Find Out if Your Prologue Is Destroying Your Story’s Subtext

Find Out if Your Prologue Is Destroying Your Story’s Subtext

You hear it all the time: prologues are evil. (And writers everywhere commence howling.) Now I’ll grant that “evil” is a slight exaggeration. We might call them “dangerous” instead, except that word is pretty ironic, since one of the chief reasons a prologue is so dangerous is because it allows authors to play it waaaaay yonder too safe.

What in the big green world am I talking about?

Prologues offer many dangers, a few of which include:

  • Forcing readers to begin the story twice.
  • Grabbing readers with a “fake” hook (which also causes the writer the extra work of then having to come up with two brilliant hooks—one for the prologue and one for the real first chapter).
  • Wasting readers’ time with intro material instead of allowing them to get into the real story right away.
  • Forcing readers to accept the author’s hand-holding.
  • Killing subtext.

All of these are all integrally related, but that last is the one I want to zero in on today.

What Is Subtext and Why Does Your Story Need It?

Subtext isn’t just a kinda/sorta cool thing that you should be happy about whenever it happens to show up in your story. Subtext is the bona fide magic ingredient that will pop your story off the page and into three-dimensional life.

Subtext is the juicy unspoken stuff happening between the lines of the story. Subtext is the massive bulk of the nine-tenths of your story’s iceberg under the water of the story. It’s what makes the whole thing float. It what makes the story into more than just what’s happening in real time on the page and transforms it into something that lives and breathes in readers’ imaginations because suddenly they are allowed to exercise their own imaginations in filling in some of the blanks.

I’ve talked before about why great subtext is the one ingredient all my favorite stories have in common. Turns out all my un-favorite stories have one thing in common as well: poorly executed or just plain missing subtext.

Why Does a Prologue Kill Subtext?

Subtext thrives in stories where the characters’ motivations, personalities, relationships, backstories, and worlds are so rich the author can’t cram all the details into explicit references on the page.

Subtext dies in stories where authors feel the need to spell everything out. Sometimes this is the result of a shallow story world in which there’s barely enough of the good stuff to fill the story, much less for some of it to be held in reserve. But more often, this results when the author either:

1. Doesn’t trust the readers to understand anything without being told.

—or—

2. Can’t bear not to share every little detail because it’s all so awesome.

This is where prologues all too often come in. Prologues are a huge bone of contention among authors. Tell an author prologues are generally a bad idea, and whew! watch the firestorm erupt. Aren’t agents and editors just big, mean stick-in-the-muds for not liking them?

Maybe. But then again maybe not.

There are two corresponding reasons authors are often so attached to their prologues:

1. Because they believe their prologues explain facts necessary for the reader to understand the story.

2. Because they’ve designed their prologues to showcase awesome things about their stories.

The latter is the easiest to deal with: if your story has awesome stuff in it, then it doesn’t need a prologue to show readers that. In fact, readers are much more likely to be interested in discovering all this awesome stuff as they go, rather than having it spoon fed to them.

The former reason, however, is by far the more egregious reason for including a prologue.

Check It Out: Examples of How a Prologue Affects Your Story

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some examples of how poor prologues sap their stories, how the lack of a prologue can strengthen stories, and, finally, how to determine if your story is one of the exceptions that needs a prologue. (I’m going to be using quite a few examples from film, mostly since they were prominent examples that popped to mind, but everything I say about them is equally applicable to novels.)

The Wrong Way: Unnecessary Prologues

If you find yourself tempted to open with a backstory prologue, you’re probably doing it because its central event is key to your protagonist’s motivations in the main part of the story. Probably this event is your character’s “Ghost” (or wound), which has created the Lie that is at the core of his character arc. This event has defined who he is, and it will have a direct and important bearing on the main story.

It’s also probably a pretty cool scene and you’re eager for readers to see it and not just be told about it later on (which is a worthy reason).

The problem is that when you spell out your character’s motivations right up front, you’re usually going to be killing a ton of the story’s potential subtext. Who a character is, why he behaves the way he does, and what motivates him are the nine-tenths of his iceberg. These are the keys to his personality. Give readers the keys right away, and they will have nothing left to unlock and discover. Dramatize this scene, and they will have nothing left to imagine for themselves.

Example: Maleficient

The first eighth of Robert Stromberg’s Maleficient is all prologue. It introduces Maleficient as a child, shows her idyllic fairyland world, and then dramatizes her Ghost. She meets the human boy Stefan, falls in love with him, and is then betrayed when he chops off her wings so he can be king. It’s a pretty powerful Ghost and definitely a strong motivation for her revenge scheme throughout the rest of the movie.

But it (you guessed it) obliterates the possibility of subtext. By the time we get to the main story of Maleficent cursing (and then forming a bond with) Stefan’s daughter Aurora, we know everything there is to know about Maleficent. All her mystery, all her potential complexity, all her depth is gone. Backstory is a tremendous opportunity for sowing mystery and curiosity. When readers don’t know exactly why one character hates another, then they’re instantly afire to find out. Their own imaginations are engaged, and from that moment on, they’re hooked.

Find Out if Your Prologue Is Destroying Your Story’s Subtext

The other problem with this prologue is that it presents a series of very important events in a very short amount of time, which ultimately robs them of their impact. (By the way, as a rule of thumb when a movie starts with a voiceover, that’s usually a sign of the weakest of all prologues. How to Train Your Dragon is a lovely exception.)

Another Example: Tristan & Isolde

Kevin Reynolds’s Tristan & Isolde misses a lot of its opportunities, and one of the big ones is the subtext it could have created and didn’t because it offered up a prologue of Tristan’s Ghost—when his parents are killed by the Irish and the man he will grow up to both revere and betray loses his hand in saving Tristan. The result is that Tristan the man isn’t developed enough in the story’s beginning. Worse, it destroys the opportunity to have Tristan the man show his convictions and motivations in regard to his mentor. Instead, the story rests the entire weight of one of its most crucial relationships on the weakest part of its story: the prologue.

