Monday, March 21, 2011


"Past is Prologue." Or at least that's what it says on my PNWA bag from last summer's conference. Let's contemplate this a moment, shall we? Yes, past can be prologue, but what about "Future is Prologue"? No? Few of the many questions in the great prologue debate.

Let's first talk about ways in which to use a prologue (examples, not necessarily books, are in parenthesis). Then dos and don'ts.

Let's begin.

Past is Prologue:
  • If your novel is about someone in the present discovering some link to history (paranormal or not), you might show a scene of a significant event that will be important in the future (present) (The Mummy)
  • You show the murder or crime (without giving away the killer or thief) (Dan Brown)
  • An extremely important event that doesn't quite go with the body (maybe for POV or VOICE reasons) but you must include it
  • The character died and the body is about their afterlife (Heaven, Angel, Vampire, etc)
Future is Prologue:
  • Foreshadowing a death or near death (Twilight)
  • Foreshadowing some horrific experience
  • Reflection upon the events in the story (The Notebook)
  • The character died and the body is about their life

More often than not with manuscripts, I find myself skipping the prologue (I even do this with some published books, naughty naughty me, I know). You've heard people say that maybe your ms doesn't start in the right place? Don't discount the prologue. It might not be working. You've heard people say (me especially, it's a dedicated section in my Wednesday Reads) how important the first line and page are. That includes the prologue. Many times in my Wednesday Reads you'll notice how I'll give you both the prologue first line and first chapter first line, probably because the prologue wasn't thrilling.

  • Have action
  • Have intrigue
  • Have VOICE
  • Leave unanswered questions

  • Give too much detail. It isn't a textbook of history or of events in your novel
  • Use it as a back story dumping ground (and/or info dump)
  • Use it as a device to reveal information not found in the body--important information in the first page can easily be forgotten by the reader
  • Include a prologue just because you think it will sell more books

Here's the answer to all prologue questions: when using a prologue, no matter what it does, reveals, or foreshadows, it must fit with your story. It must work. And it must be interesting. Don't include it for the sake of having a prologue. The majority of books on the shelf probably don't have one, and they haven't suffered any for it.

Favorite prologues? Any books in which you didn't like the prologue?

Happy writing!


Ryan said...

I have a prologue in my book, despite the fact that I'm also guilty of skipping prologue's in other people's work. To me, a really good prologue reveals something about a central character that isn't immediately critical to your enjoyment of the story, but does payoff later.

If your reader forgets/skips the prologue entirely, they should still be able to get by, but if they read it and retain the information, they should eventually get some added satisfaction out of it.

I like books that have a significant element of mystery to them, even when they don't fall into that genre. To that end, I think the prologue should also be your first hint towards what's really happening.

I think the best prologues I seen reveal very little initially because you don't have the benefit of context. I'll cheat and use Coraline (the movie) as an example of that. Without giving anything away, I didn't think much of the opening scene when I first saw it. However, when I viewed it for a second time, it became very obvious what that scene meant.

Heather said...

I struggled with this for a long time in my last novel. I really wanted my prologue in there and I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the realization that it wasn't needed. I'm thankful to the patient people who wrestled with me because they were right, it's better without it.

Unknown said...

Hex Hall. Funniest prologue ever. Shows the voice, sets up the story.

Kristin Lynn Thetford said...

I absolutely love this post. It is very informative, and I completely agree with you on prologues. They can be a great tool for setting the tone of the novel, but they can also be the breeding ground of info dump. I am guilty of sometimes skipping the prologues too. Thanks for the post. I enjoyed it.

Sarah said...

This actually makes me feel a lot better about my own prologue. So many people seem to think prologues should be cut no matter what.

Liz Reinhardt said...

The prologue in *Water for Elephants* worked really well. I'd like to say more, but realized how much I would spoil the book if I did. I'll just say it set up a vague (but action-packed) scenario, and when the reader returned to that event later in the book, key details that were by then made clear brought everything into surprising focus.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I have a prologue in my book and it is a love/hate relationship. I truly love it and wonder if anyone hates it because no one I've sent it too has commented on it. Does it even get read?

Jolene Perry said...

I'm writing a series. There's a prologue in the second book that shows what catapults the people from the first book to force a meeting between them later on.
I think it works. Chapter one then starts with the main characters in book two.

When submitting or doing contests, I'd never use the prologue.

Ryan said...


For what it's worth, I've read that you should send your prologue (if your book has one) when submitting to agents as it is still part of it.

Stephanie Allen said...

Prologues are something I've always struggled with, so I sort of stopped trying. Back in the day when I used to post on fictionpress I had one story that had a brief prologue that basically read like a history textbook. No wonder no one ever read it =)

But because I struggle with prologues I admire people who can pull it off. While I'm not a huge Twilight fan, I did think the prologue worked for what Meyer was trying to accomplish. It definitely grabbed my attention and pulled me in right away.

I can't really think of any books I've read recently with a prologue...

Chacelyn said...

I wasn't intended to write the Prologue in my book, but my characters' back story was screaming to be told for some reason. I know a lot of agents and readers don't read the prologues, so if they skip the one in mine it holds some vital key points but nothing that would make the reader go "huh?" at the end of my book, if they didn't read it.

I was one that used to skip them when I read a book. Now I read from the first page that has print on it. Acknowledgments and everything. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post. I acutally have been debating this with my own WIP-not sure which way I will go. I've shortened it quite a bit and it is much better than it was before. When I read books if they grab me I read then, if they don't I wait untill after I've finished the book to read them.

HowLynnTime said...

I have no opinion about prologues and wonder why there is even a debate about if they can be used. (this post is about correct usage which is certianly worth debate)

There are many books with them. Some work better than others, but when done correctly, I think they are worth reading. I think it's funny so many people skip them? I paid to read them, so I will. (I don't refuse to read chapter 13 of a book just because they don't always have an elevator button to go with that number?)

Maybe I put to much trust in an author? I read all of the words -- the dedication, the little poems, the made up songs that didn't tranlate from high-elf pretty, the foot notes, the notes from the author, even the grammer-dictionary at the end. If you don't, I am sort of sorry for you because you may be missing subtle good parts. Maybe you can understand the book without all of that stuff - but they did waste the ink to put it there and it might have something that you find of value.

This Post was fantastic! .

Thank you for making it clearer about the prologue of perfection and have a great week.

Sarah Erber said...

Clare B. Dunkles first book, THE HOLLOW KINGDOM, had hands-down, the most awesome prologue I've ever read.

But that's just my personal opinion. :)

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