when not to skip the prologue

When Not to Skip the Prologue

If you read last week’s post, “Skip the Prologue,” you’ve hopefully seen some of the reasons prologues are often a bad idea. Even prologues that escape being boring information dumps tend to delve into the dangerous waters of distancing a reader from the main story. Having invested their interest and emotion in a prologue, a reader is jarred when suddenly he must switch gears and turn the page into Chapter 1.

But does all this mean that prologues are always a bad idea?

To put it as plainly as possible – no, it does not.

Without doubt, the prologue has its place in a writer’s bag of tricks. So long as a writer understands how to use this particular trick, he can use it to great effect. But be warned: effective prologues aren’t for the faint of heart or the unskilled. In order to employ an effective prologue, one must have a clear understanding of what works and what doesn’t; when a prologue is necessary and when it isn’t; and how to pull it off in a sparkling show of lights that dazzles readers into investing in your story’s main body.

The Qualities of an Effective Prologue

Over the past year, I’ve read several books that have utilized effective prologues. By effective, I mean a prologue that accomplishes everything it’s supposed to do: hooking the reader without distancing him from the story he came to read.

The most effective prologues are those that are short (containing little else other than the hook itself) and very sparse on character or story development. Since, by their very nature, prologues are distanced from the main body of the story, the reader tends to be distanced as well. As we discussed last week, that’s deep tapioca pudding right there.

How to Make Your Prologue Work

From time to time, most every writer struggles with the need to include a prologue. The question is—how do we make it work? what constitutes a good prologue?

A good prologue doesn’t even attempt to draw the reader into its characters or its story narrative. It exists merely to impart some important information (be it a bad-guy perspective, an event that occurs previous to the story, an event that occurs after the story, etc.). If the writer delivers that information as quickly and sparsely as possible, he’ll convey the necessary information and still leave the story itself (including its arc and natural character progression) fully in tact.

Prologues That Work

For example, in his bestselling novel The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum opens with two newspaper articles, conveying information about the story’s antagonist and effectively setting the scene for the hero’s entrance. Because the prologue is short, snappy, and doesn’t require the reader to invest his emotions only to reinvest them at the beginning of Chapter 1, it works well.

In the Star Wars novel Tatooine Ghost, author Troy Denning opens with a brief snapshot of a nightmare, experienced by Leia Organa Solo. The dream sequence, told entirely in italics, is snappy, haunting, and gripping. It hooks the reader quickly, without forcing him to delve into character studies and action scenes. In the case of Tatooine Ghost, Denning does have the profound advantage of characters with whom most readers are already familiar. However, his prologue still presents a valid example.

Prologues That Don’t Work

In contrast, a historical novel I recently read, begins with the drawn-out description of the protagonist’s mother’s pregnancy, labor, and—finally—her delivery of twin boys. This scene adds nothing of importance to the story. Not only it is a slow and boring opening scene, but it misdirects readers, first encouraging them to attach themselves to the mother as the obvious main character, only to subsequently reveal that the story in fact revolves around her younger son and his female cousins.

Finally, a popular fantasy begins with a complicated and prolix recounting of the historical event that shoved the story world into turmoil. The prologue, although necessary backstory, fails to engage the reader with the important characters and their struggles. It is a classic example of backstory that could easily have been woven into the body of the story later on.

In short, consider two “rules” to govern your use of the prologue:

1. Unless absolutely necessary, skip the prologue.

2. If a prologue is unavoidable, make it short, snappy, with a solid hook and as little drawn-out narration as possible.

Tell me your opinion: Can you think of an example of prologue that works? What makes it successful?

when not to skip the prologue

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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. I am uncertain whether or not to include a prologue.

    The story starts when the protagonist (C) is 18 years old. When he was a child, he survived an attack that killed his siblings, but he has no memory of how he did so. What he does remember is hearing the voice of someone else in his mind, someone who guided him as he escaped. He has recurring nightmares of the event, and sometimes in his dreams the voice comes to him again.

    In the second act, C will be introduced to a character (S) who will become his love interest. S has telepathic abilities, and the two of them will realize that they’ve “met” before – S was the voice helping C when they were both children.

    I have a hook for the first chapter that I am pleased with: “The moment he threw the first punch, C knew he was going to regret it.” But I am torn about whether or not to use a brief scene from the attack as a prologue to set up that childhood interaction. I would do it without context, probably mostly dialogue. Would this be a case where a prologue is useful, or one that detracts from the story? Would it be better to work it in later during the Set Up as a flashback or something?

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