do you need a prologue header

Do You Need a Prologue? One Way to Tell

do you need a prologueDo you need a prologue? This question confronts authors in every story they write. Unfortunately, in large part because authors don’t always understand the true function of prologues (and epilogues), the answer often results in unnecessary padding.

So can how can you tell when you need a prologue in your story? And when don’t you need a prologue?

The classic movie Twelve O’Clock High provides a good illustration of why it’s often better to forego prologues and epilogues.

Dean Jagger Twelve O'Clock High

This otherwise excellent film is framed by a set of scenes, one at the beginning and one at the end, in which a minor character revisits the setting from the main part of the movie. In the opening scene, he wanders about for ten minutes or so, obviously reminiscing, and then the shot fades into the first scene of the story proper. The movie ends by picking up where that original scene left off, with the minor character silently walking back to the road and leaving.

The surest way to discover whether you need a prologue and/or epilogue to frame your story is to ask yourself: Does the story in between lose any clarity or context without the prologue and/or epilogue? If the answer is no (as it is in Twelve O’Clock High) then you’ll do both yourself and your readers a favor by cutting them. Just remember that unnecessary padding, especially at the beginning of the book, delays readers from forming an emotional attachment to your main character and engaging their intellect with the plot.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think? Do you need a prologue in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. No. lol.

  2. I’ve only written one book where I felt a prologue was necessary. However, I’ve written a lot of back story for myself, without including it in the book. I did publish both the prologue and what would be considered an epilogue as stand alone shorts on Smashwords and some other digital stores.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  3. @Christopher: Sure you’re looking hard enough? 😉

    @Terry: Interesting idea: publishing prologues and epilogues as extra “goodies” on the Internet. I like it!

  4. I used to have a prologue, but you’re right, it was completely pointless and only served to up the wordcount.

    I do believe they can work when the story’s structure is built with one in mind. Say the prologue is an event from the middle and the start of the book explains how the characters get there. I’ve read books like that and enjoyed them. It’s a good way to hook a reader in!

  5. Prologues *absolutely* have their place (see Johne Cook’s “Writing Event Story Prologues That Really Work” linked at the bottom of the post above). The problem is that authors don’t always understand prologues’ purpose and, as a result, too often misuse or overuse them.

  6. I’m definitely in the less is more camp, and therefore shy away from pro- and epilogues. Get in and get out as quickly as you can. But some stories absolutely need prologues to setup the narrative. And some stories need epilogues. I’m thinking of Harry Potter. I didn’t like the epilogue, but the fans needed it, and Rowling needed it to cut off any other interpretations of her character’s futures.

  7. I’m known in writing circles as being generally anti-prologue. So it might surprise people when I admit that I’ve written prologues for three out of my last four books. So far, none of the prologues have made it into the published versions. However, my current WIP (The Deepest Breath) currently has a framework of prologue and epilogue that I believe is crucial for presenting the story. We’ll see what my editor says!

  8. The way I figure it, if the prologue’s really necessary, why not change the heading at the top of the page to “Chapter 1”?

    One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve heard is “in late, out early” and it’s made me put the ax to a lot of unnecessary fluff in my own writing, including prologues.

    Now off to check out Johne Cook’s opinion …

  9. I agree that it’s a valid tactic to avoid using the word “prologue” in certain situations. However, there are still lots of good reasons to call a prologue a prologue. If the prologue is necessary *as* a prologue – a device obviously distinct from the rest of the story – it’s useful to signal that to the reader.

  10. Since a lot of readers skip prologues, it’s usually best to leave them out.

  11. When in doubt, leave it out. And when you’re not in doubt… give it a little more thought.

  12. I’m struggling with this right now. A nonfiction proposal my agent is circulating has a prologue, but I’m now thinking it might be better to throw the reader in and then catch them up on what the point is after they’re hooked. Not sure there’s a right answer, although the latter in this case would be more challenging.

  13. You’re absolutely spot on – there is no “right” answer. Sometimes prologues are unquestionably the best choice, dramatically and artistically. But, in general, I would advise that if you can go *without* the prologue, do it.

