I’m a fan of prologues, I think they are an effective tool to setting up your novel. However, I’m in the minority with this belief. Should you use a prologue in your story? If you do, here are some tips on making it work to your advantage and not become something that works against you. Below you will find some helpful tips on whether you should use a prologue or not and if you do decide on this weapon of choice there are some hints at how you can make it work for you and not against you. There is also a short vlog on prologues to get your mind mulling over the prologue and its power or hindrance.
When Should You Use a Prologue?
By: Jason Bougger
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that seemingly everybody “in the know” says you should avoid using a prologue in your novel. I would tend to agree for a couple of reasons. First off, if you’re pitching a book to an agent who says “I don’t like to see a prologue” then you shouldn’t use one. But mostly, as a reader, I just find a prologue…boring.
But why do I find prologues boring? After all, there are good prologues out there. I think one could make the argument that a lot my favorite shows (Deep Space Nine, for example) begin a with a type of prologue. They give the viewer a quick intro to what the episode will be about, and then hit the opening credits.
But with a novel, that is completely different. To me, prologues in novels usually exist to provide a complicated backstory that may or may not be immediately relevant to the main storyline. They run the risk of becoming way too telling, and because of that, might overload a reader with infodumps or a whole bunch of people and places that a reader won’t care about since an emotional connection has not yet been made.
I’d also like to endorse the popular opinion that anything important enough to include in a prologue can instead be scattered throughout the novel later, making it more relevant and more interesting.
Now, I know I’m pretty much stereotyping every prologue out there with those last few paragraphs, but I still think the argument against prologues is mostly solid. But fair and balanced we are here at Write Good Books, so with that said I’d like to present…
Three reasons to use a prologue
1. An event that happens outside the regular time-frame of the story.
This could be something that takes place earlier in the life of your main character, or really anything that happens either before or after the major story. Do this only to serve as a brief intro to the story. Keep it short and to the point.
2. An event that is not told through your regular viewpoint characters.
This could be a big, global event that sets up the world for the rest of the novel. It might be something that only an omniscient narrator could know (think Genesis Chapter One “Let their be light”) or a set-up event that happens to other characters that do not appear later (think The Stand.) Just keep in mind what I said earlier in this post: Make sure you don’t do this in a boring, telling way.
3. An effective hook.
This is the most difficult. Mainly because it blurs the line between prologue and first chapter. This would I be more of a short-term thing, kind of like the DS9 reference above. I would say that in most cases you shouldn’t do this, and just make it your first chapter, but if the tone or narrative style is a lot different than the rest of your book, make it a prologue.
So to close, I still think a prologue can–and should–be avoided and in most cases you should just begin with the first chapter. But as always, writing rules are made to be broken. As long as they are broken well. So use your own judgement, and use a prologue if you think it fits your novel.
How to Write a Prologue
Is a prologue right for your book?
So, you’ve finished writing your book and can’t figure out where to put that extra bit of necessary information. Or maybe you’ve got everything mapped out, but seem to be struggling with writer’s block. A prologue can be a useful tool in building your novel; however, it can also be harmful to the story if used inappropriately. This article will explain the prologue and help you determine whether you should use one.
What is a prologue?
A prologue is used to give readers extra information that advances the plot. It is included in the front matter and for a good reason! Authors use them for various purposes, including:
Giving background information about the story. For example, in a sci-fi book, it may be useful to include a description of the alien world, perhaps in a scene that illustrates its essential characteristics and functioning, so as not to confuse readers by plunging them into a completely foreign world in the first chapter (and having to explain it then or leave them lost, which may lead to disinterest).
Grabbing readers’ attention with a scene from the story. The author could pick an exciting scene from the middle of the story to draw readers in and make them want to keep reading.
Describing a scene from the past that is important to the story, such as a fire where the main character’s father is killed, which is the motivation for the action in the novel.
Giving information from a different point of view. The story is written in first person, and the prologue is in third person. The prologue focuses on a secret of one of the characters (which the main character would have no way of knowing, and the author would not otherwise be able to tell the reader due to the first person perspective).
Expressing a different point in time. For example, the prologue may be about the main character who is in her eighties and who is remembering her childhood, which is when the story takes place (and which begins in Chapter 1).
Why shouldn’t I write a prologue?
With all of these reasons for having a prologue, you may be wondering what the downside is. Well, prologues can be boring. If you include too much background about Dal’s homeland, the flora and fauna, and the intricacies of the social customs on the mother planet, you may turn readers off. Also, people admit to regularly skipping the prologue, so if you include an essential part of the story here, your readers may not get it, which could lead to confusion down the line.
However, the main reason to consider not writing a prologue is that in most cases, they simply aren’t necessary. Introducing the essential components of a story, including history/backstory, different points in time, attention-grabbing action, and characterization can be accomplished within the body of a novel. The general rule is that, due to their troublesomeness, you should avoid having a prologue.
Ask yourself: will this fit in Chapter 1? Is this essential to the plot? If the answer is no, skip it.
So you’ve decided to write a prologue
Writing a prologue, just like the writing process in general, varies according to the individual. Some find it best to write the prologue after the bulk of the novel has been written, particularly if there is a vital plot component that cannot be inserted elsewhere. Others like to use prologue writing as part of their prewriting process to establish the tone, language, and style of the story. Whether you write it at the beginning, end, or somewhere in between, there are some basics to consider.
Make it interesting! You want to get the proverbial hook in right away to make readers want to keep reading.
Don’t think because you have a hook in the prologue that you don’t also have to have one in the first chapter. Think of the prologue as a separate entity. A good general rule is that it should have all the components of a short story, except that no conflict is resolved.
Make the length appropriate. You don’t want the prologue to drag on for half the book. It should be an introduction to the main story.
Keep the language/tone consistent within the prologue, i.e., if it’s a mystery set in Charleston, don’t use humorous language, mixed with a dry, historical recounting of the time period. Use it to set the mysterious tone for the novel.
Limit the background information; there are other techniques that can be used to weave the history into the fabric of the novel. Don’t dump too much on readers at the very beginning.
If you’re having trouble deciding what to do, read other authors’ prologues. There are so many styles to choose from, so reading what’s been done before may give you a great idea for your own.
Overall, be careful. The prologue, when used effectively, can enhance the story and further your plot in a creative way; however, when used ineffectively, it can put readers off. If you need help editing your prologue, or even your whole novel, why not let our book editors take a look? Good luck!