Find Out if Your Prologue Is Destroying Your Story’s Subtext

The Right Way: No Prologue

The best stories are those that are rife with heavy backstory happenings, but that don’t dump them all in readers’ laps right away. Instead, they use the gravitas of those unnamed events to pull readers in, develop characters, and create tremendous depth. These stories begin in medias res with many things unexplained, but readers roll with it because they know they will discover everything they need to know as they need to know it—and not before.

Sometimes these stories eventually spell out the entirety of the backstory for readers. Other times, they merely hint and allow readers to fill in the blanks for themselves. Which you choose depends on how important the specificity of the backstory actually is to the story.

Example: The Black Prism

The Black Prism, the first book in Brent Weeks’s Lightbringer trilogy, opens with an emperor-like main character who has years of important backstory behind him.

SPOILER But Weeks uses that backstory—of how he usurped his older brother’s rulership and has been impersonating him for years, at the cost of his relationship with the woman he loves—to sow hints that draw readers in. /SPOILER

Find Out if Your Prologue Is Destroying Your Story’s Subtext

It creates an atmosphere of rich complexity and interesting motivations within not just the protagonist, but also all the characters around him. This would have been destroyed had Weeks opened with a tell-all prologue that showed readers the truth about this character.

Another Example: Gladiator

Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is rich with subtext thanks to its main character Maximus sharing a personal history with the imperial family. It is all the richer because that history is only alluded to, never spelled out, which tells us all we need to know while allowing our own imaginations to fill in the blanks.

Find Out if Your Prologue Is Destroying Your Story’s Subtext

The Right Way: Necessary Prologues

Sometimes certain stories will simply need a prologue, even at the risk of damaging a little of their subtext. These may be stories that offer insanely complicated settings or backstories that must be explained upfront in order for readers to understand what’s going on. Or they’re stories in which the character’s past/Ghost is important setup but not, in itself, crucial to the character’s arc.

Example: Prince of Persia

Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time falls into this category. It opens with a prologue that shows its protagonist Dastan as a child—a street rat whose bravery and compassion prompts the king to adopt him. Dastan’s past as a beggar child and the fact that he was adopted into the royal family is his Ghost, but it’s not a Ghost that is essential to the story. His motivations throughout the main story would have been completely clear even if his childhood were never referenced at all.

Rather, this is the kind of Ghost that actually creates more subtext when it is revealed upfront than it does when it’s only hinted at. What isn’t spelled out for readers is everything that happens to Dastan in between his adoption and his adopted father’s assassination in the main story. His relationships with his adopted family, more than the adoption itself, are what drive his motives throughout the story. Had the prologue moved beyond the simple setup of his strange place in the world and instead actually spelled out those relationships by showing him (however briefly) growing up at the palace, that subtext would have been largely destroyed.

Find Out if Your Prologue Is Destroying Your Story’s Subtext

It’s important to note that this kind of backstory prologue is especially tricky, since it’s always going to be borderline extraneous. After all, if it’s not crucial to the character arc, why is it necessary at all? Ask yourself if your character becomes less interesting without this set-up scene. In Dastan’s case, this is definitely true: he loses a defining aspect of his unique character. By contrast, in Tristan’s case, he would actually become more interesting if his childhood were less explicit.

Another Example: Pacific Rim

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is a perfect example of a story that needs its exposition-heavy prologue to catch viewers up to speed with the story world. The history of the kaiju attacks and the Jaeger technology is crucial to the plot, but it’s not central enough to the story to justify making a mystery of it and forcing viewers to discover it as they go. (Although it might be worth arguing that the story could possibly have done as well, if not better, without the Ghost aspect of the prologue, in which the protagonist’s brother is killed.) Again, this kind of prologue is always risky (especially in a book, where it’s even more likely to sound like an info dump), so never choose this route if you have another option, and always seek ways to inject conflict and drama to make the information as compelling as possible.

Find Out if Your Prologue Is Destroying Your Story’s Subtext

There isn’t a story anywhere that couldn’t be improved with a little more subtext. When searching for ways to add this all-important magic ingredient to your story, don’t forget to examine your prologue. Chances are good you just found the perfect way to add a whole new dimension to your story–just by hitting the delete key!

Tell me your opinion: Have you decided to include a prologue in your story? Why or why not?

Find Out if Your Prologue Is Destroying Your Story’s Subtext

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is a great post today and, as always, got me to thinking of examples.

    Since rules are made to be broken, as I was reading your explanation, one example that breaks, or at least bends, the rule, is quite possibly The Usual Suspects. If a prologue is the place where you put exposition that is necessary for the reader/viewer to understand the story, but is not the story itself, then an argument can be made that The Usual Suspects is ALL prologue and the “story” doesn’t begin until the last few minutes of the movie.

    The “trick” of the movie is that the viewer doesn’t know that they are watching prologue. Yes, it is exposition as Verbal spends the whole movie explaining what happened and why. But it is masterfully told exposition that gets more and more complex as it goes along with plot holes that defy explanation until the final resolution at the end when the whole ending crashes in on itself.

    However, this is probably the lone exception to the rule that a prologue should be avoided if at all possible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is an interesting. I haven’t seen the movie, but I know enough about its plot to understand what you mean. Ultimately, although the effect itself may be that of a story-long prologue, I don’t think we can say it’s actually an example of a prologue (in the general sense) that works, since from a structural viewpoint, the “prologue” is always confined the the story’s beginning. Still, it’s an interesting perspective on an experimental technique.

      • I don’t want to give away too much, but I would highly recommend watching the movie from a story structure viewpoint. It’s one of the few movies that make you want to rewind the whole thing because the ending makes you reinterpret everything you’ve just watched. It’s a neat little trick that can’t be imitated without being derivative.