  14. Two modern authors I know who have used prolouges are L.B. Graham and Bryan Davis.
    Graham’s prolouges tend to take place far before the story, but provide historical background–technically they’re not ‘necessary’ to the story, but it definately gives the world more depth.
    Bryan Davis’s prolouges in the Oracles of Fire series are slightly different. The first book’s prolouge serves as an introduction in the first person, while the prolouges of the other three show a scene of the villian before we cut to the protagonist.

  15. Do you find them effective? In my own reading habits, I tend to be impatient of historical background and, particularly, antagonist introductions in prologues. I much prefer it when authors introduce me to the main character right away.

  16. I keep thinking “but it’s not a prolog; it’s just the early part of the story.”

    And yet the first scene is unlike any successive scene. I think it’s a prolog. It’s the earliest moment of time in the book. And it sets the stage.

    But I can’t cut it, or the story falls apart.

  17. @ Nathanael Green

    I’m the opposite–I tend to start way, way, way too late. Before anyone says they wish they had that problem, I added 33K in front of my original beginning and had to toss out most of the book to fix the problems caused by starting too late.

    No unnecessary padding for me–just more story!

  18. @Stephen: Then you’re probably better off keeping it. Get some objective feedback – from critique partners or your agent – but if you feel the prologue is absolutely necessary, it probably is.

    @Linda: Wow! I think you’re the first writer I’ve met who starts that late. At least you get the pleasure of adding extra story instead of the agony of cutting!

  19. One of my already-written-but-not-yet-published stories has a 6-chapter prologue. I didn’t realize this huge weakness till recently. Thanks in part to this article, I’m considering rewriting it from chapter 7 on, inserting the info in the first 6 later in the story.

    The old way, the story was a slow starter, but this new way, I hit the ground running–literally! Man, the thing you learn on-line!

    ~ VT

  20. A six-chapter prologue… now that’s a new one me. Sounds like an interesting concept, but, knowing nothing else about it, I would have to agree that you’re almost certainly better off hitting the ground with a running start.

  21. I have to agree, mostly I can cut the start of my novels. But in my current WIP my readers suggested it need a little bit more before the story, because it needs to lead up to the magic scene. So I can see how sometimes it’s necessary. Especially with fantasy.
    http://shannonkodonnell.blogspot.com/2011/04/possession-anyone.html

  22. A couple of thoughts.

    First, it depends on the genre. As a fantasy reader, I’m used to prologues and I enjoy them. I find they’re often used when the book opens with a scene in a completely different time and place than the main storyline or with completely different characters than in the main storyline. This is common in fantasy. As a fantasy writer, I don’t think that prologues turn off readers of my genre so the main potential problem with them is when the prologue material is far more interesting than the main storyline, as in the first Wheel of Time book.

    Second, in the example you used you mention that the framing device is centered around a minor character. I wonder if that was the problem with it. Perhaps it would have been better if it was the main character? Personally, I often enjoy those types of “looking back on the past” framing devices if they add poignancy to the tale. But I imagine it might not be as effective from a minor character’s viewpoint.

  23. Both my books have a prologue or what I like to call a prelude. I feel they’re both necessary because the first one introduces a mystery and the second has information that I feel is essential to the story, but it ends with an intriguing hook.

    My question for you is — one of my crit partners said the query needs to match what the agent reads in the story. So if I’m starting my prologue with two adults and the query talks about a teenager – will the agent not even bother reading it or will they just understand that it’s a prologue?

  24. @Charmaine: It always, always, always depends on the story. We can’t make a sweeping pronouncement about prologues and epilogues being generally useless, because they absolutely have their place. It’s our job to understand their function and be objective about their worth in our individual stories.

    @Sarah: Good thoughts. In response to your first point, I’ll say that, as a fantasy reader myself, I still feel that the vast majority of fantasy prologues are unnecessary. In fact, I would go so far as to say that fantasy prologues are some of the worst offenders. If you haven’t already clicked the link below the post above, I highly recommend John Cooke’s article “Writing Event Story Prologues That Really Work”, which focuses particularly on fantasy prologues.

    In response to your second point, I think you’re right on target. Although I tend to think the story would still have more effective without any post-story framing, it would have worked much better had it featured the main character, instead of a minor player. At the very least, that way, it would have served the purpose of properly directing the viewer’s loyalty and attention to the correct character.

