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!
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.”)