  2. I have gone back and forth with a prologue to The Officer’s Code (which K.M. has read). It has been published starting with chapter 1. It might be published in a new edition calling the same chapter a prologue.
    The opener shows an active scene where the protagonist’s father sends him to Germany to study, for two strong reasons. Both reasons plant the story firmly in the historical moment (Easter 1912), clamping down on the vast social differences between then and now. The father, an absolute autocrat of a type that was common back then, will appear only twice again very briefly, to augment the protagonist’s desire to remain independent of him.
    The same chapter shows a powerful mother-son connection which I felt was important to show that the son was more influenced by the mother than the father.
    Because the father is an overpowering figure, and because he doesn’t appear again in any major way, I felt the first chapter SHOULD be a prologue.
    I would like to hear your opinion, K.M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s interesting you should bring up this aspect of the subject. I sometimes advise authors who feel their prologues are extremely necessary to simply re-title them as “Chapter 1.” I understand the desire to sometimes separate out a slightly different element at the beginning of the story, but we often lose more than we gain by doing this. Looking back on your book, I have to say that if that very same first chapter had instead been titled “Prologue,” that seemingly insignificant change probably would have been enough to distance me ever so slightly from the opening–and it wouldn’t have pulled me in as fully. “Prologue” is a signal to readers to stand back a little from the story. Sometimes that’s a good thing; usually it isn’t.

      • Phong Lê says:

        George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is interesting in that each book in the series has a prologue, which in reality is just a chapter told by non-point of view character. Regular chapters indicate the name of the major character who tells it.

  3. Solid points. I preach about prologues needing to be about the right Just One Thing you want to spotlight, but this is a great counterpoint to that. Often the best thing to do with your strongest story element is *not* start with it on its own but let it weave through all the rest of the story. Playing elements off each other like that (and keeping the subtext between them straight) is usually the strongest way to write, it’s just the most work.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Spot on. Good prologues are usually about encapsulating a single emotion, tone, or informational hook. Any more than that, and they’re usually going to start being a strain on the story as a whole.

  4. Interesting, because I do like prologues. I’ve written a few but they barely sneak onto a second page. I use them to give a little history, sneak in a reference to a defining moment in a character’s past, and then just dive into the story.
    I think they can be very powerful, but I’ll keep this article in mind for future prologues! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My own rule of thumbs for prologues is that, if you *have* to have them, at least make them short. Don’t stand between the reader and the real story any longer than you have to. So good job!

  5. I’ve seen a lot of people say they hate prologues on principle. It’s nice to have the reasons why prologues can be bad, spelled out and analysed, and how to avoid this, rather than a blanket approach. Very interesting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There are other reasons why prologues are usually a bad idea, but I’d say the bulk of it comes down to the ruination of subtext.

  6. This was so helpful! I am actually dealing with this right now. A literary agent asked for my full manuscript but said she simply couldn’t get into the story because of the first two chapters. It’s a wake up call because others who have read the entire story love it, but the prologue and first chapter have been so overworked I couldn’t look at them one more time. Now I have to. These were some great guidelines to help me out! Keep em coming!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My own first chapters are always the part of the story that gets reworked more than any other. And you’re right: there does come a point where we just can’t see the forest for the trees. This is why objective feedback from beta readers and editors (and agents) is so valuable.

  7. Great post! I did a post a couple of years back about “A Prologue Will Help Our Story When…” In that post, I concentrated on whether the reveals in the prologue would increase or decrease story tension, and I think this issue of subtext is related.

    I pointed out that prologues could help or hurt story tension depending on which is a stronger force: mystery or dread. Mystery is like the subtext you bring up here, and as you said, questions that engage the reader are important for our story.

    Thanks for adding that layer of understanding! 🙂

  8. Great post, thanks. Too many new writers think they have to lay out the history of the world up to the moment the story starts. Most would be better off deleting the prologue entirely. It’s usually nothing but an info dump. And I think many readers skip it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always worth paying attention to what *we*, as readers, enjoy. There are some types of prologues that not only advance the story, but that are enjoyable. If we can identify and mimic those, we’ll be in good shape. But if we’re ignoring our own tastes as readers, we can hardly expect to write a story that will appeal to others.

  9. Worthy discussion. Here’s what I hate about prologues — they put me in a bad mood. It’s author intervention right from the get-go. Rarely has the prologue ever proved of value. And yet as a writer I too often feel the urge to add one, or perhaps a Foreword or Epigram or Preface or Preamble of some kind. What’s with that? This post is making me think it would good practice to avoid the prologue as a way to force us to be better storytellers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I admit I have a severe fondness for the prologues in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller series, but they’re tiny little vignettes that whet the appetite without getting in the way of the story at all. Very few prologues can achieve that.

  10. thomas h cullen says:

    The Representative doesn’t just not have a prologue.. it communicates having the deepest possible subtext.

    What does it mean, to be a Representative? Why does Krenok want a portion of the resource? Who are the Overseers? What is the Troka System? Where does “squatter”, and where does “deserter” and “striker” come from? (Where the hell does the 2×2 come from?)

    What’s the context.. the four young adults, and their relevance to Croyan?

    At barely five thousand words, The Representative says so very little – yet “communicates” all that there’s possible.

  11. Courtney says:

    Wonderful post!

    I was once so smitten with my prologue (as it helped *me* learn about the richness of the setting’s history and my character’s Ghost) that I argued against all criticism. Finally, I tore it out and fell in love with the mystery I could now weave (and was disappointed when it was all out in the open by the Third Act).

    Once the story was finished, I went back in time and now get to explore that same setting and the awful things alluded to but from the POV of a different character. It’s kind of fun seeing my original protagonist as a minor character (and a child) who I’m realizing didn’t understand everything that happened to her then. So glad I gave in and deleted that prologue! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! This is a great point. Sometimes writers just need to write those prologues, get them out of their systems, and learn from what they’ve written *for themselves.* But that doesn’t always mean it will be what readers need.

