Tag Archives: prologue

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.

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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.