Getting Down And Dirty With Prologues

Where do I begin?

First off, let me just say that although I understand why a reader would skip a prologue, I just refuse to take the same mentality. If the author spent their time writing it and thought it would be good enough to include in the story (because prologues are legitimate parts of the story) then I’ll spend my time reading it. Just because prologues have gotten a bad press, that doesn’t mean that good ones don’t exist.

But that’s not what this post is going to be about. I could spend all day ranting about how crazy I find it that people skip the prologue, but that wouldn’t be interesting to read at all. At least, I don’t think it would. So, think of this as “Prologues 101 with Laurence” . . . Disclaimer: people will almost certainly have different opinions than me on some of my points. Also, I will probably be a horrible teacher.

If your story doesn’t need a prologue, don’t include one!

This may sound like common sense, but the number of prologues I have read in stories where they were not needed is ridiculous. When does a story need a prologue? Well, a story never really needs a prologue, but if you can manage to write one correctly, you can make it seem as if the story wouldn’t be the same without it. I’m going to use this particular book, not because I hate it with a burning passion, but because the prologue was insanely irrelevant and added little (if anything) to the rest of the story. The prologue from the international bestseller “Along Came a Spider” by my least favourite author ever (biased, anyone?) had a prologue that was so detached from the rest of the novel that I felt as if it added absolutely nothing to the story.

Key tip: If your going to set your prologue decades before the events of the rest of the novel, at least have one character that occurs in the rest of the novel. Hell, at least make it somewhat relevant to the rest of the novel. I can safely say that  if the prologue was removed from Along Came a Spider it wouldn’t harm the story any more than the story does that itself. Okay . . . I’ve got to remember this isn’t a review.

Prologues are not an invitation for exposition!

Infodumping. It’s rarely ever a good idea, and it’s practically suicidal for a story if the first thing a reader reads is paragraphs upon paragraphs of exposition that really should have been skilfully spread out throughout the novel. This is probably one of the biggest offenders, when it comes to poorly written prologues (definitely with online stories, anyway). And although there are no actual rules for writing fiction, I would go as far as to saying that this should be an official rule. If your prologue is nothing but setting the scene, I’m sorry, but I’m going to say you’re doing it wrong.

You should go through your prologues and check to see if there’s anything that could or should be in the rest of the novel, instead.

The prologue should be relevant to the rest of the story!

I covered this a little in my first point. What is the point in including a prologue if it isn’t in any way relevant to the rest of your novel? It doesn’t even need to be directly connected to the plot. It could be used to show part of a character’s backstory. As much as I didn’t want to say that, my point still stands. Of course, you shouldn’t just dump endless character backstory into a prologue. I’ve already covered that. What you could do is show the character at a key or pivotal point in their lives, so we get a little insight into both the world and the character.

Keep the tone consistent!

Prologues are still part of the story, and so should still have the same tone that’s present in the rest of the story. A serious story? Write a serious prologue.

Do not start  your main plot in the prologue!

Prologues are not the start of your plot. They’re the start of the novel. Not the plot. Chapter one, as pointed out in the very name of it, is the first chapter of your novel, and so should be where the plot starts. Not in the prologue! A prologue should contain an event, or events, that happen before the start of your plot. For example, say you’re writing a story about a wizard named Harry. Your prologue wouldn’t get straight into the main plot where Harry gets a letter inviting him to a school for witchcraft and wizardry, and then leaving his horrible aunt and uncle. No. You’d want to start before any of that stuff happens. Before the journey. So, maybe you’d want to start with your character as a baby. Maybe you’d want to start with him being dropped off at his aunt’s and uncle’s house. It’s a little character backstory that’s not shoving the character’s entire life down your throat. And maybe you’d want to rename that prologue to chapter one, because of the stigma associated with prologues, even though everyone can tell it’s a blatant prologue . . .

However, you can continue chapter one off your prologue. Like I’ve said, the prologue shouldn’t be the start off your plot, however, that’s not to say that it can’t right before the start of the plot.

So, a reminder: Major plot points go in the other chapters within the novel, not the prologue.

Ask yourself this question: What is the purpose of this prologue?

If you don’t have an answer then discard it or edit it like mad. As with everything else in a novel, the prologue should have some purpose. To put it bluntly: What is the point of your prologue? Other than trying to grip the reader, which should go without saying, what does it add to the story? Is it the only part of the novel that uses a different point of view, and shows events from a different perspective? Regardless of what the purpose is, it must have one.

Don’t create excessively long prologues!

Now . . . Personally, I wouldn’t mind either way. I’d read a fifty page prologue and I wouldn’t mind. However, given their reputation, long prologues are just asking to not be read. Do yourself a favour and make it a reasonable length. The average length of your chapters should do. Remember, it’s quality over quantity.

Make it interesting!

Obviously. It doesn’t need saying. But the fact that the prologue is the introduction to your novel means it’s the first thing your readers (those who read prologues) will see. This is what they will judge you on. Whether or not they read on falls on the shoulders of your prologue, so you better make it something great.

If you’re worried that people won’t read your prologue, call it chapter one . . .

Many author’s have shamelessly done this. I would personally just call it what it is and say it’s a prologue. If people don’t want to read it, that’s their issue, not mine. But, if you’re worried about that, I guess that’s fair.

Prologues. I, for one, love them when they’re done well, but I will agree that there are a disheartening number of horrible ones out there. I could probably go on for much longer about them, but I have a strong feeling that I’d just repeat myself, with maybe only a couple of new points.

At any rate, if you’re writing a prologue and found this useful, then that’s absolutely wonderful. But if you found this utterly useless, then you’re probably absolutely right. I mean, just go back through this blog, I’ve got a pretty terrible prologue up myself . . . (Although that was over a year ago).

Well, till my next one, guys (Whenever the hell that will be).

Laurence out.