  12. Thanks for another great post.

    I included a prologue of 130 words in my latest work. However, it’s not backstory, but set just beyond the end of the book. It’s a moment in time, and the book follows how the MC got there. Have you come across other examples of this? And what are your thoughts on that type of prologue?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If I’m gonna like a prologue, it’s almost always going to be of this variety: short and sweet and all about a tonal hook. As I mentioned in a comment above, Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles offer my favorite examples of this sort of prologue.

  13. I’m generally against prologues myself. I wasn’t, until I read a series of books where each one had a prologue at least as long (if not longer) than the chapters of the main story. The prologues were interesting, definitely. But that was just their downfall. By the time I got to the end of the prologue, I was thrown hundreds of years into the future when I wanted to read more about what was happening THEN in the prologue.
    So I’ve been cautious about adding them to my own books.
    However, I think I need it for this novel. Why? Several reasons.
    1. The prologue is very short, it doesn’t even have a ‘Prologue’ title in front of it, and it’s written fairy-tale style (Once upon a time…) and has an ending which doesn’t leave you hanging, wondering when you’ll get to learn more about it. There is a natural transition between the two.
    2. I felt like it was necessary set-up because a large part of the action takes place in such a way that any explanation, even of the smallest parts, would have been an ‘As you know, Bob,’ moment, which I really hate; in earlier incarnations of this story, it was rife with such moments.
    3. The prologue is a story which the main characters have heard and believed all their lives, and to ‘get into their heads’ as a reader, I feel like it was necessary for the reader to have the same framework to work from as the MCs.
    4. The prologue-story is false. So you and the MCs go through a part of the novel believing one thing, and then finding out at some point that you (and they) have to readjust your whole thinking when you learn the true story.

    Thoughts, anyone?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Your reasons for including it are all sound ones. The fact that it’s short gives you a ton of leeway that a longer prologue wouldn’t. I love the fact that it presents false information, since that immediately alleviates the problem of its being on-the-nose–which should actually work to provide you more subtext than not. I’d still be careful with it–get the opinions of beta readers. But yours just may be the exception to the rule.

    • Courtney says:

      That sounds very intriguing. Just reading that made me interested in your book and sparked all kinds of ideas 🙂

    • Kat Laytham says:

      Laura, this sounds like a great prologue.

  14. You hit the nail on the head! I haven’t included prologues in my stories in a long time.

    Hear’s another example of prologues killing the mystery of a story: Eragon. I think the book would have been better if the prologue never existed.

    But then there are books like the Lord of the Rings, which merely include a prologue to inform the reader of the history of Hobbits. And some of the Redwall books, which include prologues just as a way of warming the reader up to a good book.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree, epic fantasies are often huge offenders when it comes to prologues. It’s been noted many times before, but it’s worth noting again: just because Tolkien did something back then, doesn’t mean the rest of us can get away with now.

  15. Curtis Manges says:

    I have a few chronological historical points; a mere 77 words. It’s in outline form: a date is given, followed by a line or two very briefly describing some event(s). This doesn’t mention any character, and only refers to events prior to the beginning of the story. It just ‘sets the stage,’ as it were. I don’t even call it a prologue; I call it “Introduction.”

    Some critiquers (not all) love it, but I’d like to do away with it if I can. The trouble is, I can’t figure out a graceful way to get the information into the body of the story without it looking like it was stuck where it didn’t belong. At the same time, I really do think that the reader needs this information.

    I’ve seen this done in movies and TV shows with either a voice-over or a crawl–think Star Wars as an overblown example.

    Comments?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My first-blush reaction is that if you’d equate this with a voiceover in a movie, then it’s probably a little to on-the-nose and info-dumpy to serve as a good hook.

    • JSchuler says:

      Your description is that of a very traditional prologue. Most of the examples given by K.M. Weiland are more appropriately referred to as preludes; independent scenes or short stories that help to set up the main story. Prologues are the info dumps at the beginning that tell (not show) you place, time, events, themes, and/or characters. See the opening to Romeo and Juliet.

      While I have seen many effective preludes, I have never come across a necessary prologue. Readers are much better at dealing with gaps and picking up on contextual clues than writers often give them credit for. Consider all the times you have walked into a movie or television program half-way through. How many times were you well and truly lost by the events going on because you missed the first half? You didn’t know who the hero was, who the villain was, were baffled by the presence of dinosaurs/spaceships/lawyers/ex-girlfriends, missed the urgency of the oncoming apocalypse, or didn’t understand that the MacGuffin was important in some way? I’m going to guess that happened rarely, and in those cases where it did, you’d find watching from the beginning was not much of an improvement. Yes, you probably missed some witty dialogue, quotable lines, emotional moments, character development, or high-octain actions scenes, but prologues don’t provide any of those.

      When you really think about it, if you cannot fit the information into the narrative any other way than by putting it in a prologue, the information isn’t relevant to your story in the first place.

      Since the primary purpose of a prologue is not to entertain, but to convey information upfront which readers can do without, my advice is to lose it.

  16. I think Elantris, Way of Kings, and other Brandon Sanderson works with prologues were nessisary for the worldbuilding and character development, as well as mystery. Elantris’s especially.

    I however, have been caught in a bad prologue trap with my Candyland story. It’s prologue sets the scene, but it’s all an exciting info-dump. I need to move it, as it’s already a flashback, to later in the story; lines from it haunting Lance Licorice as he meets with the insane King Kandy throughout the plot. Finally setting it free right when Lance is considering whether to kill the usurper Kandy, allowing the plot to become more fleshed out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One thing Sanderson does well throughout all his books is sowing little backstory hints in the quotes at the beginnings of each of the chapters. They’re short enough not to distract readers and mysterious enough to be interesting.

