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

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The easiest question is simply: Do readers *have* to know this info upfront for the story to make sense? If not, you’re almost certainly better off skipping the prologue and using it at subtext.

  4. Susan Policoff says:

    I have a first chapter that is four years before chapter two. The book has a great deal to do with the relationship between the MC and her husband, who dies in the first chapter in a terrible accident. Everything she does later, which involves her long-vanished father, is because she can’t deal with her grief, her sense of dislocation after her husband dies. I wrote it without the first chapter that starts when he’s alive, but there was never enough sense of him, of their relationship in the rest of the book. I feel it’s necessary to show at least some of their life together–it’s ten pages–to have some context for how she feels later. I’d love to know what you think.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If I were writing this book, my initial instinct would be to try to sow in the relationship via backstory rather than in a lengthy prologue. But it’s always possible the prologue is the best choice. When in doubt, it’s best to solicit beta-reader advice.

  5. I have a chapter from the past (which I do not call a prologue) right at the beginning of Under the Splintered Mountains, and it definitely falls into the Prince of Persia category, where it is “the kind of Ghost that actually creates more subtext when it is revealed upfront than it does when it’s only hinted at”, and where Ushguk would definitely lose a defining aspect of his unique character without it and be less interesting to the reader. And the crucial effects and events of the lost years in between are gradually revealed throughout the rest of the story.

    I’ve been worried about this chapter, knowing it is basically prologue-ish in nature, so thank you for helping me to proof and confirm my instinct about this beginning.

  6. I know this article is old, but I feel compelled to comment anyway because it allowed me to breath easily after a long time of pondering whether I should axe my prologue or not. Maybe someone can benefit from an extra example. (Spoiler alert: The prologue stays).

    An important part of my MC’s backstory is that he’s a man back from the grave. He’s resurrected by the woman he loves. Problem is, his story doesn’t really start at the moment of his resurrection (he’s been alive a year by the time the events of the first act happen).

    My prologue doesn’t show him being resurrected. It just shows the girl researching how to do it, and deciding to go ahead with it. What exactly happens at the moment of his resurrection (which prompts her to wipe his memory for reasons that make sense in context) is left a mystery to be resolved later on.

    Instead of answering questions, the prologue just raises more the instant we jump to Chapter One and are met with a man who only remembers the last year of his life.. and lo and behold, there is the girl, who has very obviously lied to him about who he is given what we know.

    Now, his “amnesiac getting into trouble” stint is interesting enough, prologue or not, because that “trouble” is what the story is actually going to be about. I also could have had the truth about who he is and what his girl has done be a big reveal later on.

    But while the discovery will be a major moment for him, there is no plot-related reason to make it a surprise for the reader. On the other hand, we gain a whole layer of tension by raising questions about how she managed it, why did she mess with his memories, what are her plans, and how he’ll react when he (inevitably) finds out. Also, will he be able to remember?

    In a way, it is vital to the story that the readers know who he is even when he doesn’t (because we’ll worry about him all the more), and once we jump to his POV (the only one we’ll see for the rest of the story), that opportunity is lost.

    So, my additional advice would be: If the prologue actually raises more questions than it answers (read: if it’s contributing to pick the reader’s curiosity and upping the tension), and also has no place in the story outline as such and thus you can’t squeeze it into Chapter One, then it’s probably justified.

  7. Dániel Büki says:

    I’m having a tought time deciding on how to start my story. I had a really great hook in mind, but after I realized it might be a prologue scene, I started thinking about discarding it, but reading this post now, I’m starting to realize it might not even be a prologue.

    So the main plot would be about a spy failing his mission, and a policeman getting swept up in it and in the end completing it instead of him. Basically an origin story for a spy series. (the twist in the premise is that they are time traveling spies). So for the first scene I was thinking about showing the key event basically, in which the original spy starts a shootout in an airplane, trying to stop the antagonist’s plan. The scene could showcase the premise wonderfully, the spy using future tech to easily get through airport security, etc. But then I realized, that this way my story cannot start with the characteristic moment: the scene in which my real protagonist, the policeman is waiting at a drug bust – only to have it interrupted by the news of the shootout at the airport.

    So my question is: is this really a prologue? Is it okay to just open with the Key event even if the protagonist is not present in it? Also: this scene would just straight up show that yes, time travel is REAL and these spies really did come from the future – maybe this info should not be this clear from the beginning? Basically the protagonist doesn’t even believe this time travel thing until the first plot point, maybe I should keep readers in his head, questioning if it’s real as well? But time travelling spies is my premise, it would have to be clear from the title, the cover and the blurb on the back, it wouldn’t really be a thing people don’t think to be true…

    So that’s my big dilemma about using a sort of “prologue” scene, do you have any tips about this one?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The short answer is: it’s possible to make just about anything *work*. However, I generally recommend against opening with scenes that don’t feature the protagonist. It’s accepted in certain genres, but it still wastes one of your best opportunities for hooking readers with character.

Trackbacks

  1. […] K.M Weiland says,  […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.