Skip the Prologue!

Writers have an ongoing love affair with the prologue. You know, that chapter before a chapter inserted at the beginning of a book, intended to fill the reader in on important need-to-know info, so that he and the writer will be on the same page when they dive into the “real” beginning of the story.

Readers, on the other hand, tend to regard the prologue with an emotion that falls somewhere between confusion and outright disdain. Prologues, all too often, are nothing more than big fat stumbling blocks between them and potentially juicy stories.

Why the disparity? And who’s right—writer or reader? The answer to the second question should be abundantly clear to anyone who’s spent more than a year churning out fiction: the reader is right. If the reader doesn’t like something, it’ll hit the trash basket faster than sour milk. So writers would do well to sit up and take notes. Ask most readers across the globe, and they’ll unequivocally tell you they tend to skip the prologue.

Maybe writers should be doing the same thing.

The Problem With Prologues

Prologues, with very few exceptions, are a prime example of the writer wanting to hold his reader’s hand. Mr. Writer figures the reader won’t possibly be able to figure out the backstory without a little help, so he spells it out in the greatest possible detail.

At first glance, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, “generality is the death of the novel.” Lack of information undermines the entire arc of the story and leaves the reader dangling in uncertainty and dissatisfaction. But are prologues really the best way to supply that necessary information? Or do the risks outweigh the benefits?

Think about your own reading experiences. Do you enjoy prologues? Be honest: Do you even read prologues most of the time? Even the most brilliantly written and engaging prologue is likely to possess dangerous and inherent flaws. Chief among those flaws is the fact that prologues force readers to begin a story twice. Any emotional investment they may have given your story is destroyed by the time/setting/character switch that takes place when they turn the page and find themselves staring at “Chapter 1” in bold type.

How to Skip the Prologue and Thrive

I can hear writers everywhere screaming, But the information in my prologue is vital! My story simply won’t work without a prologue!

Won’t it?

Take a closer look at your first chapter. Generally, you’ll find that a strong first chapter (which is a must with or without a prologue) will provide a stronger opening for your story than will a prologue. Too often, prologues are little more than information dumps. That is, after all, their primary purpose. And therein lies the problem: Prologues are meant to convey information—not hook the reader. No matter how compelling your information, without a hook your potential readers are outta there.

Over the years I’ve written more prologues than I like to think about. But here’s the surprising thing: Without exception, my stories were stronger without the prologues. Almost without exception, the prologues were so non-essential, I was able to cut them completely. And, in so doing, I spared the reader from slogging through paragraphs of suddenly non-essential information, and I spared myself from losing my readers’ attention before I’d even gotten started.

Consider carefully. Can you find some way to reassemble that “vital” information later in the story? Backstory is much more effective once the reader has a reason to care about your characters. As for flashbacks: If the event in a flashback is important enough to garner a scene of its own, it’s probably important enough to deserve a place in the story proper.

So blow off that eraser, warm up the delete key, and start skipping some prologues! (Or read on to discover “When Not to Skip the Prologue.”)

Tell me your opinion: What do you think is the greatest pitfall of the prologue?

skip the prologue

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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. Thanks for stopping by! I’m not saying there isn’t a time and a place for prologues, but I find them so overused and unnecessary most of the time that they’ve become one of my pet peeves. Glad I’m not only one!

  2. I’ve always found prologues to be a waste of time. I’ve never read them, and I’ve never written them. Sometimes authors reach beyond their actual depth and prologues are one of many artifices of their arrogance.

  3. Hm…interesting

  4. Anonymous says:

    What’s really sad is when the prologue is fascinating and dramatic with a promise of an exciting, engaging plot; and a subsequent story that falls flat. I had that problem with Robert Jordan’s first Wheel of Time novel. I don’t think I got past chapter one.
    Nadine Liamson

  5. The problem you’re talking about isn’t just the result of a slow opening chapter. In some instances, opening chapters that might have been interesting enough on their own fail because they’re so different from the prologue that whetted the reader’s appetite. The reader wants more of the prologue, and, as a result, tires is frustrated with the “real” story.