  17. Elizabeth Richards says:

    The DaVinci code is a fun book to both analyze and ridicule if only because we have best-selling author envy. It dawned on me the other day, that a prologue was included because it got the story started with a killing that sets the hook AND creates a cliff-hanger that allows the main character to be introduced in a rather mundane way (waking up, brushing teeth…yawn).

    Would the story have been better if it started with the first sight of the murdered body? Or does the prologue plus the cliff hangers propel the story and replace the reader’s interest in puzzling out the back story?

    Perhaps subtext has been replaced with cliff hangers…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Mysteries and thrillers get away with this more than any other genre, both because they need that hook and because they need to set the tone for the story to come. In my opinion, it can and should be avoided more often than it is. But it’s worth noting the exception.

  18. Catherine says:

    Oh boy. I started out with a prologue. I wanted to use it to introduce the reader to the setting as seen through the “correct” viewpoint, before diving into my MC’s off-kilter viewpoint. It seemed like the simplest way to hint, right away, that something is not quite right with the MC and the situation she’s in, something is unnatural and unusual. But first of all, it was way too long, and cutting it down didn’t help. Second, it was weirdly misleading, since it put too much focus on a minor character instead of on the MC. Third, well, it was probably a case of me not trusting my readers to pick up on the unreliability of my MC. I ended up cutting everything except for the very last page, where the MC’s POV is first used. I just hope I’ll be able to work the subtext through the rest of the story to get across the effect I’m looking for.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you cut it for all the right reasons. One of the biggest dangers of prologues is convincing readers to invest in the wrong character (even if that character is just a younger version of the protagonist). We’ve only got a few pages to hook readers with our awesome character; we can’t afford to waste that time.

  19. But, but, Angelina Jolie’s performance didn’t need subtext! It hardly needed a plot! I loved that movie for other reasons too: http://bluewater-publications.com/?s=maleficent

    Yet I do get your point. =)
    Thanks for a great post Katie, as usual!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If any company other than Disney (with their self-reverential obsession) had made that movie, it could have been completely awesome. And if it had, you know, skipped the prologue. :p

  20. In my currently published stories, I’ve used a prologue once, and that was to have a better hook at the beginning. (I know, I know!) I’m contemplating using a prologue again in my next story as sort of a bridge between a the previous story in the series and the book in question since there’s a short story between that it’s possible the reader may not read. It would mostly cover a gap, and say “Hey, this happened” since it’s important to the meta plot in my series. But I haven’t decided if I’m going to go that direction or not yet. 🙂 I may just fill it in as necessary as backstory nuggets. Something for later contemplation and/or discussion…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You know me: I say the hook for the individual book is always going to be more important than the overall information for the series, especially at the beginning. The other information can always be dribbled in later. But the hook is prime real estate and deserves to be put to its best possible use.

  21. Would anyone care to read a short snippet of my prologue and provide me with a damage assessment?

  22. Emilyn Wood says:

    Great post!

    It’s not so much deciding whether or not to have a beginning section of the book /titled/ Prologue as it is finding where to begin the story at all, for me. My first chapter may feel like a prologue – no info dump really, just that it takes place when the MC is younger.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Truth! At the end of the day “prologue” is a just a word at the top of the page. The truly important decision is the opening scene itself.

  23. I know this sounds rather vague, but what do you think of a story that doesn’t have a prologue, but starts from the perspective of a character who isn’t the protagonist, (hero type) and then (a short chapter or two later) involves that character with the protagonist and its ally through some action.

    Then (in the chapter following the action) getting more directly introduced to the protagonist and the ally through a different character, and having the key events leading up to the action and their perspectives up to this point showed and told to explain their relationship and why the action happened at all, (while getting to know the characters a little better, but still leaving out some of the details, unnecessary scenes, and stuff for subtext) before continuing the story with the protagonist and other characters following up on the action.

    Do think it’s plausible? I’m just trying to figure out if that approach is too unusual, or if not introducing my protagonist right away will ruin my story. I was considering writing my story this way because I felt like beginning at the beginning killed the intrigue of the action a little, because it shows how and why before it happens. It should be much more interesting, only I don’t want to make the mistake of confusing the reader, or boring them by backpedaling. I was thinking some foreshadowing might help with that. Let me know if this doesn’t make sense…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You do see this technique here and there – especially with antagonist openers. But I recommend against it for the simple reason that your protagonist is your single greatest hook. This is the person your readers need to identify with. This is the person they need to want to spend the rest of the book with. Opening with a character other than your protagonist causes two potential problems:

      1. Either readers *aren’t* hooked well enough by the minor character and they’re impatient for the book to finally get to the good stuff.

      -or-

      2. They adore the opening character and are then disappointed to learn he’s not the protagonist.

      Whenever possible, I would always recommend opening with the protagonist.

      • Thanks! You’re probably right. The opening character (using the technique described) is the antagonist, and is rather prominent in the story. I wouldn’t want either of the two scenarios you mentioned to happen, although the second one wasn’t so bad. There are lots of books I like where the protagonist isn’t my favorite character. I thought if I foreshadowed the protagonist well, and only gave out enough of the antagonist’s character to make the beginning fascinating without revealing too much too soon that it might work well, but it’s probably too risky. Do you think I shouldn’t try it and see how it goes? It wouldn’t affect the writing much. I’m personally fond of the way that the story would develop from there, and how the antagonist reacts and instigates the events, but there are other ways I can make the beginning interesting without having the action take place so early that would allow for introducing the protagonist sooner.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Never hurts to experiment. Sometimes we need to write our prologues or info-dumpy to beginnings just to get them out of our systems. And if you still feel it’s a great opener, you can always run it by some beta readers afterward to get some objective feedback.

