Monday, October 10, 2022

Pondering the Prologue: Keep it or Kill it?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Here are six reasons you may (or may not) need that prologue.

Before I dive in today, I’m guest posting over at Writers in the Storm, with 5 Fun Ways to Take Advantage of Your Character’s Fears. Come on over and take a peek.

Now, back to today’s post…

Like fashion trends, prologues go in and out of style. For a while, they were everywhere—especially in fantasy novels, where readers would learn an important element of the novel’s history, or see a pivotal moment of a character’s past.

Then they fell out of fashion, and agents (and readers) skipped them more often than not. They became dumping grounds for pages of backstory and setup, or ever false first chapters, where they started with another character relevant to the tale, but not the actual protagonist.
These days, they have mixed popularity with mixed results.

When done well, a prologue can add interest to your novel. Done poorly, it can chase away readers before the novel even starts.

The purpose of any opening is to intrigue readers and entice them to read the story, but a prologue starts outside the story. It’s often either from a non-protagonist-character’s point of view, and/or in another time period. It’s an explanation or something that happened that’s relevant to the story readers are about to enter.

Even when it’s done well, it’s not the start of the novel. If it was, it wouldn’t be a prologue, it would be Chapter One.

Of course, not all prologues are evil, and the trick is knowing when it’s necessary for the novel, and when it’s just dragging it down.

If you’re wondering if you should keep or kill your prologue, ask why you're putting it in.

1. Is it an important piece of the protagonist's history that the reader needs to know to get the story?

Keep or Kill?
Chances are you can kill the prologue.

The reader won't know the character yet, so the important event will have little meaning. It won't drive the story forward since it happened in the past. In most cases, you can background this information, drop hints, and show the effects of it on the protagonist to build suspense, and reveal it later for much more impact.

Genre will also play a role with this type of prologue. For example, it’s more common in thrillers to show the event that created the trauma the protagonist will be struggling within the novel.

(Here’s more with Revealing a Character's Past Without Falling into Backstory)

2. Is it an important piece of world history that sets up why things are this way and how that's going to affect your protagonist?

Keep or Kill? Kill the prologue.

Readers don't care about the history or the world since they haven't met anyone in that world yet. They want the story, not the setup to the story.

Find ways to background this information and use it to make your world richer and more real. If 500 years ago, the great god Sniffledum cursed everyone with eternal post-nasal drip, show everyone sniffling from page one, and let handkerchiefs be a huge fashion statement. Make it part of the world in such a way readers can figure it out on their own.

(Here’s more with 4 Reasons Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

3. Is it an event that happens later in the book, but you're teasing with it at the start because you're not sure your first chapter has enough oomph to grab readers?

Keep or Kill? Kill the prologue.

Since readers have no clue who the characters are or what the context is, there's nothing to connect them to the story yet. A “flash forward” scene often comes across confusing at best, and gives away something in the story that steals all the suspense up until that moment at worst.

I've rarely seen this device work in any book, movie, or TV show, but people keep trying. The movie Deadpool does it well, but the character's inherent fourth-wall breaking aspect is largely the reason, so it's a unique case.

Make your first chapter sing and save this scene for when it actually happens in the story.

(Here's more with The Problem with Flash Forwards as an Opening Scene)

4. Is it a scene with characters other than the main ones, showing an event that foreshadows what the protagonist is about to get themselves into?

Keep or Kill? You might be able to keep this prologue.

Jurassic Park is a great example of how this can work. The novel (and the movie) opens with people trying to contain a dangerous animal, and one of the workers is horribly mauled.

Thematically it works, because it says right at the start "these animals cannot be contained," yet the characters spend the entire book trying to do just that (and keep from being eaten).

It also works to show what the heroes are about to become involved in when they think they're just going to a theme park for the weekend. It gives hints, but it doesn't give away the story, nor does it flash forward or back. It makes you wonder, "How are these heroes going to handle this problem when they find it?" and "what the heck were they trying to contain in there?"

(Here’s more with Message for M. Reader: Are You Telegraphing Your Plot?)

