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July 25, 2013

A Prologue Will Help Our Story When…

Knife with text: Prologues: When to Kill

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?

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What do you think?

43 Comments on "A Prologue Will Help Our Story When…"

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Carradee

I also believe that prologues should somehow tie to the main or POV character.

There’s one traditionally published novel—I won’t say which—that features an event prologue that shows the origins…of a side character. If the story were about that character, I’d love the prologue, but as it is… It has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

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[…] You’ve chosen your idea, you’ve done your pre-planning, and you are ready to start writing. But where to start—the beginning, the middle, the end? Beth Hill tells us the best place to start writing that novel.How about a prologue? Jami Gold talks prologues—when they fail and when they work. […]

Matt Shields

Awesome post. I have been putting in and taking out a prologue on my WIP FOREVER! And I’m sick of it! I think this post will help me finally make up my mind.

Amanda

I’m not a big fan of prologues. I’ve never written a story I felt that needed a prologue (although there are a few that needed epilogues!) However, if Tana French (author of In The Woods and The Likeness) puts a prologue in her story, I read it. And read it again. And again, just for the sheer loveliness of her prose. I honestly can’t tell you if those prologues had much to do with the story that followed, but they were short and I just sort of…fell into them. They’re GORGEOUS.

And I just finished a book yesterday that was a good example of how a prologue could work. It’s the second book in the series, where the main character was previously a secondary character. The prologue (I think, I didn’t read the first book) was a retelling of a scene from the first book from his point of view. We got to see his reasons and feelings behind his actions and it helped set the tone for how he had changed from one book to another. Since I hadn’t read book one, I thought the prologue was extremely helpful.

chemistken

I think two big reasons authors use prologues are :
1) It allows you to begin with action in a story in which the opening chapters don’t lend themselves to action. Common in paranormal “MC is a regular person until something happens in chapter 3” stories.
2) The prologue was originally the first chapter, but the MC doesn’t show up until the second chapter. So you change the chapter into a prologue and the rule about MC’s being in the first chapter is upheld.

I’ve considered using prologues in my stories, but haven’t actually done it yet. Perhaps that’s one of the questions I’ll have for you if I choose “brainstorming” for my Blogiversary prize.

Kim Barton

This post got me thinking about the Harry Potter books. Rowling never uses prologues, and yet her first chapters are often set up like prologues. She could have easily turned the first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone when all the wizards are celebrating the downfall of Voldemort and Harry being brought to the Dursleys, or the first chapter of The Goblet of Fire when Voldemort kills the old Muggle man into prologues. She didn’t. I think many writers today would have made those chapters into prologues. I think the books are better for not having prologues.

Prologues often seem to me like the author doesn’t really know where to put that information and so dumps it at the beginning.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Hi Jami.
I have never, ever skipped a prologue. Now that doesn’t mean I love every prologue out there (I don’t…especially when I’m judging a contest) but I’m one of those people who must read just to see. I’ve never, ever flipped to the last page before reading the whole novel (I don’t want to know what happens before I get to the end, but I have friends that do that all the time) so I suppose I need to read the prologue because I’m so stinking linear.
I’ve written a prologue before and did it because it showed a murder that foreshadowed what would happen to heroine (actually, come to think of it, that was an awesome story…must revisit one day:)
I definitely think story tension is a good determining factor for whether to keep a prologue. Tension is KING in a novel. It’s a no brainer. If a prologue doesn’t add to the tension, toss it.
Thanks for your wisdom.
GREAT post, Jami!!!
Have a wonderful evening 🙂
Tamara

Pauline Baird Jones

I read prologues. Now, if they go on too long, I may skim them. LOL

The only time I’ve used one, it was actually the epilogue of the previous novel in a series. Steamrolled was LONG and I had this one plot line that wasn’t going to get finished. So I wrote an epilogue, so readers wouldn’t go, ‘but what happened to…”

Then I used it as the prologue of the book where that character becomes main, not supporting. It definitely had high stakes and saved me having to find a way to bring a bunch of back story into the new book.

I had another book I was going to do a prologue, but I ended up just having it be chapter one. And no one seemed to care. LOL That book was interesting, because usually an author starts the story too soon and needs to dump the first chapter, but I’d started it too late. I really needed that first chapter, no matter what it ended up being called.

But I probably wrestle the most with how and where to start a story. Story starts are like wrestling with pigs in mud. LOL

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hmm, I as a reader have never skipped a prologue before. But for my writing, apart from one story, I never write prologues! Surprisingly. I just start with chapter one.

For some reason, as a reader, I’ve never really minded prologues—usually I find them interesting or fun to read. I definitely like the dread or mystery types. I know one writer (will not name him/ her) whose prologues are always in the POV of a minor character—who dies/ becomes evil at the end of the scene. (So yes, that prologue was a scene.) These prologues I thought were annoying because they always use minor characters who we likely will never meet again (because they’re dead), or will only meet briefly later. However, it is very fascinating to read how this character gets killed/ dies. This minor character’s death or turning evil may have some connection to the protagonists’ stories but OFTEN it’s a very small connection—there are multiple protagonists in this series. By the way, this is a popular series, so not one of those classics, lol. So I guess I have mixed feelings about this particular author’s prologues?