          • Thanks for your advice! I’m kinda new to this whole novel writing thing, so I can use all the help I can get:)

            My first attempt flopped, (I didn’t like my protagonist. I still haven’t given up on it;) but this second try with a different idea is working out much better. I can’t wait to find out how (and if!) it all comes together! I’m still in the pre-writing phase, so I’m plotting a little, info dumping, (which IS really helpful for figuring out my characters and story:) scribbling oodles of ideas and scenes, and random stuff about the characters.

            It’s positively one of the funnest things I’ve ever done. I’m also learning as much as I can about how to write, especially how to write novels, which isn’t quite as much fun, but still great.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            If you’re having fun, then that’s the best sign of all that you’re on the right track!

  24. Braveheart is an example of prologue done right, imo. In fact, I’ve referenced it when reading other people’s works in the way everything that happens within those first 10-15 minutes is not only a set-up, but grounds the motivations of the characters.

    In one particular script I recall giving feedback on, the writer had a similar “slaughtering of the family” happening within the first few pages. The problem was, I didn’t care. The would be main character responded appropriately, as one might expect, but it didn’t resonate and came across as melodramatic because I didn’t know these characters, what they were for/against, anything about them… and that’s A LOT to ask an audience, especially if you’re trying to get them emotionally invested.

    Braveheart, however, sets up ALL the relevant relationships in William’s youth and pays them off – with irony – when he’s reintroduced and we’re given the main story’s inciting incident (the killing of his wife) and how it both mirrors William’s father’s death in the prologue and reflects one of the film’s major themes: unity. Muron’s father can no more blame Wallace for his daughter’s death than he can be blamed for the death of Wallace’s father years before – a fact that unites them and the clans as they seek freedom.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I came way late to the Braveheart party. I finally saw it for the first time last winter. And I have to say: I was really disappointed with it, on a number of levels (historical suspension of disbelief being the biggest one). Out the of the three Ghost prologues mentioned here (Braveheart, Maleficient, and Tristian and Isolde) Braveheart‘s is by far the best. But I’d still argue that the movie as a whole could gained so much more power and subtext without it.

  25. Then there is “The Way of Kings” by Brandon Sanderson with three prologues. Sanderson does not recommend doing that. The three prologues plus its 400,000-word length made selling the book difficult. Nevertheless, once he had a sufficiently sized fan following, Tor became willing to publish the book. If you have enough fans, you can get away with almost anything.

    The Pern stories by Anne McCaffrey have prologues, the same prologue that describes the world’s back story. This allows a new reader to pickup any book and understand what the world is.

    On many occasions, I have read stories where without the prologue the story made no sense.

    The problem is some people misuse prologues, which gives prologues a bad reputation.

    Prologues. Use with care. A horrible fate awaits those who don’t.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Erg. Don’t get me started on Way of Kings. It’s brilliant in all the ways Sanderson is always brilliant, and shoddy in all the places he tends to be shoddy–its horrendous, indulgent length chief among them. No story needs three prologues. Repeat: no story. :p

  26. A brilliant analysis. Much better a clear reason why a prologue should or shouldn’t be used, rather than an over-simplistic “prologues are bad” rule.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It isn’t that prologues are inherently bad or good – just that they’re so often used improperly.

  27. I was thinking, (yes always a dangerous thing for me) in all of the books in the series of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, author Steven Donaldson has a section “What has gone before.” Is that the same as a prologue? In his case, he is recapping events from the previous books to take you to where the next one in the series begins.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Technically, no. This is a shortcut device that allows the author to avoid the problem of info-dumping all this within the story itself. It’s smart.

  28. Susi Franco says:

    I am wrestling with the whole prologue thing. One of my arguments for having one is that the “spirits” ( called “The Unseen Beloved”) my MC is dealing with throughout the book are all real women from my own ancestry. They are also real women in history, such as Anne & Mary Boleyn ( my 15th Great-GrandAunt and 15th Great-Grandmother respectively) Elizabeth I ( 1rst cousin 16x removed ) and a couple other notable female ancestors who left their little footprints firmly in the Sands of Time. 🙂 Putting them in my book is my humble way of paying these great ladies homage as well as underscoring the “realism” part of Magical Realism, my genre. I use events from their lives as part of MC Lilly’s backstory. I took to heart your caution about information-dumping and am determined NOT to be guilty of it. I am also using the very real conflict that existed in these women’s lives between each other in their own time to give more dimension to the story, and to do double-duty as some of the 8 1/2 archetypes you outlined for us. I don’t want to do a lengthy prologue, maybe two pages that describes these were real women whose personal histories helped write the story ( that they just happen to meet the parameters of The Curse their descendant Lilly is laboring under will not be disclosed in the prologue).

    I may also mention in the prologue that the “magical” recipes I’m including in the book ( Lilly is a baker & owns a bake-shop) are real recipes and invite readers to try them. That’d be about it for the prologue.

    I would not be mentioning anything about the trouble Lilly gets into making well-intentioned magic baked goods nor how she got started doing it, or how The Unseen Beloved keep throwing her lifelines she totally misses. She’s a modern-day woman with real fault-lines and fears and they trip up her up big-time. Lilly’s biggest challenge is in realizing what the true nature of The Curse actually is in her life.

    The ‘front end’ , so to speak, of my book does have what I suppose could be considered prologue in that how The Curse came into being is graphically illustrated, as well as how it played out in specific brief examples from each of three ancestress’s lives. It felt very important to establish that, especially since the ancestresses are the Unseen Beloved I mentioned earlier.

    The timeline moves forward a few hundred years and the reader is introduced to Lilly ; we see how she battles against The Curse with the Unseen Beloved struggling to get her attention so they can guide & protect her from her own bad choices; bad choices they themselves made and know the outcome of.

    Perhaps that is The Curse we all rail against in our lives…..how we frail creatures are so often the products of our own poor choices whether we like admitting that or not; that it takes a whole other kind of ‘magic’ to bail ourselves out and get a new start, a fresh perspective/direction.

