Does your book-in-progress have a prologue? If so, that might be a problem. According to the dubious wisdom of the blogosphere and the crotchety advice of literary agents who see too many duds in the slush pile, prologues are frowned upon. Agent Kimiko Nakamura wrote in Writer’s Digest that “almost every agent agrees that poorly executed prologues are the quickest route back to slushville. Prologues reflexively cause agents to skip to Chapter 1 without a look back.”
With warnings like that one, it’s no wonder writers cut their prologue for fear of ending up in the trash folder. As a freelance book editor, though, I’ve seen writers alter the strongest parts of their manuscript because of a one-size-fits-all decree they’ve read on an agent’s (or another writer’s) blog. By deleting your prologue, you might be deleting the best part of your book—the part of your book, even, that would get an agent to request more pages.
So what makes a good prologue good, and a bad prologue bad? I’ll delve into detailed examples below, but first, here are a few rules of thumb.
Good Prologues Oftentimes…
… Occur in a different time and place than the rest of the book. (But they shouldn’t be used as information dumps for backstory. Details about past events should be integrated throughout the novel via exposition, dialogue, or a character’s inner thoughts.)
… Showcase a narrative perspective that diverges from the rest of the book. (An omniscient prologue, for example, in a third-person limited novel.)
… Are written in a different tone than the rest of the book. (Heightened prose if the book’s prose is simple; minimalist if the book’s prose is florid.)
… Provide key information that the novel’s primary narrator doesn’t know about. (Again, though, this should be a limited, strategic piece of information; prologues shouldn’t be used as information dumps.)
Bad Prologues Are Generally…
… Conspicuous information dumps for information and backstory. (Yeah, this happens a lot.)
… Written as exposition rather than as a compelling scene/s. (Prolonged exposition is a sign that your prologue is an information dump.)
… Written in the same point-of-view or narrative perspective as the rest of the book.
… Written in a melodramatic tone. (This often corresponds to a scene that’s a failed hook.)
…. Focused on a dramatic scene that doesn’t end up connecting in an interesting way with the rest of the book.
… Written after the rest of the book was finished because the writer worried that Chapter 1 wasn’t good or didn’t have an enticing hook. (It’s better to work on fixing Chapter 1.)
Prologues as a Whisper to Your Reader
Author Bharti Kirchner wrote an excellent article for The Writer magazine in which she explains that a prologue, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy novels, “can provide readers with a basic understanding of the setting and culture of an alternate universe before the story begins.” Consider the prologue of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. In it, three men of the Night’s Watch —a military group guarding a great northern wall — search the wilderness for eight dead bodies. As the three men discuss what killed these people — did they freeze to death? — the reader is overhearing their conversation, thereby learning all sorts of tidbits about Martin’s fictional world.
After the men discover that the bodies are missing, they’re attacked by a group of mysterious creatures. One of the Night’s Watch men, Will, watches as a terrifying shadow confronts Royce, his Night’s Watch compatriot:
A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees.
Will then witnesses an event that will become pivotal to the Game of Thrones universe for five books to come (and counting). He sees that Royce doesn’t stand a chance in fighting this fearsome apparition because its weapon causes Royce’s sword to shatter:
A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles… He [Will] found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning.
This prologue notwithstanding, Game of Thrones is written in the close third-person, with each chapter told from the point-of-view of a different main character. At the book’s outset, none of these characters have seen an “Other,” as these creatures are called, so Martin used his prologue to establish a delicious, suspenseful case of dramatic irony: The reader knows that the Others are real, but the book’s narrators don’t. In an interview with The Writer, author Jennie Shortridge described this situation well: “I like to read prologues because I know the author is whispering a secret to me,” she said.
Many newbie writers withhold information from the reader for too long in an attempt to create suspense. But why should a reader care about a mystery if they don’t even know its parameters? In Game of Thrones, Martin provides just enough information to make the reader terrified of the White Walkers (let’s just drop this “Others” nonsense), but little enough to let the reader join the book’s characters in solving the myriad mysteries surrounding them.
Prologues That Are Actually Chapter Ones (And Chapter Ones That Are Actually Prologues)
As an editor, I often notice that the first 50 pages of a manuscript contain a handful of sections that could each be the book’s first page. The author didn’t know where to begin, so instead of choosing a beginning, they chose two or three, and then struggled with how to sequence them. I call these “false starts,” and they’re usually well-written because the author imagined each as the grandiose opening sequence. These paragraphs stand out because they don’t integrate well with the surrounding material.