5. Is it a scene from a non-point of view character that reveals a key piece of information none of the point of view characters know?

Keep or Kill? This can go either way.

You may be able to keep this prologue if that information adds to the suspense of the story. For example, scientists dig up an artifact and send it home to the lab, and on the way, the box emits a weird glow and causes the plane to crash. Readers know it's dangerous, but not why, and they know the protagonist is working hard to find the crash and retrieve the artifact, but what will happen when she does?

But if this scene reveals information to readers that the protagonist spends half the book desperately trying to find out—kill it. The fun is in the discovery, and there's no fun in watching someone struggling to find out what you already know.

(Here’s more with The Joy of Discovery: Keeping Readers Hooked Through Story Revelations)

6. Is it a scene that you use the words "sets up" to describe, and has no conflict?

Keep or Kill?
Kill the prologue.

Setup isn't story, and readers want story. Be wary when you get the urge to start much earlier so readers can see “how it all began” or the like. If a moment is that important in the character’s life, then why isn’t the story starting there?

Readers are smart and can pick up on subtitles that show the details and clues you need them to know about your protagonist and their situation. As long as you keep readers wanting to know why, they'll keep turning the pages.

And really, if you tell them why right at the start, why should they keep reading?

(Here’s more with What “Setup” in a Novel Actually Means)

In most cases you can cut a prologue and not lose anything in the story, because most prologues fall into the setup category.

If you're curious about prologues that worked, look at books published by new authors in the last few years. But remember—established series by known authors can get away with prologues, as can books published ten or more years ago. Attitudes about prologues have changed, and will continue to change.

When in doubt, take the prologue out and see what your beta readers think. If they're drawn in and didn't think something was missing, then you know cutting it was the right choice. If they feel the story would have been better had they known X at the start, put it back in.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and think about why you want to add that prologue. What does it do for the story?

How do you feel about prologues? Do you read or skip them?

*Originally published December 2010. Last updated October 2022.

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. I'm trying to think of a book in which I thought the prologue worked. I'm sure there was at least one, but I'm drawing a blank. I agree with you: in most cases it works better without a prologue.

    1. Game of Thrones had a good prologue, I thought. It hinted at something big coming and it even tied in with the first chapter (the survivor getting executed). I'm not crazy about the book, but the prologue worked fine.

  2. Great info! I've slashed the prologue in two of my novels (sigh). One was explanatory backstory, and the other just explanatory stuff. Neither was needed!

  3. My soon-to-be published thriller has a prologue. It helps to draw the reader in my setting the scene. Scene setting you'd say 'kill it', right? Your reason is that it isn't story. However, I beg to differ. It is a major part of the story. It's very short. Please log on to Scroll down to the heading Writing sample...
    I enjoy visiting your blog. I usually agree with you and have greatly benefitted from your knowledge.

  4. This is a great, short list of what makes a keepable prologue. I wish I'd read something like this a couple years ago to save hours of editing something I was going to delete. Good for future reference, though. =) Hope you have a happy New Year!

  5. ARG. Blogger at my comment. Might've been for the best, though, because I waxed nostalgic about my love for Jurassic Park.

    ANYway, totally agree with you, here. When I was younger, I would try to emulate my favorite fantasy writers--whose books ALL had prologues. I thought the prologue was integral to the beauty and structure of a fantasy novel.

    Not so.

    I think prologues are great in the right circumstances, but too often, I think they're used as a bit of a crutch and are more false starts than productive beginnings.

    Thanks for this post, too--it's nice to have something "quantitative" (relative to our medium, of course) to gauge potential prologue usefulness.

  6. I actually whacked my prologue. I put it in to bring up what the protag had to resolve by the end of the book...and made it way too easy for the reader to figure out my "big surprise". So I whacked it and have 2 - maybe 3 - little flashbacks, and a few random conversations addressing this but nothing huge like the prologue was so it's still something of a surprise when the "big surprise" happens in the book.

  7. #4 is the only kind of prologue I've ever used and I ended up taking it out anyway. I still might use it but in another context.

  8. Ariel: Thanks!

    Tracey: There are some out there, but yeah, most times, we don't need them.