    I have considered doing this book “in media res” but I can’t make sense of it that way. It feels anti-climatic to introduce Lilly first and then tell the backstory…I feel I’ve built some momentum & a sense of tension using the ancestress’s stories first, even though they are mini-examples. I wanted to lay the groundwork illustrating how-why their lives were so tumultuous, to show how The Curse affected them centuries ago and is still affecting their descendants. Sometimes I think this damned curse is real; that my ancestors suffered through it and I have too, in my own life. 🙂

    P.S.—I am just the tiniest little bit freaked out that every time I hit a stumbling block, you seem to (ahem) magically post an article that addresses it. 🙂 It’s a good thing, apologies to Martha Stewart. 🙂

    Okay, so there ya have it. Prologue or not to prologue. (Where’s my Advil ?! )

    Thanks again, Miz Katie, and I really am mentioning you with tremendous gratitude in my foreword. It feels like you’re holding my hand sometimes and I’m humbly appreciative.

    Your forever disciple,
    Susi Franco

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It sounds like what you’re describing here is almost more of an introduction (in which you, the author, directly address the reader and explain certain important background information or factual deviations to readers) rather than a prologue, which is dramatized like the rest of story. If that’s so, you shouldn’t have any problem. Readers can just skip an intro if they’re not interested in it–and read it if they are. It has no direct impact on the story or its opening hook.

  29. Hello Ms. Weiland! I am a teenage writer and somewhat new to your site. I love your advice and am thoroughly enjoying all your articles! This article was very thought provoking and insightful!

    My current WIP has a prologue. After reading lots of articles why NOT to have a prologue, I’m wondering if I should rework it. It’s basically one of the main character’s back story which foreshadows and hints at the antagonist’s back story–which we don’t know for a loooooong time. It is barely two pages and is one scene. It’s a scene that the reader needs for the story. I have thought about moving it, but in order to keep it showing (and it has to be showing, because telling would take the punch out), I would have to use a flashback since it is eight years before the actual story takes place. If I started it as Chapter 1, it would be a huge leap to Chapter 2 that might confuse readers.

    I’m not really sure what to do, because to me, the prologue SEEMS necessary–but I might be looking at it all wrong. Do you have any advice? How would you fix a prologue problem like that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hey! So glad you’re enjoying the site! In my experience, this is the sort of prologue that a book is almost always better off without. But there are exceptions to every rule. If you’re confident the story works better *with* it, then I would recommend getting some objective feedback from readers and see if it bores them or tries their patience.

  30. matt abraham says:

    Obviously prologues are the work of the Devil, yet Stephen Spielberg uses them as liberally as Bobby Flay does sauces in everything from Jaws to J Park. Granted in his expert hands they give little of the plot away and serve as solid teasers of things to come, but can this style be translated from film to printed word? Considering his success with celluloid I’d love to know.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I honestly don’t know that I’d consider the openings to Jaws and Jurassic Park to be prologues. Both scenes are right in line with the main timelines of their stories. They’re only separate because they feature characters other than the protagonist, which is really more of a POV switch–and something that’s is *much* less problematic in movie openings than book openings.

  31. CharlieCat says:

    What do you think about opening with an epilogue?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Assuming that’s not a typo ;), it has the potential to be interesting. Essentially what you’re describing is a “flashforward,” which just shows a future glimpse of the story. More often than not, flashforwards come across as very gimmicky, but there’s always an exception and, handled deftly, this one might be it.

  32. I hate prologues and feel like they’re homework. Even worse, imagine a book with a prologue AND an introduction. Hate’em both.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I tend to enjoy introductions, since they’re more of a letter from the author to the reader. They’re also entirely skippable, since they’re not actually part of the story, which means readers are free to read them or not, at their own preference.

  33. As usual, your examples illustrate the point so effectively here. I recently watched Maleficent on DVD with my ‘tween daughter, and both of us felt the movie was “just okay” and definitely not worth all the hype. Other than the fact that it felt like a bit of a letdown, I couldn’t put my finger on why this film just didn’t work for me. But now I understand — the story was sort of over before it had even begun. The misplaced prologue gave away all the intrigue. Thank you for another great lesson!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Over before it had even begun”—great way to put it! And it’s sad, because it could have been a really great story.

  34. Great post and as always got me thinking of how I can better write my novels. I have such a hard time weaving in backstory for some reason it just doesn’t come naturally to me, but this post sparked some great ideas and helped me on my way. Thanks for being so dedicated to helping authors succeed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Backstory is always one of my favorite aspects of stories. But you’re right, it’s a tricky balancing act to sow it effectively in a story. Thankfully, that’s what the 20/20 hindsight of revisions is for!

  35. Katie–
    I always go on the alert when EVERYBODY tells me to do or not do something. Everybody says to open with the protagonist. Except Shakespeare frequently does not do this. What in part makes the opening of his most celebrated play, Hamlet, so effective is that the protagonist is referred to, but not present. For this reason we are made all the more interested in meeting him.
    Most everybody says to avoid prologues, and in your piece you offer some convincing reasons for doing so. Except prologues are like anything else: when used and done right, they work very well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. There’s an exception to every rule, and that’s just what the prologue should be: an exception.

  36. My approach is to write the prologue. Get it out of your system right from the get-go, and then make a list of all of the REALLY important plot points in it which need to be understood for the reader to get what’s going on. Then work these into the narrative one or two at a time. Use it as a checklist, and then toss it.

    That said, a prologue can also set the stakes for a story long before the characters know what they are. One example is The Eye of the World. The prologue, Dragonmount, is tense and powerful, and seems to have no bearing on the main story – until you realize that the protagonist faces the same terrible fate as the man in the prologue. Without that glimpse of what’s in store, it would be hard to imagine the depth of horror the character feels when he makes his discovery.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great idea about using the prologue as a checklist. Very smart.

