From the Archives: Prologues

What are your thoughts on prologues?

As a reader, I got burnt out by prologues. I think after Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, every writer felt they needed a prologue to show how big and serious their fantasy was. I yawned through too many stuffy ‘epics’ that were epic only in scope, not in feeling or artistry or language or perspective or meaning, so I tend to throw up in my mouth a little when I open page one and see “Prologue”.

But that’s just a bias born of my particular set of circumstances as a reader and the books that hit me—and those that bounced off!

As a writer, I think a prologue is a wonderful tool for a certain jobs, but it’s a heavy tool that should be handled with care, intention, and skill—or not handled at all. A prologue struts onto the stage of your book and grabs the microphone, saying, “I’m sorry, Taylor, Imma let you start, but first…” More seriously, it does tell a reader that what they’re about to read isn’t exactly part of the story proper. “I’m going to tell you a story, but first you need to know…” What is this, Great Expectations? “I’m going to tell you the story of an orphan, but first, you need to know his entire family history….”

Let me float the proposition that giving a reader—as their very first experience of your book—reasons not to care about what they read might be something you want to consider carefully. “I don’t know what’s going on in this scene, but it’s the prologue, so it probably doesn’t matter. How long is this, anyway?”

Consider the challenge you’re setting yourself:  You’re flagging that you’re going to start your story twice. You’re saying, “Hey reader, I’m going to throw you into a new book where you have to learn the names of the characters, learn why you should care, and orient you in the tone and vocabulary and scenery of this world—and then I’m going to stop that first story and we’re going to start all over again, but this time with a new tone, scenery, and probably characters, too! But trust me, because…”

Well, can you answer that? Have you already written a few novels, and this one needs a framing story and flashbacks and a prologue because all of that is integral to readers having all the information they need at the story’s climax for the climax to have its full impact? Or is it because you’re nervous that starting with a poor farm boy and his three friends is going to be too boring, so you need to show that your bad guy is the baddiest bad guy who ever polished his chariot with a human-scalp chamois?

Are you shifting tones between the prologue and chapter one? If so, realize that if either tone doesn’t work for a reader, they may well put down your novel. I’ve read two novels that were both light fantasy novels with great adventures of the kind that could easily get a PG rating—and there was nothing at all wrong with that! But here’s the thing:  Both started with a prologue featuring torture. Totally out of keeping with the rest of the story. It gave you a false first impression of the story, and, honestly, both felt like they did so because someone said, “Gritty is really in right now. Can you make this gritty?” If you tack on grit, or time travel, or pink cowgirls blowing bubbles in your prologue and it doesn’t fit your book, your book will not please either those who like grit/time travel/pink cowgirls OR those who hate those things. So, you can certainly have a tonal shift, but you need to close the circle between those two tones before the book ends. Farm boy becomes the guy who learns the benefits of human-hair chariot polishing, or the hero uses his skills at torture to make the evil kitten give up laser ball chasing, or what have you.

Same goes if you choose a framing story. Why’d you do it? Why is it necessary? Why _that_ frame? You’re making a promise when you make this choice—and the promise is that the backstory and the main story matter to each other, and that the very act of telling the backstory will impact the main story. If it doesn’t, the frame doesn’t justify its existence; it’s merely handwaving at complexity that doesn’t exist.

Next, you have to ask yourself if you’re good at beginnings. If beginnings are where you really struggle, writing a prologue doesn’t mean you get to skip the hard stuff and go to the fun thing first, and then once you have the readers’ attention, get to go back to your boring beginning. Sorry, no. Writing a prologue means you have to start your book twice.

If you excel at beginnings, though, and if the book needs information that isn’t available any other way, and if you want to show a vastness of scope or a seriousness of endeavor, and if you’re willing to trim the fat ruthlessly so that your prologue is understandable, and if you can give readers reasons to engage immediately twice, a prologue may just the thing!

In sum, a prologue is a claymore. If you’re small, if you’re weak, if you’re more Bobby Bruce than Robert the Bruce, maybe… clay less?