Before we get started, I always like to make sure everyone is on the same page, so let’s define what a prologue is. One definition I found puts it this way:
A Prologue is the section of a novel, ranging from a few paragraphs to several pages, that comes before the true beginning of the story.
In other words, it is a passage of your work that is disconnected from your main story by either time or viewpoint, and, that is used to provide a key bit of information the writer wants the reader to know before diving in to the story proper.
So now that we have the WHAT out of the way, let’s talk about whether prologues bring any value to the table or not. A lot of folks out there, including many agents, editors and readers, will tell you absolutely not. And, while I don’t agree that prologues are absolutely NEVER of any value, I understand why this sentiment exists. Prologues, when done poorly, can do much more harm than good for a story.
There are two types of issues with Prologues.
1. Prologues are often poorly constructed. Examples of this can include:
It is a thinly disguised Information Dump:
Many eager but inexperienced writers will try to cram an inordinate amount of backstory and/or world building into the prologue in order to properly ’set the stage’ for their story. The problem is, an info dump is an info dump, no matter where it appears. Even though you as the writer have spent countless hours working to develop a rich, highly detailed backstory for your character and/or your story world, it would be a real mistake to try to just force feed it all to your reader, especially at the opening of your story when you are trying to convince said reader that your book is one worth diving in to. Face it, if the first page of your book doesn’t intrigue the reader enough to make her want to go on, it doesn’t matter how fabulous the rest of the story is, you’ve already lost the game.
It misleads the reader:
This can happen in one of two ways - it either doesn’t reflect the tone of the rest of the book or the action and/or characters seem totally disconnected from the rest of the book. No matter how well written, if the reader is jarred when they move from the prologue to chapter one, they may give up on the story entirely.
It lacking a hook or a sense of what’s at stake:
If the writer fails to capture the reader’s interest and/or fails to give her a reason to care about the character or world from the get-go, then again, he risks having the reader put the book down and never pick it up again. You’ve got to give her something of substance, something that makes her want to keep turning the page.
2. Another common problem is that Prologues are often written for the wrong reason. Examples of wrong reasons can include
To hook the reader:
This may seem counter-intuitive because of course you want to hook the reader. But if you’re writing the prologue because you fear your Chapter One opening is not strong enough and this nifty prologue will really wow and draw your reader in - ditch it. Instead, work on strengthening or completely revamping your Chapter One opening. Because even with a prologue, your first chapter opening needs to provide a strong hook of its very own.
To set the stage.
Unless it is absolutely, positively essential that the reader know this bit of backstory or world building in order to understand your story before it even begins, don’t put it in a prologue. The problem with this type of prologue is the reader hasn’t met your characters or entered your world yet so has no reason to care about its history. They want the story, not the set-up for the story. If this necessary bit of info can be woven in some other way without hindering the reader experience, then that is a better choice.
To provide a ‘taste of things to come’
This is my own personal least favorite type of prologue. The writer takes a highly charged passage from later in the book and puts it in a prologue as a sort of teaser, hoping it will then make the reader eager to dive in and see how things got to this point. Again, this is likely a sign that the actual opening of the story lacks a strong enough hook to pull the reader in and the writer is hoping the reader will stick with him based on the promise of the prologue. The fix for this, again, is to work on strengthening your Chapter One opening.
What all of this boils down to is this - if the only reason you are writing the prologue is because you want to convey something to the reader about how your characters or world arrived at this point, than we (and our readers) are better served by finding another way to weave the information into the fabric of your story.
One exception to this is when you want to provide a brief, thumbnail sketch of massive amounts of history that are relevant to your story - think of the scrolling text opening of the original Star Wars movie or the voiceover narration of the first Lord Of The Rings movie.
Otherwise, the only other valid reason to include a prologue is if it can pass this test:
By providing this information to your reader at the very outset, it will in some way up the tension in your story. Because story tension, after all, is what makes for a page turner.
Okay, so if you decide after reading all of the above, that you do indeed need a prologue, here are a few tips to help you make it really sing.
- Pare your information down to the bare essentials of what needs to be revealed so that you can get to the true opening of your story as quickly as possible.
- Make the prologue vivid and involving in its own right, a mini-story of sorts.
- Construct it in such a way that it raises story questions for the reader that propels her farther into the story to find the answer.
- Remember, the opening of chapter one must also have a strong hook of its own. Your story will in effect have two starting points and you will need to develop two very strong opening hooks to draw your reader in.
I’ve written prologues for several of my books, but only one ever made it past the cutting room floor (and I’m the one who cut them, not my editor). The one that survived is from one of my earlier books that is now long out of print. The prologue for that particular book is what came to me first, what drove me to write that story, and it had a visceral impact on me as I wrote it.
I’ve studied it a bit since I’ve gained some distance from it, and if I was writing it today, I would definitely tighten it a bit, but I don’t think I’d cut it all together. Not only because I have an admittedly sentimental attachment to it, but also because it does serve a very important function. In this case it is a traumatic scene from the hero’s childhood and it is designed to show him in a very sympathetic light. That’s important because when we first meet him as an adult he takes some actions that make him seem a less than sympathetic character.
Hopefully, having read the prologue, the reader will give him the benefit of the doubt until we get a little deeper into the story.
If you’d like to take a peek at that prologue, you can see it at this link: http://winniegriggs.com/SM-prologue.html. I’d love to get your comments on whether you think it should be kept or cut, using the criteria of whether it would propel you forward and make you want to dive into the story, or if it is something you would skip over so you could get to the ‘real story’.
So let’s talk about how you feel about prologues - Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Could care less? Any pet peeves about them or thoughts on what makes for a good prologue that I didn’t mention here?
Winnie Griggs is a multi-published author who writes for Love Inspired Historical. Her writing has garnered enthusiastic reviews and numerous awards, including a recent RT Reviewer’s Choice Award.
Winnie spent her childhood in an undeveloped area her friends thought of as the very back of beyond. She and her two younger siblings spent many an hour exploring the overgrown land around her home, cutting jungle trails, building forts and frontier camps, and looking for pirate ships on the nearby bayou. Once she ‘grew up’ she found other outlets for dealing with all those wonderful, adventurous imaginary friends by filling notebooks with their stories.
Eventually she found her own Prince Charming, a rancher whose white steed is disguised as a tractor and whose kingdom is nestled in a small rural community she happily calls home. Together they’ve built their own storybook happily-ever-after, including four now grown children who share Winnie’s vivid imagination and her husband’s steadier influences and who are now out in the world pursuing their own adventures.
You can learn more about Winnie and her books at www.winniegriggs.com or connect with her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author
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