A clumsy solution to this multiplicity of false starts is to make one of them the prologue. In an interview forThe Writer, author Jennie Shortridge said that “the most common mistake I see when writers try to use prologues is that they’re simply writing Chapter 1 and calling it a prologue.”
While a good prologue stands apart from the rest of the story — taking place in a different time, or told from a different point-of-view — an unnecessary prologue is often told by the same narrator, and written in the same style, as the rest of the book. Even if well-written, this type of prologue might turn an agent off because it indicates that the author simply couldn’t figure out how to integrate the prologue’s material somewhere else. “They [prologues] are sorely overused and seem like a cheap device,” literary agent Andrea Hurst told The Writer. “Better for writers to be creative—come up with ways around them and start the novel with a great first chapter.”
The Book Thief is an example of a prologue that’s good, but might as well have been called Chapter 1. In it, the book’s omniscient narrator, Death Himself (a grim reaper type figure), tells the reader about the book’s protagonist, a girl who he calls the book thief. He (Death) informs the reader that terrible things will happen in this girl’s future, and Chapter 1 begins by detailing the first of these terrible things.
Alluding to future (or past) events in an omniscient voice is classic prologue material, but in this particular case, it turns out that the entire book is narrated by this glib Death guy, and he oftentimes alludes coyly to future events. The Book Thief’s prologue could easily have been the the first chapter. The litmus test is to simply imagine that the prologue is labeled “Chapter 1,” and that the current Chapter 1 is labeled “Chapter 2.” If everything still makes sense (or reads even better, as might be the case), then you probably have a chapter, not a prologue.
We also see Chapter Ones that would have made great prologues. The first Harry Potter book is a perfect example. Remember that opening scene where Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Hagrid bring baby Harry to his aunt and uncle’s doorstep? That scene conspicuously stands apart from the rest of the book, which is mostly told from the limited perspective of 10-year-old Harry. In the opening, though, an omniscient narrator holds the reigns, and we glimpse the inner thoughts of Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, and Harry’s aunt and uncle.
Yet that opening is labeled Chapter One. The commencement of Harry Potter’s POV starts with Chapter Two, and Chapter Two begins with a sentence that effectively bridges the 10-year gap between the two chapters: “Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all.”
This little quark in one of the world’s most widely-read books reminds us that “chapter” and “prologue” are just labels, after all, and while there are widely-recognized formats for which label correspond to which narrative tactic, authors sidestep the rules all the time. In his masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez evaded the issue altogether by using unlabeled breaks between chunks of text rather than parts and chapters. Marquez’ unique decision reminds us that whatever the label, those spaces of white between sections do seem to be vitally important. Whatever the case, most remember the opening to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as being a prologue; indeed, a quick Google search revealed bloggers using it as an example of an effective prologue.
Another Chapter One that’s really a prologue is the first chapter of Fight Club, where Edward Norton, errrr, the book’s unnamed protagonist holds a gun to his throat/Tyler Durden’s throat. Who knows, maybe someone told both Chuck Palahniuk and J.K. Rowling that literary agents don’t like prologues, so they slapped on a Chapter One.
So… Should I Keep My Prologue?
If you’ve carefully considered the components of a bad prologue and are still convinced that yours is good, go ahead and keep it if you’re planning to self-publish. If you’re querying agents, you can tailor your strategy query-by-query. If an agent has specified that they don’t like prologues, you should query without it, or make your prologue the first chapter instead—absolutely don’t this, though, if changing the prologue to “Chapter 1” creates a bad transition into Chapter 2. If you don’t know an agent’s stance toward prologues, the safer bet might still be to cut the prologue since prologue hostility seems widespread.
That being said, agents dislike prologues only because they’ve read so many bad ones. It takes only one sentence to recognize good writing, so if your prologue has a good start, the agent will keep reading. A friend of mine received offers from two agents (and requests for full reads from many more) based on a submission that included a prologue—a very good prologue. In the end, it’s the writing that counts, and they’re not just saying that.
Katherine Don is a journalist and author or co-author of eight nonfiction books, including Power of the Dog from St. Martin’s Press, Armchair Reader: The Book of Myths and Misconceptions from Publications International, and The Story of Harper Lee, a YA biography of Harper Lee from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. Katherine’s essays and journalism have appeared at Salon, The Atlantic online, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor at Bustle.com and Romper.com. Her first screenplay, a short film that she co-wrote with a friend, was the first-place winner in the screenwriting category at the 2014 Los Angeles Movie Awards. Katherine holds a bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in literary journalism from NYU.
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