Last time we touched on beat sheets because of a guest post I wrote for one of my Blogiversary winners. Today we’re going to talk about a subject that came up with one of my other Blogiversary winners: prologues.
Prologues are hated by many editors and agents. Surprisingly, I’ve heard from readers who say they skip prologues too.
Granted, prologues have a bad reputation, but I don’t understand why readers would buy a novel and then purposely skip some of it without even checking to see if it’s a “good” or “bad” prologue. Then again, I’ve written a story with a prologue, so I’m by no means anti-prologue. *smile*
Why Prologues Tend to Fail
Several great blog posts, like this one by blogger extraordinaire Janice Hardy, describe the issues with prologues. Prologues often deserve their bad reputation. Too many are:
- Distant: preventing readers from connecting with characters,
- About characters other than the protagonist: leading readers to not pay attention because these characters don’t seem important,
- Lacking in stakes: depriving readers of any reason to care about the problem,
- Information dumps, dream sequences, etc.: reading like lazy writing,
- Starting the story too soon: leaving the reader to wonder why the story begins at this point,
- Backstory: meaning only the results matter to the rest of the story, not these details,
- Disconnected or overwhelming: confusing readers who don’t understand why any of the events matter,
- Lacking a hook: failing to show a story-sized problem, dilemma, or choice that leaves the reader curious, and
- Too long: boring the reader even more than all the other problems deserve.
Janice’s post does a great job of breaking down the reasons for when we should kill or keep a prologue. (Hint: if it’s a teaser to later events or sets up “why things are they way they are,” kill it.) But let’s talk about how even a “good” prologue might need to be killed.
The Exceptions: When Might We Keep a Prologue?
Janice gives two examples of when we might keep a prologue. One circumstance is if the prologue is:
“a scene with characters other than the main ones, showing an event that foreshadows what the protagonist is about to get themselves into.”
Note that this example works only if it’s a scene showing an event. In other words, it shouldn’t be distant or telling or so vague that it’s confusing. It should be just as concrete as the rest of your story. In short, it should feel like a scene.
The second type of prologue she says can work is:
“a scene from a non-POV character that reveals a key piece of information none of the POV characters know.”
Again, this would be a concrete scene of a specific event. The danger here is giving out too much information and taking away the mystery and fun of discovery.
Next Hurdle? Ensure Our Prologue Avoids Problems
Let’s say we have a prologue that fits into one of the exception categories. Before we start celebrating, we should ensure our prologue avoids as many of those problems listed above as possible.
A keep-worthy prologue should:
- have a similar point-of-view (POV) style as the rest of our story (i.e., not omniscient unless the rest of the story is),
- at least give hints to how this event ties into the main story and characters (i.e., how this event can/will affect them),
- present a problem, dilemma, or choice to act as a “now what?” hook for the reader,
- start at the scene when something first happens that will drag the protagonist into the main story conflict,
- be directly relevant to the story now (i.e., not just backstory), and
- feel like a concrete, specific scene that makes sense and has context.
Note that a prologue with any one of those problems isn’t necessarily doomed. Some genres are more forgiving of distant prologues than others. Some genres are more forgiving of prologues in general. Ditto for some agents, editors, or readers.
Prologues Are Good When…
What if we have a prologue that fits into one of the exception categories and avoids those problems? Does that mean it’s okay to keep? Maybe.
Some prologues, no matter how well written, can still hurt the overall story. The critique I did for my Blogiversary winner included feedback on whether her prologue was a good idea or not. As part of that conversation, I suggested questions we can ask ourselves to see if we should keep our “rule-following” prologue.
- List every element revealed in the prologue.
What mysteries, threats, introductions, concepts, etc. does the prologue include?
- Identify what would change in the story if the reader didn’t know those elements in advance.
If you instead wove those elements throughout the story, how would the reader’s understanding change?
- Analyze what those changes would do to the story tension.
Would the tension be increased or decreased if the reader didn’t know those elements upfront?
That last question is the big one. We want to create story tension. Tension leads to fast pacing and readers turning pages.
The Final Test: Does the Prologue Increase Story Tension?
Too many prologues that follow all the rules should still be killed because they reduce the story tension. Maybe they reveal too much, take away the mystery, or spell out the answers to too many questions.
Story questions are good. They drive the story—and the reader—forward. On the other hand, too many questions can lead to confusion or a lack of understanding of the stakes or motivations.
It’s a balancing act, so it isn’t always obvious whether the tension will be increased or decreased if we kill a prologue. This is yet another way our beta readers can be an invaluable source of feedback.
Which Will Increase Story Tension More: Mystery or Dread?
Some stories—and some elements—will do better with the details as a mystery. Those prologues should be cut so as to not reveal too much. Other stories and elements will do better with the reader having the knowledge and dreading what’s to come. Those prologues can be kept to give readers that knowledge upfront.
I’d suggest following Janice Hardy’s advice: Write a prologue if we want and decide later whether to keep it. We might not know until after the story is completed how to answer the final question.
How the plot points hinted at in the prologue play out in the completed story can determine the right way to go. For example, a prologue revealing a death threat against the protagonist might be helpful or hurtful, depending on how the death threat advances throughout the story.
If a big part of the story revolves around the protagonist trying to discover who’s after her and why, the tension would probably be higher with the mystery—meaning kill the prologue. If a big part of the story revolves around the protagonist blowing off those known threats, the tension would probably be higher with the dread of the reader knowing just how bad the threat is—meaning keep the prologue.
Only we can answer that question for our story, with help from our beta readers. But when we know those answers, we’ll know if the prologue is helping or hurting the story overall.
In other words, we should never include a prologue just because we want the reader to understand something. There are many other ways to get that information across. Only include a prologue if that upfront understanding will increase the tension in the story. After all, a story with higher tension is one the reader won’t want to put down. *smile*
Have you ever skipped a prologue as a reader? Why? Have you written a prologue before? How did you decide whether or not to keep it? Do you think the question of story tension is a good determining factor for whether to keep a prologue? Can you think of any other questions to consider?Pin It