Prologue Woes

13 Jul

While reading through submissions the last few weeks, I’ve noticed an upsurge in the use of prologues. I’d say roughly 20-30% of the partials we get have that little extra something at the beginning, and more often than not, the first line on my notepad is: remove prologue, or something to that effect.

As a writer, I can understand the lure of including a prologue in your manuscript. It’s an easy way to offer the reader some backstory, to explain something that just doesn’t fit well within the novel itself, or to hint at what’s to come. An enticement, or sorts. And really, that’s what a prologue should be. It needs to grab your reader’s attention right off the bat, and make them want to continue on to chapter one.

That being said, prologues are usually completely unnecessary. You want your story to begin in medias res (“in the middle of affairs”), so pouring information into a prologue or the opening chapters ultimately does your novel a disservice. There is always a place within the story that you could place the same information, and it would allow for a slower progression of facts, which is much easier on the reader. Think of your favorite book. I can pretty much guarantee that the first chapter or two aren’t information dumps. A family’s sordid history is usually explained throughout the course of the book, not front-loaded. It’s easy to forget while you’re writing, but I think sometimes we all need a little reminder.

With prologues, you can’t give away too much. This is one of the biggest problems I’ve come across lately. I recently took a trip to Barnes & Noble to pick up some YA titles I was interested in. One book in particular really struck a chord with me, in that the prologue basically gave away the entire plot. The opening pages did what many prologues do in that it explained the history between two characters. And while that can sometimes work, this one didn’t. Within the first three pages, I knew exactly what was going to happen between the main characters, and how the story would end. Talk about feeling cheated. While the book itself was pretty good, I was still frustrated that nothing came as a surprise. I like having to work to figure things out, and the prologue for this story spelled everything out. You don’t want your prologue to be too obvious. Leave some room for guessing!

One book that I think has an excellent prologue is Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush. It’s a great example of how these monsters should be tackled. It explains some of the history of the story, while leaving plenty to the imagination. The tension is palpable within those opening pages, and carries on throughout the entire novel. You get to meet certain characters, but you don’t find out who until later on. It’s vague, but at the same time, it’s not. By the end of the book, you can really appreciate the information given in those few opening pages. That is how a prologue should work.

In my time, I’ve written my fair share of prologues. In fact, every story I wrote before May of this year contained one. I always thought readers would want a hint, a little tidbit, about the story. Something to wet their palette. A lot of the stories on Fiction Press contain prologues as well, which is where I initially picked up the habit. Since beginning my internship, and having read so many prologues that just didn’t work well for the story, I decided to go back and look over my own work. And, in the end, the prologues I’d written weren’t necessary. So I deleted them all and worked the information into the story another way. Overall, I’d say my manuscripts are better off.

