Ask anyone in the writing community how they feel about prologues, and you’ll likely find strong opinions for either side. There is the pro-prologue camp and then there’s the other side that sees them as a death sentence to any novel. We’ve all heard horror stories of agents not even bothering to read a manuscript when they see a prologue attached, yet some of the best books start with a prologue. So how do you know whether or not a prologue is right for your story?
First, we need to clearly define the purpose of a prologue and what types of stories might necessitate one. A prologue is defined as a separate introductory section of a literary work. Sounds like all stories could use one so far, right? They come before chapter one and can be anything from prose, song lyrics, a diary entry, news article, anything to entice and draw the reader in to the main story. But do they always draw you in, or could they actually drive your readers away?
An article from Writer’s Digest titled: The Great Debate: To Prologue or Not to Prologue? discusses six deadly sins writers should be wary of when deciding whether to include a prologue or not.
1. Avoid using the prologue for a massive information dump. No one wants a ton of information thrown at them right from the beginning of a story they know nothing of yet. Readers want to be immersed in a world where details are gradually woven into the scenes rather than all at once.
2. A boring prologue will scare your readers away before they even give Chapter 1 a chance. Try looking at it as an outsider, or have a close friend or beta reader take a look at it. If they lose interest in the first pages, you might reconsider keeping the prologue in.
3. Make sure your prologue propels the main plot. You could have an exciting, well-written scene that captivates your readers from the start, but if it does nothing to further or impact the main plot, it’s not necessary to include.
4. No one wants a long prologue. Some readers might tolerate a short, uninteresting prologue, but if your introduction is longer than your main chapters, you might need to ditch the intro.
5. Don’t make hooking the reader the main purpose of your prologue. While throwing your readers into the thick of an exciting action scene might seem like a great tactic, it can often be overwhelming and confusing to a reader who has not yet come to love and know your story and characters.
6. Avoid using the prologue to simply introduce atmosphere and early-on world building. This can easily be accomplished by introducing these elements slowly through scenes in your main story.
Don’t let these "sins" scare you from writing the prologue of your dreams. There are many instances where prologues can be very helpful to the story. They should always include information that is important to the plot. A few different types are: Background/History of events that happened in the past and impact the future plot, Different POV than the protagonist, a Protagonist defining moment (past or future).
You may need to reveal information up front that won’t otherwise fit into the plot, or introduce an antagonist that might not appear until much later in the story. Perhaps you want to build suspense by foreshadowing future events or offer just enough action to get the readers asking questions relevant to the main plot. These uses of a prologue could be great ways to entice readers to keep reading your story.
Prologues should not be feared, but they do need to be understood. Ask yourself what information you are wanting to reveal. Can it be revealed throughout the main story, or is it important to share up front? At the end of the day, you know your story best, and you know what will and won’t work for your story far better than anyone else. There is something to be said for trusting your gut.
I chose the best of both worlds. I had written a prologue that was dear to my heart, but I ultimately decided to cut it from my manuscript. It finally found a home on my blog, and now subscribers can read a sample of my writing while also getting a taste of my story to come! Are you a die-hard prologuer, or do you snap a book shut the second you lay eyes on one?