      I do have to admit though that Eye of the World’s prologue is one of my least favorite ever. It makes me want to poke my eyes out just thinking about it. :p

  37. You never fail to amaze! Love your site.
    When reading I skip the prologue altogether and jump right in. It’s more fun to piece together the back story and lore than be spoon-fed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re not the only reader who does that! It’s a sobering thought, when you think about it, from a writer’s perspective.

  38. Artemis says:

    Yeah, I agree about being especially careful about prologues.

    One example, however, where the prologues actually work quite well is Columbo. Basically, the first 15 minutes of any episode are prologue and we learn directly who the actual murderer is. But, and that’s the point, Columbo just isn’t about finding out who did it. Instead, it’s about finding out HOW Columbo will finally get him/her. What the prologue doesn’t tell us explicitly is what mistakes did the culprit do. It does tell us implicitly, though, and therefore gives us the possibility to riddle alongside Columbo.

    Also, giving us a bigger grasp of the personality and character-traits can actually help. The more unsymphathetic the murderer appears to me, and therefore the more I hate him/her, the more I want him/her to fall from the high horse and the more I’m anticipating the conclusion.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Murder stories are a frequent exception to the rule, and readers/viewers are more likely to accept it as a convention. Especially in serial fiction (such as Columbo), when the main character is already familiar to the readers/viewers, this is much easier to get away with. But more often than not, a tighter opening that focuses on the protagonist will still be the better choice.

  39. Ohh I think there are some nice tricks here about how to play with the prologue. I was trying to avoid it, but I think I got an interesting idea out from reading this. So maybe yes or maybe not, time will tell. It´s something the readers do need to know, what they don´t need to know right away is who that happened to. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Prologues are definitely something authors should feel free to play around with. Experimentation is the mother of genius!

  40. I, oddly enough, have never felt the need to prologue, I think it goes back to my childhood love of Roald Dahl, and the way he always left out all the dull bits and got right into the story. I tend open in the middle of the inciting incident, and to err on the side of not enough set up.

    But I recently read Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, and while I enjoyed it very much, it’s opening, called chapter 1, was a real turn off. It opens with a small rather dull character, observing some dramatic events, and I picked up and put down the novel quite a few times over those 10-15 pages.
    Once I finally made it to chapter 2, with it’s great opening line and intriguing characters I was hooked. But she almost lost me on that first chapter.
    I think if it had been labeled Prologue, instead of Chapter 1, I would’ve been better equipped to understand what was happening, that this was a disposable view point character, and I didn’t need to fully engage with him And that this was an event that happened before the general story, and should be viewed as such.
    I don’t think it ruined the subtext, but would the story have been better without it? I don’t know. I do know that it would’ve been better if it was clearly labeled.

  41. Great post as always, KM 🙂 I’ve been considering writing a prologue for my newest WIP; however, as you clarified, it is his ‘Ghost’- just not his main one. He grew up in a really twisted family, and was forced to kill his mother. Would starting off with this be too revealing, or would it do as I’d intended, and add more mystery?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I admit the protagonist killing his mother strikes me as a really great hook. But I’d still approach it very carefully as a prologue. You might lose more than you gain with the awesome hook.

  42. I have gone back and forth with my prologue, but it was actually George R.R. Martin that helped me figure out whether to keep it. Game of Thrones has a prologue that provides subtext to the story. In fact, if it wasn’t for his prologue (and the promise of dragons), I might not have kept reading the first book.

    After reading the prologue, I read the whole rest of the book with that creature (wight?) and the uncle in the back of my mind. I knew it was lurking. I knew it was connected to “Winter is coming.” Frankly, I find his writing style a bit boring (I know, I know…blasphemy) and some of those third act chapters about the Starks were tedious to me. But that prologue was in my mind it colored everything for me. It kept me reading because I wanted to know how it was going to figure in.

    Now, I hope (believe) my third act chapters are not boring. I don’t use the same techniques he does and my writing style is very different. But I liked the idea of a prologue that added subtext, a prologue that posed a question (how, who, when…etc) that would/could lurk in the readers mind as s/he reads. My prologue is in the POV of a secondary character who influences the protag from “off stage” until he reappears in the third act. I wanted readers to think about the information that only he could know–things that he affected that would in turn affect the protag. I believe it’s a valid technique and I really had fun working with it.

  43. I have a huge problem. My MC has a sort of double trouble problem. His ghost or wound are something I feel I could write a whole book about but I feel like it would just be a prologue book to the actual series. I’ve tried to have him explain the gist of it later, but it didn’t have to effect I want it to on the readers. I’m wondering if I should have a prologue briefly going through what happened and how he got yo where he is now, or just have him tell it. Because he is originally from our time but goes back a few centuries to try to escape the pain. So, agai. I feel a sort of explanatory chapter or prequel would be necessary, but I’m worried about it giving too much away or damaging the storyline and subtext.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You could be right. There are certainly times and places where prologues are appropriate. However, my recommendation would be to first explore the possibility of “sowing” the backstory, like clues, throughout the main plot, leading up to important revelations that hook readers and advance the plot.

  44. Emmaline says:

    Good article.

    I’m currently writing a story loosely named “Game of Fire” and I chose to include a prologue because my protag has an interesting backstory. She is a skilled villain who always dreamt of becoming a hero as a child. In the prologue, it shows an argument she overheard between her parents talking about what happens if she wasn’t a hero. I believe it needs to be there to support the story, as this is her ‘Ghost’ and needs to be spelled out because my protag is such a deep and complicated character.

  45. Jana Stout says:

    I’ve written a scene I am thinking of including as a Prolog. It’s a great Hook, It’s not really the Ghost, but related and will set up the Lie well for my main character. It also does a much better job than my fist chapter of letting the readers know how the world differs from the real world. I’m just hesitating in making it a Prolog.
    So I really like your post that have a list of questions. What are the question I should be asking my prolog? What do I need to look for that will tell me if I should rethink this whole thing?

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