To Prologue or Not To Prologue? Guest Blog Post by Amy Rose Davis

William Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet Prologue Act 1 by John Gilbert

 

To Prologue or Not To Prologue

Guest Post by Fiction Fantasy Author Amy Rose Davis

     When I first started Ravenmarked, I had no idea there was so much vitriol out in the world about prologues. I mean, my heavens—one would think from reading some blogs and opinions that merely having a prologue was grounds for rejection by an agent. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that somewhere.

     I’ll ‘fess up right now: I see nothing wrong with prologues or epilogues on their face, and I’m one of those who does read both when they’re there. I always assume prologues have information I might need later and that epilogues tie up some kind of minor loose end or hint at what comes next.

     But… I can see where the anger at prologues comes from, because I have read prologues that seemed to be nothing more than an excuse for information dump or the author to just ramble us into his world. I don’t like those.

     I always go back to my own three guidelines about what I put in my stories. If it doesn’t drive plot, develop character, or describe setting, it shouldn’t be in my book. The first question to ask about a prologue should be, “Does it meet at least one of those three guidelines and preferably two of them?” If a prologue is necessary, it should not be there for the sole purpose of describing setting. Rather, it needs to do at least one of the other two things, and if it happens to describe the setting, that’s just an extra.

     My own opinion of prologues is that they’re fine when used for one of the following reasons:

1)  If they give necessary information that wouldn’t otherwise occur in the main plot of the book. George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones begins with a prologue that helps us understand an overarching threat that we see only glimpses of elsewhere in the book. Because of his prologue that involves a brief, standalone event, we understand that, despite the political machinations of everyone in the book, there are bad things happening “beyond the Wall,” and as readers, this knowledge adds tension to the whole book (really, the whole series).

2)  If they give backstory that is impossible to drop in elsewhere or comes from a POV not used in the book. I’m thinking of some murder/crime shows that show us the crime taking place before the opening song, then let us watch the rest of the mystery being solved through the eyes of a main character we’re used to seeing. Really, that piece where we see the murder take place or see the suggestion of it is kind of a prologue. It heightens tension and maybe gives us subliminal clues about the case.

     Here are a few things to keep in mind about prologues if you’re considering one: 

  • Many readers skip prologues. I think readers of fantasy and science fiction may be a bit of an exception because we’ve been burned in the past when we skipped that information and later had to go back to see what we missed. However, a lot of readers in general just don’t read prologues. To them, the word “prologue” translates into “non-essential information.”
  • Many agents are very anti-prologue these days. If you are seeking traditional publication, keep in mind that agents are very leery of prologues. They see it as a mark of an amateur writer or a writer who just likes to do infodumps.
  • Prologues count in the free sample. If you’re looking at publishing an e-book (and really, it’s 2011, why wouldn’t you think about this?), either as an indie or as a traditionally published author, remember that readers can download sample chapters, and whatever you have as your first 10% or so is going to be what they see. If your prologue has little to do with the actual plot arc that’s in the blurb of your book, the reader might feel confused, ambivalent, or irritated, and just refuse to get the rest of the book. Or, the reader could download the sample, skip the prologue (because that’s what readers do), and then feel cheated about the sample not being very long.

     Now, having said all of this, I’ll also admit that when I first started really working on the structure of Ravenmarked, my first chapter was called a prologue. I thought the action started in the second chapter (which I had as my first chapter). Upon examining the structure and narrowing things down, I realized that my prologue really should be my first chapter because it got the reader immediately into my protagonist’s head and POV.

     When considering whether to start with a prologue, ask yourself the following:

  • Could I drop this and start with chapter one and still accomplish the same thing?
  • Could I weave this information into the main narrative without losing any tension?
  • Is this prologue really my chapter one in disguise?
  • Would I skip this prologue if I were a reader?

     All of this said… Bottom line: Tell the story the way you think the story should be told. There are plenty of prologues out there that serve a purpose. If yours does, and if you’re happy with it after considering the downsides, then keep it. It’s your story. Tell it the way you want to tell it.

Thank you Amy for a wonderful post!  

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17 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks for inviting me to share your corner of the web, Lara! 🙂

  2. tonyl says:

    A lot of things to think on here.

    I find it interesting that readers skip prologues; I never have. It seems to me that if the author thought enough of it to include, I might find it useful to read. Of course, I read adventure and fantasy and may be an outlier.

    I’m just discussing a prologue I wrote with some writer friends. Mine is 20% of the final ms, rather long, I admit, and one of my friends believes it should be a standalone short story. But if the reader of the main story hasn’t seen it (and s/he might not unless it’s packaged with – and then it might as well be a prologue!) they will miss out on 100 years of the main character’s backstory in addition to the world building that I couldn’t figure any good way to incorporate in the main story in addition to that already there.

    But that’s my problem. I’d never have an agent look at it, epub only, so that’s not a big deal. As far as your questions go, I don’t know how I could ever answer your last question; it seems like one of those things not under my control. That’s because I always read the prologue. And the epilogue. And the Glossary and Character lists. I don’t understand why a reader would give those up. Ah, well.

    Your other three questions, however, are questions we should ask not only of the prologue, but of every scene (well, with minor modifications) in our story. They are excellent.

    Thanks for sharing, and listening to my rant.

