it, it fit perfectly for a first chapter instead.

But reading your post gets me thinking of including a prologue, to show a crucial time in my hero's life. He'll tell it in the story, but, as you mentioned in your post, it might make a stronger impact to show it in a prologue. Food for thought...! :-)

I'd love to be included to win a copy of Love by the Book. The first page of the prologue intrigued me!!!

~ Katy