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. Thank you so much for mentioning Reobert Jordan’s prologue. If there was a book of what never to do as a fantasy writer, I could write it with cleverly edited excerpts of his works.

    What galls me the most is how well his books have sold despite how terrible they are.

    *Ahem*

    But, yes, valid observations all, Tarin. Bravo. /claps

  2. I enjoy Clive Cussler’s adventure novels with a link to the ancient past (sigh, yes, I confess, it’s true)and I love the way he writes a very short teaser prologue to do with the lost artifact, stolen manuscript, wrecked ship etc. They are entirely related to the past, the plot of long ago, and the reader then is eager to find out how it relates to the present. A prologue can have its place, but as long as it serves to entice, interest and excite the reader.

  3. Exactly. If a prologue fails to entice, we’re all sunk.

  4. As a Star Wars fan, but not a reader of the books, you’ve got me intrigued now. I shall have to see if my library has a copy of the book–for learning purposes, of course. ;p

  5. Most of the Star Wars Extended Galaxy books aren’t worth reading, but if I remember right, this one was a fun little ride.

  6. Like, one of my ideas might have a prolouge–

    Are you sure it will work?”
    “It’s been over fifteen years since the Great Desecration. People long for stability. The time is ripe for the return of the gods.”
    Gusts tore at the two men’s ragged cloths, stirring up dust among the ruins. “Reborn? They would be little more than children, with little or no power.”
    “We served the gods before. We can train them now. And those who train the gods may control them.”
    Memories of smoke swirling above the clouds flashed before them. “But how will we recognize them?”
    “It’s not what they can do. It’s about whom we can control.” The man licked his lips. “We will be the greatest of the gods.”
    The other nodded slowly. “A new age.”
    “Our age.”
    For a long time, the only sound was the whirling wind. The cautious man kicked a pebble, watching it plummet from the summit through the clouds. “What if we can’t control them…what if they do have powers?”
    –but that is the whole prolouge.
    Actually, it’s all I’ve written yet, but it’s like a snapshot before the movie.

  7. Without reading the entire book, of course, I can’t comment on the necessity of the prologue. But the fact that it’s so short is a definite factor in its favor.

  8. I came here straight from your youtube channel from a reply you gave me. When watching your videos earlier, I saw 3 familiar book edges on your shelf, but wasn’t sure if they were in fact Star Wars novels. This post makes it almost a guarantee that they are by Timothy Zahn.

    Oh, also, I will not be writing a prologue now, thanks to you!

    ~David~
    aka RedMatrix

  9. Yep, good guess! Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars trilogy were some of my first spec fic adventures as a young reader.

  10. Haha, that infamous The Wheel of Time prologue. I’ve read it (and the half of that series) in my teens, I didn’t mind it much actually. Of course, now I understand it’s a needless back story ‘placement’ .

  11. I think I’ll stick with skipping them all together. I don’t believe readers like prologues.

  12. Good points. Especially what you wrote about Wheel of Times’ prologue. I am currently reading it, not offensive to the haters, but I am actually liking it pretty much. But it had been in my shelf from over a year. Whenever I picked it up to read the prologue popped out in front of me. And in seconds I would find myself lost in so much info hammering that I would put it back to its place. 🙂
    When I entirely skipped it, I started getting besides that and now am halfway through.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s worth noting, as a reader, that if you hate the prologue, don’t give up on the book until you try the first chapter as well. And, by the same note, if you love the prologue, it’s not necessarily a guarantee you’ll love the rest of the book!

      • I am thinking that after done with outlining I will start writing my book with one. But after first draft being done, I will decide whether to keep it or throw it out of the window 😉

  13. I’m currently planning/writing a story set in World War One about a nurse who goes out to France, but at the moment, the story starts in the village where the nurse lives when war is declared. The problem is that I can’t find an interesting way to hook the reader as the events in the first couple of chapters haven’t got much ‘action’ only setting up the characters. Would it be worth putting a prologue in here?

    (I’m sorry if this isn’t the right place to ask!!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A prologue won’t solve your problem of finding the right place to begin the story. You’ll still have to return to the “boring” section to begin again. Better to find a strong hook in the existing obvious opening. If you aren’t able to open with some kind of plot-driven hook, look to the character and her personal mysteries and motivations. Stephen King did a brilliant job of opening with a character hook in his 11/22/63. I touch on his technique in this eletter post.

  14. Thank you!! I have been reading your blog literally the whole summer, it is so useful!!

  15. Was that Thorn in My Heart whose prologue you mentioned about the mother and labor scene? That’s what popped into my head as I was reading that paragraph. 😀 Anyway, glad to see more info on prologues – they can be confusing little buggers! 🙂

  16. My publisher asked me to add a prologue to the second book in a series to strengthen the geographic tie with the previous book in the series. I put the hook in there, an action-y scene that also did a bit of explaining the first book in the series.

  17. What do you think of the prologue in the 2011 J.J. Abrams Star Trek?

    The story’s villain reveals himself, and vital backstory about time travel appears briefly.

    Most importantly, we immediately invest an emotional stake in James Kirk’s father’s self-sacrificial act. It’s gripping and a real tearjerker as he cracks a joke while accepting his impending death and the sorrowful fact he’ll never meet his baby who is being born at that moment.

    Cut to title sequence then young James Kirk as an ungrateful rebel.

    It works because although we’re pulled into the father’s story, he’s cut off quickly, and the writer introduces (albeit well-known) our main character: baby James T. Kirk.