    1. Tony, I never have, either. I’ll slog through prologues even if they’re dull. I kind of have the same perspective as you on that aspect. So when I started reading all the prologue hate online, I posed the question on Facebook. I was shocked–a LOT of readers and friends said they see “prologue” and equate it with “I can skip that part.” I think fantasy/sci fi/spec fic readers might be different because we’re so used to those prologues and epilogues and glossaries and such, but it made me think… That’s when I changed my prologue to chapter one. 🙂

      I do think prologues should be shorter than 20% of the ms. Could you just take out some bits and weave them into the main story? Here’s where the sample factor comes in… I mean, if the prologue is all that the reader will see when he/she downloads a prologue, will that turn the reader off? I’d say it’s very likely. Of course, without seeing the actual ms, I hate to judge… I’m just going with what my gut says…

      Like I said… Bottom line, it’s your story. Tell it the way you think it should be told. 🙂

  3. laradunning says:

    Sometimes I read the prologue at the begining, other times I read it half way through or at the end of the book. Most of the time prologues helps solidfy the story more. I have skipped over a few that I found drawn out, too long or did not really seem to go anywhere. The ones I like the most are the prologues that peak my interest in the plot or get me thinking about the motives of the character(s). I’ve personally had alot of internal debate over my own prologue. At first I had it short and then I had it long. I submited it to PNWA and got some good feedback about how it read with the prologue and the first couple of chapters. So basically I went back to the short one and interwove the bits back into the story. I think it turned out better that way. It also helped me develop bits and pieces of the back story without putting it all out there at once as this story does have a second maybe third story to it. This is just my opinion, but I agree that a prologue that is 20% of the MS is too long.

    1. Robert Jordan had a couple in the WOT series that were just mind-numbing, but I slogged my way through them looking for clues and hints… But he also had some that were fantastic–balanced with action and backstory and actually important to the story that followed.

      I think most of the time the prologue can be integrated into the main story or turned into chapter one. But really, the whole idea is to be intentional and ruthless about all of our writing. If it’s there for a reason and you’ve really thought it through, then do what you think the story calls for. 🙂

  4. Hello Amy Rose, I am enjoying your book Ravenmarked … where you don’t use a prologue 🙂

    I am not certain if I fall in the like or dislike … it is simply they are usually not needed … chapter one would most likely cover the information just as well.

    About your example of the killer doing the crime and then the entire book we chase him … it’s a little bit like Columbo from TV … I’ve tried it with two of my mysteries and I think it weakened the beginning.

    What I like better with mystery or suspense is switching from first to third person from the protag to antag … it’s fun if you don’t get off track and forget who you are at the moment …

    Good post and very good book 🙂

    1. I think it’s probably a lot more difficult to pull off a prologue like that in a mystery novel than on a TV show. Maybe a better genre for that sort of thing is a suspense or thriller. You don’t necessarily have to have a mystery to solve in those–it’s more a matter of whether the protagonist will win against the bad guys. Like… Maybe a good comparison would be “Patriot Games”–the movie. We know the Irish terrorists are “bad guys” from the moment they attack early in the movie. The rest of the movie is about Jack Ryan saving himself, his family, etc. And that’s a movie that sort of does switch back and forth between protag and antag as we get to see a bit of what’s going on with the IRA. (I love that movie. It has Sean Bean. I’m a Sean Bean fangirl.)

      Glad to hear you’re enjoying the book! 🙂 That first chapter was ALMOST a prologue, but I reined myself in… 😉

  5. Alex Fayle says:

    So far I’ve never used a prologue and in the wide sampling of Kindle books I’ve done in the last 8 months, I’ve become rather anti-prologue. Too often it’s used in a way that feels like lazy writing or worldbuilding syndrome. As writers we need to remember that we might love the 1000 years of history of a world before the story starts, but most readers won’t care at all until after they’ve read the story (if at all).

    1. Alex, I tend to agree with you, but I don’t want to make it a unilateral statement, because I have read some really well-done prologues. But I do think there might be a lot more prologues among newish writers, and maybe that’s part of why prologues turn agents off so much–they see it as kind of a newbie writer’s mistake? I don’t know.

      I agree with you that we writers LOVE our worlds, so we assume everyone else should/will! 🙂 Plus, we tend to make the mistake of spoonfeeding readers sometimes, and a lot of them would prefer to leave a few things mysterious.

      I think it’s okay to reveal the world slowly–the way the sun rising reveals this world a bit at a time.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. This is a great post. It’s these very reasons that I wouldn’t WRITE a prologue, but I always read them. I think a lot of people out there just think it’s some kind of extended acknowledgements section or something, where the author is thanking their accountant or some nonsense. =)

    1. I won’t rule out ever writing a prologue. I’ve seen some really good ones that made a lot of sense. Jim Butcher has one at the beginning of “The Furies of Calderon” that’s great, and it’s only one page long. I just think you have to kind of consider the downsides before putting one in. But yes–I always read them. 🙂

      But then… I did put an epilogue in Ravenmarked. I felt like there were two more things I needed to say, but it didn’t feel like a real chapter, and really, someone could stop reading before the epilogue and have all the information necessary to go onto book two. But I wanted to give two minor characters a little happy ending (since no one else really got one) and I wanted to plant some clues and hints about book two. Of course, if someone gets as far as the epilogue, they’ll probably keep reading…

      LOL at the author thanking their accountant… Too funny… 🙂

  7. justxjosh says:

    Thank you so much for writing such a brilliantly thought out discussion. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a Prologue for my novel for a while now, and you have given me much food for thought. Kudos.

  8. W. Meredith says:

    I enjoy a prologue that evokes a premonition of something that has already happened. Sort of putting the handlebars on the rear of the bicycle, and cycling backwards through the story to find out how it ended up in the beginning. Yikes, what is really startling here is I get it. You, too?

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