Another example I can think of are, gasp, from fanfiction! In general, I tend to like reading prologues. Not sure why. Maybe it’s the dread/ mystery factor again, lol.

Hmm, I don’t recall reading a non-scene prologue before though.

Laurie Evans

I dislike prologues. I always skim and hope they’re short.

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Kathryn Jankowski

I wrote a prologue for my latest fantasy and, as much as I liked it, put it aside as it essentially was back story that could be incorporated in the story itself.

Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

There is another sort of prologue: the incredible birth of a character/or the moment the character becomes an orphan. It works in movies and books.

For instance: We need to see Simba’s birth as king, but then we can cut to him as a juvenile. Superman–we see him sent to Earth, then the story picks up in real time with him as a young man. We need to see Bambi’s mother shot by hunters–then we cut to the story where Bambi is a juvenile.

I think these prologues are good. Jen

Athos Vartis
Athos Vartis

This is incredibly good timing, as I have been going back and forth with the prologue in my book for the past few days, unable to decide what to do.

I was happy with the prologue until I came up with the idea of adding a scene in the very beginning featuring the main character that is action-packed, drops you right in the midst of things, and hopefully would be more intriguing than confusing. The main story being the heroine’s past, it could serve the readers to have some inkling of what she’s running away from and could enhance the twist that comes a few pages down the road. But, still, it might be best to not give any clues of what’s going on.

I will have to go over it with these guidelines you provided to make absolutely sure that it’s useful. And, it might not be *official* yet (LOL) but I’m pretty sure I’m changing it to just Chapter 1. I’ve never skipped a prologue but I do remember checking to see how short some of them are, just in case I want to. Sometimes, you just want to get to the damn story, so I might have to keep that in mind. 🙂

Addy Rae
Addy Rae

I don’t care for prologues, but I always read them. I will admit that some prologues do sour me on the book so that I’m much slower on actually starting to read it, so maybe they’re not the best for me. Your post does make it easier for me to pin down why some prologues irritate me though!

I’ve never written a prologue, and I don’t think I will, at least with my current writing style. Just unnecessary for me. 🙂

Thank you for the insightful post! 🙂

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[…] Writers topic – so some great info in here – A Prologue Will Help Our Story When by Jami Gold. July is almost over! How did that happen? […]

Taurean Watkins

I always read the prologue, I figure if it’s in the final book, it’s already cleared MANY channels, particularly if published via the tradtional route, you and I know the indie route is more a mixed bag, so let’s not debate that here…

I never read one that felt unnecessary.

That said, for my own work, I try to avoid them, given how HATED they are if done wrong.

That said, my debut has an epilogue, and none of my beta-readers who read the epilogue (A LATE edition before it sold) found it read boring or off.

I’m not sure what my editor thinks as we’re going a chapter at a time, and I don’t know how far she read since making the sale back in January 2013.

Jami, why do you feel readers can deal with epilogues better than prologues? I know the obvious reasons why they’re loathed, biggest being it’s used as a backstory dumper that readers hate, but at the same time…no one likes being confused anymore than plain bored. Period.

As I always say, “Intrigued” is GOOD, but “Confused” is BAD, so not that same.

That said, when you write fantasy like I do, and dealing with a world unlike our own, you do often feel trapped between telling too much up front (Whether’s its backstory or not) or being so vague readers get vexed with that and still stop reading.

How do you deal with this?

pleurocoelus
Personally, I always read the prologue. I agree that if one cannot pull off a decent prologue, one should not use the device. If a prologue and first couple of chapters can’t grab my attention, then I will back out of the story. I don’t understand the bias against the device, though. Yes, there are plenty of bad examples of prologues, but it’s a perfectly useful device in the proper hands. To refuse to read them ALL doesn’t make sense to me. Regarding the prologue/first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: I think it’s a case of semantics. It is essentially a prologue, even in JK Rowling declined to call it such. A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet. A well-written prologue will work no matter whether you call it a prologue or a chapter. By the same token, a poorly-written example will fail, regardless or what it is called. Info dumps should be folded into the story when possible. Alternatively, a separate information section would suffice. Since I read mostly science fiction and fantasy, I am quite used to books containing “Dramatis Personae” listings as well as maps, glossaries, timelines, family trees, and other useful extras. JRR Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey, Larry Niven, and a host of other well-loved authors use such sections to great effect. Of course, these days, the author can place much of the supporting information online, as JK Rowling has done. Regarding the aforementioned subject of fanfiction: Theodore Sturgeon once… Read more »
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[…] If we could cut the first scene or two and the story arc wouldn’t change at all, we haven’t started in the right place. That’s why beat sheet calculations need to include the pages of a prologue. If it’s not part of the story, a prologue doesn’t belong at all. […]

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[…] If we include one, we have to make sure the prologue helps our story. Then we have to ensure our prologue avoids the cliché problems of not being a concrete scene or […]

Hannah Heath

Thank you so much for writing this! I feel like a lot of people bash prologues. There is nothing wrong with prologues and they can really help a story when done correctly…it’s just that a lot of people don’t know how to do them correctly. =) Here’s hoping that this post will help people see when they should be used. Because I love writing them and I want to see them used more often – and more better – in books. 😉

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