    Agree or not?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I do agree–and for the basic and primary reason that the prologue *works*. Like you, I immediately emotionally invested in what was going down, which is a very impressive thing for a story to accomplish in about ten minutes. It also works because it comes full circle in a meaningful way as a Ghost/Wound that is crucial in Kirk’s character arc. If it had failed in either of those, it would have been far less effective.

  18. I really enjoyed the prologues Garth Nix has written for his Abhorsen trilogy (there are additional works out there now for this storyline, but I haven’t gotten to those yet).
    Sabriel’s prologue sets up the role of the Abhorsen, gives us a glimpse of the antagonist, and helps us to care about her father as much as she does when she goes searching for him.
    Lirael’s, if I remember right, sets us up with the antagonists for the next two books and makes you ask the question, “what are you up to????”
    I’ve really loved his work, and reading through your blog has given me a newfound appreciation for his work and the works of many other authors. 😀
    Thank you!

  19. Hannah Killian says

    So, in one of my stories, there’s this rebellion in which the MC is separated from her family and then it cuts to fifteen years later.

    Should I keep or not keep it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Without knowing anything more about it, I’d say, without hesitation, don’t keep it. That’s the kind of info that can be used to create great subtext and reveals later in the story.

  20. Sarah Hernandez says

    In my WIP, I do use a prologue. However, I agree, I have read books that have prologues that are absolutely unnecessary and distracting. In my prologue, I foreshadow something my protagonist experiences at the end. In fact, the entire novel is her reliving her traumatic circumstances that cause her to be fearful. The story, though spanning several years, is her memory of an event that shaped the rest of her life. It isn’t until the last chapter that the reader realizes it. Without the prologue, the last two chapters wouldn’t have much weight or impact on her story.

  21. The only downside to reading your site is realizing how many great books/movies I haven’t read/seen, and probably won’t read, if I’m being honest with my lazy self.
    I do have a question regarding a WIP of mine and its possible prologue. (WIP as in, I’m still outlining it) It’s a superhero/fantasy mix kinda thing, and said prologue is from the perspective of a superhero battling a monster. Said monster is the main “big” threat throughout the story, but said superhero isn’t the main character. In fact, the way I’ve roughly planned it would have the POV switch to the actual main character–a less super but still heroic college student–fighting more typical crime while the battle rages above, followed on with establishing her normal world (since the world is used to superhero v. monster battles, and the citizens just carry on as normal) I do plan to have more scenes like this one throughout the book in order to show how the battles going while she fights it on the ground, but I’m not sure if it’s the right structural choice or not, since it means I’d be delaying my protagonist’s introduction.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although it is possible to open successfully with a character or even antagonist who is not the protagonist, it’s tricky, and I generally advise against it. Your strongest opening–both from a structure viewpoint and a hook viewpoint–will almost always be found with your protagonist.

  22. Ok, I planning on writing a prologue for my novel, but despite your advice I feel that it deserves to be about a chapter in length, however that’s not my problem. Before I get to the my problem, I will present the overview of what happens in my Prologue.

    The story (Prologue) starts with the Protagonist, a shy young girl by a name that I will not mention, going through her day at school but a conflict arises between her and a boy which ends with them both being sent to the schools principal. The conflict is serious enough to allow the schools principal to call in both of their parents and as the two waits for them, the principal discusses about the incident. Before long the parents of the boy arrives, a proud and wealthy couple, that spoke politely (but in a “I’m superior” way) about taking their son out of the school. Sone after, the Protagonist grandfather arrives, he and the boy’s parents exchanged odd looks before the couple and their son leave. Some stuff happen that shows the audience that the Protagonist and her grandfather have a strong friendship before the two leave. As two walk to her family’s home, the grandfather suddenly becomes uneasy, quickly grabbing the Protagonist and running down the street into a nearby store, up into the second floor. As the door handle to the room rattles, the grandfather in a panic looks around to see an old wardrobe, placing his granddaughter into it he pulls off his necklace and quickly hands it over to her before before sprouting some important words. As he hears the click of the door handle he quickly closes the wardrobe door and spins around. The Protagonist looking through the crack between the doors watch’s as two figures enter the room, they talk with her grandfather for a short moment before attacking. The ‘battle’ ended quickly as her grandfather falls down dead. After the two figures leave the Protagonist exits the wardrobe and walks over to her grandfather dead body. The prologue ends with the Protagonist kneeling over the cold lifeless corpse, shaking him and crying out his name.

    Now my first chapter it set several years later when the Protagonist is older and we get to see how the events in the prologue have shape the character into what they are now. Which is a lonely stoic teen who is ridiculed by her fellow peers. But my problem is that I feel that my prologue deprives the audience of the mystery behind why my character acts the way they do, but yet without the prologue I feel that it will be hard for me to apply backstory information. Also the prologue is always subjected to charge as to weather the two main characters knew each other before the real story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There might be some validity to keeping a prologue like this, but my personal advice would be to try to work around it. As far as I can tell, it isn’t strictly necessary, and you may add more benefits (such as the protag’s mysterious backstory) by avoiding the upfront explanations.

  23. PJ O'Neil says

    Thanks for this article. I wrote a thorough backstory for myself to refer back to as I write my post-apoc/dystopian novel. Tonight I had talked myself into making it a prologue instead. I think you just saved me though. It’s important info, but will work much better tied throughout my story. So now I’m going to keep it as my own personal reference guide to keep my world and plot in balance. Thanks again!

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