Prologues have a bad reputation. Readers report they often skip prologues, agents and publishers dislike them because so many readers skip them, and they are, unfortunately, often bad.
… and yet they pop up everywhere. Many traditional tales begin with what amounts to a prologue: the time when the princess is blessed and/or cursed at her naming ceremony, or when the whims of the gods are revealed to the reader while being obscure to the characters. Lots of speculative fiction uses prologues, for better or for worse. And James Bond usually has a prologue scene, as Our Hero busily finishes off a previous assignment with a quip and a debonair swagger.
So what are the benefits of prologues, when are they not worth it, and why am I thinking about this at the moment?
Your prologue could just be the first chapter of your book, but very often a prologue will have qualitative differences from the rest of the narrative that militate against doing that.
You might need a prologue if:
- the events which set up the main narrative are widely separated in time or space (eg where there are childhood events that shape the main character’s story).
- the initiating events are driven by characters who are not the main focus of the narrative (eg the aforementioned capricious gods).
- the promise of the book needs to be established where the opening chapters cannot provide that (eg A Game of Thrones, where the reader needs to know about the supernatural threat but the story starts a long way from the threat).
- the reader should know what is going on for the purposes of dramatic irony.
There are real reasons to put these kinds of narrative content into a prologue, because it may be too jarring as the first chapter.
Why Not Prologue?
Is your prologue dull? Cut it.
Does your prologue consist of an info dump or gazetteer? Weave the information the reader needs to know into the main narrative when the reader needs to know it. You can always hang on to that material for the “companion” books you’ll be able to publish .
What relation to the story does the prologue have? To return to the James Bond example, there are pre-credits scenes which have exactly zero relationship to the main story such as the one where Bond disposed of Blofeld by dropping him down a chimney, but the rest of the film didn’t even reference the death of arguably his greatest nemesis*.
So, if the prologue doesn’t have any relationship to the story, why is it there?
In other words, if your reader can actually skip the prologue and still follow the rest of the story, then it’s probably not necessary.
Case Study: Prologues I Have Known
I don’t usually put in prologues. I like to get the story moving as soon as I can, demonstrate the agency of the main character, that kind of thing. But I have two books at the moment which have prologues.
One of these prologues contains a sequence which happens fifteen years or more before the main story, featuring the main character’s father. It sets up a lot of the elements of the setting and their relationship to the main character before she appears, and also presents the promise of the story. It’s telling the reader that there is wonder in the world beyond the rather dour initial setting for the MC. This is a prologue which I think has value, and which is an exciting opening to the book.
The other prologue is one I am struggling with. It’s about main character but (as with the first one) about fifteen years before the main narrative. The initial version was also in a different point of view, omniscient third person rather than first person. I’ve rewritten the prologue to use first person and I think it’s a lot more immediate, but that change has taken away the opportunity for dramatic irony – I can’t present a hidden enemy to the reader without also showing it to the main character.
So I am in a conundrum, where I have a prologue which does a lot to tell you about where the MC’s journey begins, but which also now seems too close in its content to the main narrative. Do I keep it? If not, what information do I need to transplant elsewhere?
Prologues are capricious things.
[*] this was from the late Roger Moore when all sense seemed to leave the film-makers’ heads.