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!
- The Great Flashback Debate? (kaitnolan.com)
- Don’t mess with my Prologue(s)! (hopeofglory.typepad.com)