Writing Q&A Number 12 – Prologues


From Kari:

How long should a good prologue be?

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I receive questions about prologues quite often. Writers have differing opinions on whether or not a novel should have a prologue, and my own opinion has changed over the years.

In most cases, I now advise writers to avoid prologues. The reason is simple. If a prologue is more than three or four paragraphs, many readers will skip it. If the material in the prologue is necessary for understanding the rest of the story, then it is important to ensure that your readers will read it, so you have to ask yourself why you want a prologue instead of simply starting chapter one with the material.

Here are reasons I have heard.

1.  To provide back story, that is, events readers need to know about before the real story begins. The prologue separates the back story from the main story.

Far too often, this type of prologue becomes an excuse for dumping information, that is, simply telling readers the relevant information in a summary fashion. This kind of writing is boring and will surely make many readers jump to chapter one, especially if the information is longer than a few paragraphs. It is usually far better to insert bits of information about the past as the opening scene progresses. This allows readers to reconstruct the back story from the clues you provide. See this post for more information.

If the back story is interesting and relevant, instead of a summary, write it in real time in the same style you wrote the rest of the story. Then insert it as the beginning of chapter one.

My daughter Amanda did this in a stellar fashion in her novel Precisely Terminated. The events in chapter one take place well before the events in chapter two. Since the protagonist is barely present in chapter one, it might be tempting to make it a prologue. Yet, such a prologue would be much too long, and readers might skip it, thereby missing essential information. Making it chapter one was the right choice.

2.  The time gap between your prologue material and the “real” story is significant, and you don’t feel comfortable mixing the two together in the main story.

For example, your prologue events took place hundreds of years ago, and your “real” story begins in modern times. Since the setting, mood, and language are different, you feel like a distinct split is necessary, which makes using a prologue a reasonable choice.

Yet, you still face the problem of readers skipping it. With many readers, just seeing “Prologue” is enough to incite them to flip ahead to chapter one. That’s why I still recommend making the prologue scene chapter one. If you include a date at the beginning, then readers will understand that you are providing important back story. Then you can provide the date of the original story opening, or a time reference such as – “Twenty years later.”

3.  To show important events from a point of view (POV) that differs from the rest of the story.

If you want to do this, then keep it short, preferably less than four paragraphs. Still, it would be better (I’m getting repetitive now) to add it as the beginning of the first chapter to keep readers from skipping it. There is no rule that says you can’t have a short chapter or scene from a POV that differs from the rest of the book.

4.  To set a mood.

Why not set the mood at the beginning of chapter one? As with the other reasons, if the prologue material is necessary, then we don’t want readers to skip it. If it isn’t necessary, then why include it?

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In order to learn what other authors think about prologues, I read various blogs and articles on the subject, and I liked this quote:

When a prologue is essential to the story, make sure it has a hook of its own and is clearly distinct from the first chapter. Keep it short and interesting. You can leave it open-ended, but it has to have any loose ends tied up somewhere in the novel. If the plot is understandable without a prologue, one should not be used. – The Writing Place, Using a Prologue

If you still think you must have a prologue, then try to make it fit on one page with three or four short paragraphs. Make it intriguing from the very first sentence so readers will want to finish it. Also, end the prologue in a way that makes readers hungry for more. In other words, it should be like an appetizer to prepare readers for the main course.

Of the prologues I have written, if I could republish the novels, the only one I would keep is at the beginning of Eye of the Oracle. In this story, the beginning is dark, and evil is prominent. Since I have so many young readers, I wanted to introduce a good character to let readers know that light is coming to dispel the darkness. This character is also the glue that holds together the 5000 years the story spans, so I used her as book-ends with both a prologue and an epilogue.

I also wrote the prologue in a completely different style than the rest of the book, more like a character introduction than a story scene, which made it nearly impossible to include as the beginning of chapter one. (You can read the prologue here. See page 3.) Yet, I still employed a strong hook beginning of the prologue and ended it in a way that promised more.

Regarding my other prologues, since the information in those scenes is essential, I would simply make them the beginning of chapter one. In fact, I am planning to do so when it’s time to reprint those books.

If you have anything to add, please do so in a comment. Do you have a question about your own prologue? Let’s hear it.

Do you have a writing question? Email it to blogqa@daviscrossing.com, and I will do what I can to answer it on this blog.

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5 replies

  1. I have a story idea simmering in my mind that is set in a book: literally. The main character you follow, James, is actually an underdeveloped side character of the story. The “Author” just created him for the villain to kill off, to show how evil he is.
    Whenever the story is re-read the characters “wake up” in the first chapter, remembering what they’re scripted to do that day (and what happened previous times). They know exactly what happens in their “script”… including their deaths. James, in “previous readings”, tried to escape his death, but never succeeded.
    I had the idea that there could be a prologue where you join him as he tries to evade his previous death, which is unsuccessful. 🙁 In chapter 1 he “wakes up” on the first day of the story trying to recall what happened in the last “reading”.
    Would this be an appropriate use of a Prologue, or would it be best to leave it out and simply suggest / tell the readers what happened?
    Thanks! 🙂

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  2. I think that changing a prologue to a first chapter is risky, especially in the day and age where most people read the free preview. Oftentimes, the prologue is from a different POV than the first chapter, so if a reader starts a book, they normally expect the main character to be introduced in chapter 1. (This does depend on genre) This means the reader may think, “I don’t want to follow this character through an entire book” and close out of the tab. If they open the free preview and see the word “prologue” they will likely realize that isn’t the main character and that the setting may be very different. They might even skip to the first chapter and see if they like the main character enough they want to buy the book, then go back and read the prologue after buying the book.
    Another way to look at it is having a prologue means the author can get two chances to hook the reader. If there is no prologue, the author only gets one chance. (The prologue should be interesting.)

    When it comes to writing prologues, it also depends a bit on the genre. Some genres tend to have prologues, while other genres don’t, or have a different style. Many of Brandon Sanderson’s adult fantasy novels tend to have long prologues, and his 2nd Era Mistborn prologues tend to be long things that could be skipped, but are so interesting that a reader won’t skip them.
    One danger of a long interesting prologue is that the reader may be disappointed when they get to the end and are already invested in the prologue character(s) who don’t play a big role in the rest of the book.

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    • Good comment, Jessi. I don’t perceive that risk, but I suppose it might exist. I think the greater risk is readers skipping the prologue, which, if the information is essential, would ruin the entire book experience.

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