  6. Fionnuala says:

    I had no idea prologues are so generally despised. I usually enjoy them. But I go into it understanding that they contain backstory and I love backstory. The big danger, as I see it, is that the backstory might be much more interesting than the main story, as in the first Wheel of Time book. But that tends to be a danger will all doling out of backstory, not just prologue form.

    Perhaps prologues are more generally accepted in the fantasy genre which is what I read and write.

  7. I’m a lover of backstory myself – but only when it makes we want to keep reading the main story. In his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, sci-fi master Orson Scott Card wrote a convincing entreaty to fantasy authors on why they should not write prologues, as a general rule.

  8. I always read prologues! 🙂

  9. I do too, actually, even when they drive me crazy. Chalk it up to OCD. :p

  10. My prologue is actually the beginning of the story. The first part of the book actually happens before the prologue. It’s kind of like. “This is what’s happening now read part one to find out why”. Is that ok?

  11. Those are called “flash forwards.” We have to be aware of allowing them to become “gimmicky” (something that’s most likely to happen when the payoff isn’t as good as the reader is led to expect). But, generally, I find them one of the more acceptable forms of prologues.

  12. I will admit that I often find myself wanting to skip the prologue. And when I do read them, I ask myself what I gained by reading it, and the answer usually is nothing. I like your advice to carefully consider whether or not to include one. Writers should decide whether or not a prologue is necessary and not take it as something that their book must have.

    Thanks for the post!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Sometimes it’s worth it to just go ahead and write the prologue – if only for ourselves. Once we’ve gotten it out of our systems, we’ll often have an easier time evaluating whether or not it’s essential to the story.

  13. A good warning, but I think you’re being too hard on the prologue. (Doesn’t help that the link to “When Not to skip the prologue” didn’t work for me.) Agreed, too often it’s an excuse to infodump.

    But what about the precision prologue? Like the classic horror opening of One Guy Gets Eaten? You can use a prologue to spotlight one thing first rather than the usual several points in a chapter, and maybe that’s the right lead-in for your story. Clumsy prologues just give the good ones a bad name.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Whoops! Sorry about the link. It’s redirecting to my old blog. I’ll fix that in just a second. Totally agree with what you say about clumsy prologues giving the good ones a bad name. Because there *are* excellent prologues out there (some of which I discuss in the linked post and another of which is Patrick Rothfuss’s in The Name of the Wind – my all-time favorite prologue). Authors just need to be aware of the pitfalls, because, if we’re not careful, prologues can seriously dilute our openings.

  14. I always read the prologues. The ones I like are those that flash forward into a story. Kind of like some TV shows now that start out with a scene, then shift back and say “14 hours earlier.” Those are fun. But you’re right, it’s a bit of laziness to use the prologue to dump information that really is just backstory. As long as we’re venting, what really annoys me are the 20 page Introductions in some non-fiction titles. Writer craft books are the absolute worst. I think some people just like to hear themselves write.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In the interest of complete disclosure, I always read them too. But I’m OCD that way. 😉 As with anything, the prologue as a writing technique is all about serving the story. If it does that, then all’s well.

  15. I think prologues work best if you use them to create dramatic irony–in which case, your prologue gives the reader information your main character doesn’t even have. That way, the character’s plight is even more dire than he/she knows…but the reader knows, which helps propel the story forward with an extra layer of tension. Keep it short, keep it sweet, and use that space to set a trap that springs on your character in the first chapter.

    On the other hand, if a writer is using the prologue to dump information about a character who appears in chapter one, that information can be worked into the regular flow of chapters without the need for a prologue.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Keep it short, keep it sweet” – that’s the secret recipe for successful prologues. And I agree about dramatic irony. Hard to go amiss when that’s well done.

  16. I usually read prologues, but if the prologue is more than 2-3 pages, I get frustrated. Can’t think of specific examples right now, but books with prologues that are longer than the first scene or chapter are annoying – and a prologue of that sort definitely shouldn’t be there.