Now, don’t take this post to mean that if you’ve written a prologue, you should immediately go and delete it. Don’t! But really consider its function in your story. Are you dumping too much information on your reader? Would you notice its absence if you deleted it? Is it an integral part of your novel, or just something you wanted to include for fun? If it really is important, by all means, keep it. But if you find that your book would be exactly the same, or better, if you took it out, do the right thing. You’ll be happier for it, your manuscript will appreciate it, and the first line on my notepad can instead be: I’m hooked.

~~~

Sammy Bina is a fifth year college senior, majoring in Creative Writing. She is currently querying her dystopian romance, THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD, and interns at the Elaine P. English Literary Agency in Washington, DC. You can follow her blog, or find her on twitter.

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31 Responses to “Prologue Woes”

  1. Gabriela da Silva July 13, 2010 at 1:32 PM #

    Interesting – the idea of writing a prologue has *never* crossed my mind. Wonder why…. to read that so many people are trying to include one is kind of surprising to me.

    I consider myself a little of a lazy reader. I skip most prologues – unless it starts with “You won’t get a thing in the book if you don’t read this.” Even then, skipping is a possibility.

    The only prologue I remember fondly right now is the one from The Lord of the Rings, because I loved the title: “Concerning Hobbits.” I was twelve years old or so, had never read The Hobbit: my reaction was “Hobbit? How d’you eat that?”

    …even then, I skipped most of it in that first read. So yeah, I can honestly say I don’t get prologues.

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 9:46 PM #

      It came as a surprise to me, too! But this week in particular brought forth a lot of them.

      And, you know, I thought I was a lazy reader until recently when I actually had to read through everything we get. I realized that when I read for fun, I’ve always been someone who read through everything, even if I thought the particular scene I was reading wasn’t so great. I wonder if I’ll still be doing that after my internship is over, haha.

  2. Kayleigh July 13, 2010 at 2:20 PM #

    I’ve written a prologue or two over the past three years, and I wrote one for my current novel, even after turning against prologues and hating them. I then decided it worked as an epilogue, not a prologue. Stupid. I mean I like my first sentence and my novel starts in media res: why did I ever include prologue?

    The thing is, I understand why we like using prologues. They sound so mysterious and readers will wonder what’s going on, will keep reading. And then stop if chapter 1 starts with backstory or description.

    Here’s the funny part: I pretty much ALWAYS start in media res. I shouldn’t have ever felt the need to write prologues… From now on, I shall resist the call to write a prologue.

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 9:49 PM #

      Exactly! I totally get why people include prologues. I’ve felt the pull before (and succumbed). But as you said, sometimes that first sentence of the first chapter is just so good that it’s silly to put anything before it. I’m glad you were still able to use your prologue, just somewhere entirely different! Using it as an epilogue is something I’d never considered!

  3. Rowenna July 13, 2010 at 2:50 PM #

    I feel like many prologues would make fine Chapter Ones with a bit of tweaking…and better Chapter Fives on some occasions 🙂 I do like some prologues…Homer’s ‘Oh Muse’ comes to mind. Sometimes it makes sense, that the writer really needs you to know something that only weaves in later, before you launch into Chapter One. Regardless, when the writer pulls me in, sets the scene, makes me want to keep reading…well, I don’t care if they label it Prologue or Chapter One, it did the job!

    Do you see a lot of prologues that seem to be trying for “the hook” but are pretty much only doing that–kind of like cheating, a fast-paced opening that isn’t really the opening?

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 9:56 PM #

      Exactly! Yes. Prologues aren’t supposed to be as long as the first chapter, but I’ve seen so many that are even longer. And in those instances, I kept wondering why the author hadn’t just made it the first chapter.

      Actually, no. Most of the prologues I’ve been seeing have been scenes that take place way before the story actually starts.

  4. Joan July 13, 2010 at 2:56 PM #

    I read on Kami Garcia’s blog one time that she and Margaret Stohl broke all the rules that debut authors should stick to:
    (and I can’t remember them all exactly, sorry)
    1. Don’t start your story with a dream
    2. Don’t make your novel longer than 80k
    3. editors hate debut novels with a preface/prologue
    4. start with a lot of action

    I remember deciding to delete the prologue of my WIP and feeling so lost and all wrong. I was thinking, “The reader won’t know what’s going on without the prologue! Or they’ll miss out on this HUGE secret revelation thing in Book 3. Or I need this.”
    But I think I got over that and it’s actually been more fun to just start right away with the story.

    When reading prologues in other books, I know that I keep returning to it as I read the book, wondering if there’s something that I should remember or if it gives away any hints. Prologues basically distract me, really.

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 10:05 PM #

      Hmm. I don’t know if all those rules are definitely true, since the 80k rule doesn’t apply to a lot of emerging writers lately. In fact, a lot of first novels I’ve seen have been well over 80k! I would, however, definitely stay away from opening a story with a dream sequence. I’ve only seen one so far, and I’m pretty sure I suggested we reject it. Granted, it wasn’t based on the opening alone! But a dream is just not the best way to open a story when you want to pull a reader in.

  5. Noelle Pierce July 13, 2010 at 3:02 PM #

    I had a prologue on my first story and ultimately binned it. However, I went on a forum just a couple of months ago (known for having a huge following of romance readers) to ask if they read the prologue. 90% of them said they *always* read the prologue. I wonder if it’s a genre thing? I always do, and I read romance a majority of the time. I like them. It didn’t work for my book overall, but it still hurt to cut it because it was a poignant scene that I didn’t want to add as a flashback later. I’m still trying to work in the same emotions when I refer to the backstory now, and have it work as well.

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 10:08 PM #

      I can’t say whether or not it’s a genre thing, but I’ve noticed that some genres have more prologues than others. A lot of new YA writers have been including prologues – that’s one trend I’ve definitely noticed.