    @Mary: Agents are notorious for disliking prologues. They see so many prologues that are done poorly and/or completely unnecessary to the story that many of them, as they will freely admit, groan at the very sight of a prologue in a submission. My recommendation would be to leave the prologue out of your submission. If the relationship works out with the agent, you can discuss the prologue’s necessity later on.

  25. @Linda

    I feel your pain! That happened with an old,old, abandoned work of mine. I’ve found that it’s much easier to overwrite and then trim the fat in the second draft than to try to beef it up.

    (On a side note, my word verification is “prainic” – is that a brain panic when you realize you need to add 33K words to your novel? 😉 )

  26. Love it! If that’s the definition, then I’m experiencing a bit of “prainic” myself right now, as I’m contemplating adding up to 20,000 words to my WIP.

  27. great rule of thumb, KM! Really anything that if cut makes the story stronger should go, yes? but especially in the beginning and the end. Open strong/end strong.

    great post~ :o) <3

  28. The beginning and ending are arguable the most important parts of your book, so it’s especially important to get them just right – even when that means some painful cutting.

  29. I’ve heard the common take about prologues often being unnecessary. Haven’t heard much about epilogues though. I’m working on a YA novel and an editor from Simon and Schuster read my first pages. After asking me some questions, what do you think she suggested? Yep. A prologue. The very thing we’re often told to avoid. I tried one and it did seem to add to the story and clarify an important point. My beta readers like it. I guess, nothing is set in stone, but you have to make sure certain elements are the right choice for certain stories. Take nothing for granted. Great post.

    Oh, yeah, a world made of steel is pretty unique. Thanks for stopping by!

  30. Prologues are a wonderful tool of the trade. Used rightly, they can add so much to the presentation. The trick, of course, is figuring out when they should be used and *how* to present them effectively.

  31. I just read a review on the Goddess Test, a new release, and they said it was the best prologue they’ve ever read. Really makes me curious now!!!! Another really good prologue I specifically remember was from My Sister’s Keeper- I think becasue, like you said, it made a really strong emotional connection to the main character, instead of distancing like they often too.

  32. I read My Sister’s Keeper several years ago. I’m trying to remember the prologue now… It must have worked, because I usually remember the ones that don’t!

  33. I have heard another good way of testing if you need your pro or epilogue is to rename them to chapter to 1 and chapter xx give one copy with the extra chapters to one set of beta readers and one without (leaving the prologue and epilogue out as well) to another set. If the ones without said something was missing then you have your answer. Most the time that I have seen one or the other even in published works, they mostly felt like fluff, that didn’t need to be there, or they could have been handled as part of the story proper. This is mostly true with prologues. Epilogues on the other hand can be nice, just to give you a window in to what happened after the story was over. Take the semi fictionalized movie The Widow Maker. I was nice to see them standing at the grave discussing how the government had treated them when they got home.

  34. Prologues and epilogues are rarely (if ever?) necessary. They’re like garnishes on a cake: there for the effect more than the taste. Authors have to understand that fact before they can make an informed decision about whether or not such a garnish is a good idea for their particular stories.

  35. Enjoyed this. Thank you!

  36. Thanks for stopping by!

  37. Not in my WIP, no. The information a prologue would tell, I can almost guarantee would ruin one of my key twists.

  38. My WIP has a prologue but I’m finding it to be unnecessary. I think I originally was going to use it as an information dump opportunity. Going back over it I found it to be boring, so I am planning to remove it. I do like the idea of an epilogue because it could be used to setup another story, planting a seed of mystery.

  39. Unless I have this wrong, as I remember, the prologue and epilogue in Saving Private Ryan angered me. In the prologue the old man visiting the grave’s face flashes back by morphing into the character played by Tom Hanks. Okay, so I’m thinking he’s the old man in the future at the grave. At the end Private Ryan’s face goes into the future/same scene and we see who it really is. That was cheating.

  40. In my current WIP, I originally called the first chapter the “Prologue,” but then I decided that, really, it’s just “Chapter One.” Because it’s continuous with the rest of the story, there’s no time jump or anything. And the POV character has POV scenes later on in the book as well. So there was really nothing to distinguish it from a regular first chapter.

  41. Dennis Fleming says

    I wrote a 10-page synopsis of my book and another single page of the backstory. I asked the readers in my reading group to read the ten pages then later read the back story and tell me what needed to be kept or what needed to go or wasn’t necessary

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