    The example in your pictures of the prologues for “Star Wars” (the movies and the original book) in my opinion are good examples of useful and well-done prologues. Even though they’re info dumps, they’re short enough to be manageable. And that much background info woven into the story itself would make an already-complex story almost tedious.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, I agree. I was thinking maybe I should have stuck in a disclaimer: No offense to Star Wars, because (aside from the fact that they’re movies, and therefore different animals altogether) the Star Wars “prologues” aren’t just delightful, they’re classic. But, I gotta tell you, finding an image to illustrate prologues is tough!

  17. When I read a writer’s work, I read it all — prologue, epilogue, whatever.

    My most recently read book with a prologue was “The Dragon Princess” by E. D. Baker. The story told by the prologue was wonderful, and it provided insight into the protagonist, Millie, to understand what she was and the quest on which she goes.

    “Dragons of the Dwarven Depths” by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman is another example of a prologue I felt was essential for understanding the story.

    I found prologues written by David Eddings to be fascinating.

    The list could go on.

    I believe prologues must be complete and compelling stories in and of themselves, and should leave the reader ready for the story that follows. A badly written prologue is not a sin because it is a prologue; it is a sin because it is badly written.

    Woe to the reader who complains about not understanding the story when their lack of understanding is a result of having not read the prologue.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “A badly written prologue is not a sin because it is a prologue; it is a sin because it is badly written.” This is absolute truth. When used well, prologues can be marvelous fictional techniques. But, in order to be used well, authors have to understand the strengths and weaknesses inherent in prologues – and build them accordingly.

      • So true. The problem is that there’s so much misconception about what prologues are good at– or that it’s near-required to have them. So they’re prone to specific types of bad writing.

        I think it comes down to using a prologue to make *one* point as a hook, instead of using a regular chapter to make several, let alone dumping a pile of information or “historical depth” for its own sake.

        (By the way, the link works now.)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I agree. Prologues are good at being specific. If we try to ask them to do too many things, we water down the overall effect and end up with a poor prologue – and, worse, a poor beginning to our story. Making a prologue work comes down to knowing what it’s designed to accomplish and focusing on that.

    • I am almost finished reading “The Dragonbone Chair” by Tad Williams. This book contains no prologue. However, it does have a front end plate with a description of the Dragonbone chair itself, a Dedication, an Author’s Note, an Author’s Warning, and a Foreword. At the back of the book is an Appendix, which contains: People, Places, Creatures, Things, A Guide to Pronunciation, and Word and Phrases. Who needs a prologue when there are so many other tools available?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I love creative front and end matter – both are the first thing I read in a book. Good prologues are always creative. So long as that factor is in place, the rest will usually follow.

  18. Thank you for writing such a complete explanation of prologue. So far, with my first three nonfiction books, I have avoided a prologue. However, with my current novel, to become a series, it is of such complexity that I may not be able to avoid it to insure that the reader is not confused right from the beginning. It is post apocalyptic, spiritual, without a time/space continuum and basically with no beginning or ending. Quite a challenge, right? Yes, I have created a beginning, but I have no idea how it will ever end. Hence, it must be an indefinite series. I will make my final determination later about whether or not I can avoid a prologue. Thanks for all the great guidance.

  19. I wrote my first novel without a prologue. I finished the book, edited it, and then added a prologue in! I don’t know why I did this.

    Basically, the story starts with my eight-year-old semi-protagonist (she shares the spotlight with her mother) going to watch her mother prepare for a dinner party (where Alice, the eight-year-old, is told something that launches her into action, etc.). The prologue is about Alice’s mother several years back before Alice is born and … I don’t think it has a real purpose. I won’t do that again!

    As a reader, I actually enjoy prologues sometimes. However, some drive me crazy. For instance, Julie Klassen, a historical romance author, usually has a long prologue either about something completely unrelated to the story or necessary to the story! I don’t think prologues should contain information that you can’t throw away any time. But that’s just me.

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