      The story I’m currently querying originally had a prologue, too! But when everyone told me I should ax it, and I realized that the voice didn’t fit with the rest of the story, I listened. It’s hard to cut things that you like, but at least you can feel better knowing your story is in better shape 🙂

  6. Savannah J. Foley July 13, 2010 at 3:06 PM #

    Awesome article, Sammy. Your opinion on prologues these past weeks has made me question whether I really need one in my book. Hmmm will have to ponder this…

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 10:09 PM #

      I need to stop ranting about my recent dislike of prologues :-p

  7. Vanessa July 13, 2010 at 3:59 PM #

    I never used to write prologues, but I loved reading them. I’m not sure why. Mind you, I’ve also read a lot of terrible prologues. But some of them can set the moods just right; especially short ones. But I understand the problem with prologues.

    Funny enough, my current WIP has a prologue; my first prologue ever written! You’re certainly making me wonder if I need it… but I’m WAY too attached, so I’m sure that if it really is unnecessary, I’ll need a critique partner to tell me that.

    But great post!

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 10:13 PM #

      I totally agree. Prologues can be done really well! I just haven’t come across many lately, which makes me kind of sad.

      Sometimes we’re just too close to our writing to see what needs to change. I know I’m definitely like that with certain projects! I have faith you’ve done it well 😉

  8. Susan July 13, 2010 at 4:56 PM #

    For some reason, I don’t recall reading a prologue in almost any novel I’ve bought from a store/taken out of the library except Twilight. Which, to me, spoke volumes about whether they should be used. I actually just looked up a blurb on “Hush Hush” and it sounds interesting, so I may try to pick up a copy of that at some point. Then I can see a good example of a prologue!

    Good post!

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 10:15 PM #

      Oh, you should! If you’re into the angel thing, I think it’s pretty good.

  9. Georgiana July 13, 2010 at 8:33 PM #

    I am a huge sucker for prologues, both reading and writing them [good ones, of course!]. For fantasy, I think a *successful* one can really help establish the mood in a non-info dumpy sort of way.

    But for some reason recently, I’ve been hearing a lot of anti-prologue talk. Some people say they don’t read them; some say they want to meet the MC right away on the first page. As a result I’ve started rethinking whether or not they’re really necessary. In most cases, they’re not. So I guess now the determining factor for me is if it really helps to set the mood/establish the events in the novel. I think prologues can add a ton if they’re awesome, but I agree with you that in most cases they can be cut without much detriment to the story.

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 10:23 PM #

      Fantasy definitely seems to be one of the genres that tend toward the side of prologues. As you say, if the prologue can help set the tone, and is done well, it’s definitely worth keeping! So many are just extra scenes writers couldn’t bear to part with, but would’ve made the piece SO much stronger.

  10. Cari July 13, 2010 at 8:55 PM #

    Your comment on prologues giving away the entire plot reminds me of Romeo and Juliet. I was teaching that this past term and used the prologue to explain Shakespeare’s “language” to my ninth graders and once they got what it was saying, they were SO upset that it gave away the ending. =) I agree that prologues can be good attention grabbers, but I would hate to read one that just dumped information on my head.

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 10:30 PM #

      I LOVE Romeo and Juliet! It’s my second-favorite Shakespeare play ❤

      I'm kind of surprised they didn't know how the story ends, though! I thought that was pretty common knowledge, but maybe I'm just a Shakespeare snob :-p

  11. Aurora Blackguard July 14, 2010 at 5:18 AM #

    Funny thing is, my stories always get inspired by prologues. I personally write my prologues better than most of my chapters. In a way, it’s sometimes the core feeling of my story; the atomosphere and the feel of it. 🙂 But this is a great article! I get why some people want the prologue; it seems professional, my mom says.

    Unnecessary or not depends on the writer I guess 🙂

    • Kairee-Anne July 14, 2010 at 1:18 PM #

      I agree with Aurora 100% =) I feel the same way when I start writing, my mind instantly tells me to either do a prologue or a preface before doing an actual chapter. This was a good article that is gonna make me wonder when I start the process of rewriting my stories. ^-^

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 10:37 PM #

      To each his own! 😀

  12. authorguy July 14, 2010 at 2:57 PM #

    All my books have a prologue, but it’s never more than a page. In two of them it’s half that. They serve a purpose, supplying a bit of backstory that has no other way to get supplied, or just set a certain mood. They don’t give away the story since they don’t have any direct connection to the events of the story.

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://www.marcvunkannon.com
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 10:38 PM #

      Hey, if you can do them well, more power to you! 😀

  13. Rayvenne July 14, 2010 at 5:43 PM #

    i started my current MS with a prologue, but after reading this, i could totally see just taking it out and starting with Chapter one, then slowly revealing the back story within the first chapter or two. Thanks!

    • samanthabina July 14, 2010 at 10:38 PM #

      I’m glad I could help!

  14. Kat Zhang July 14, 2010 at 11:14 PM #

    *Raises hand meekly* I have a prologue. I think it’s necessary, though! 😛

    At the very least… no one has told me it needs to be cut, yet. But the day someone does…lol

  15. Adventures in Children's Publishing July 16, 2010 at 1:43 PM #

    Excellent advice. I agree that there are places for prologues. I wonder if the prejudice against them these days (simply because they’ve been so overused) makes it harder to interest in an agent though, if your manuscript does include one. I’m sending it out my current ms both with and without the prologue, depending on agent preference, because the first chapter also stands alone. Since almost 50% of readers skip the prologue altogether, the first chapter has to be equally compelling. But as an experiment, I sent it out to a group of 16-year-old beta readers and asked them to tell me which they liked better as an opening: the prologue or the first chapter. The first results were equally divided, but once the ms started getting passed to friends-of-friends, I got a lot of girls telling me (essentially) that the prologue enriched the first chapter and added dimension.

    I’m glad to see an agency reader who recognizes that prologues are a valid tool in the writer’s arsenal, but that like all tools, they need to be used thoughfully and well.

    Martina

  16. M Clement Hall July 19, 2010 at 6:40 AM #

    Prologues are among Leonard Elmore’s 10 dislikes.

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