    Carol: But you probably needed to write them to get the info straight in your head, so they served their purpose. :)

    Leanne: Then you did it right and did it well. And grats on the book! Your prologue does more than just set the scene, which is why it works. It's short, it has voice, it offers an intriguing idea that makes readers curious about it. You didn't just describe the situation the protag was about to find themselves in.

    Amanda the Aspiring: (cute name!) Thanks! No writing is ever wasted, and I'm sure you at least learned something from all those hours of editing :) It can be frustrating to throw words away, but if they're the wrong words, you don't need them anyway.

    Shayda: Ah, JP, great book and movie. I wrote many a prologue for the exact same reasons you did. And I totally agree with you about being a crutch. And you just gave me an idea for another post! Thanks!

    Annikka: Good for you! Nothing wrong with writing it, but it's always good to look back and decide if it really needs to stay.

    Anne: A lot of times prologues can fit well elsewhere in the novel. Maybe not exactly as you first wrote them, but they work better once the reader is hooked into the story.

  9. Nice set of suggestions. One prologue that I think does work is in The World Next Door. The prologue is in a similar style to the rest of the book, but it makes the world into a sort of character with its own motives. The characters don't know about what's going on, but without the prologue, some of the little things would sound like unsupported coincidences to the readers. One of the two main arcs would have fallen flat without it. So, it is a bit of #'s 4 and 5.

  10. First, I'm totally confused by the comment above. WTH?
    Second, I have a case you didn't mention. I've wrestled with the idea of removing it, because I can, and just use the amazing bits in another scene later in the book. But here's why I put it establishes genre. I've written a thriller with sci-fi elements. The whole things reads as thriller until about 1/2 way through. Then some weird things start happening and the climax is all up in sci-fi's grill.

    So, with my prologue, I establish some sci-fi bits right off the bat so it doesn't come from out of the blue later on.

    So what about in this case? Kill it or keep it?

  11. CourtneyC, that comment was just spam that got through the filter. Gone now.

    I'm reminded of "I Am Not a Serial Killer" here. You start the book thinking it's a mainstream novel, then halfway through it switches to fantasy/horror. HUGE shock, as there's nothing to suggest the genre switch. The only clue this was a genre novel was that it was published by Tor (a major SFF house that doesn't do mainstream) It actually stopped my friend from reading and made me not pick up the next book in the series (I liked the premise better without the horror aspect). So your concerns here are valid.

    The real question is probably: Will the sci fi nature be mentioned in the query/back cover copy? As in, will the reader know going in this is a sci fi novel or will this come as a surprise? If they know, then they'll be expecting sci fi elements already, so them suddenly showing up won't be a shock. You won't have to warn them ahead of time and probably don't need the prologue. If not, then some hint might be a good idea and you can probably keep it. (though honestly, it's hard to sell a sci fi novel and not tell folks it's a sci fi novel, as you'd be in the sci fi section unless the elements are pretty mainstream--or it's YA and has no genre shelf, as in the example I gave)

    With all that in mind, does the prologue do all the things it needs to do to hook a reader or does it fall under one of the "kill it" areas?

    If the only purpose is to establish sci fi elements, there's a chance it's not grabbing (as that isn't the focus of the scene, it's set up). If so and you keep it, you might also consider what you can do to spice it up so it works well as an opening and not just a set up-type prologue.

    Hope that helps!

    1. Random thought: From the title, I would assume that "I Am Not a Serial Killer" is somewhere in the range of horror or at least crime fiction (which tends to be pretty horrific). But the switch to fantasy might jar me if I wasn't expecting it...

      The idea of a contract with the reader is really interesting. People go in with certain expectations, and a prologue can help define those -- though it may throw them for a loop instead. I'm reminded of A Game of Thrones (the novel), which has a character POV for every chapter. That series is infamous for breaking the "protagonists don't die, not for real, and not for good" contract with readers. I went in thinking that Will would be the main character of the book or series because the first chapter was titled "Will" and the main character almost always appears in the first chapter. Spoiler, Will dies. (Spoiler again: Every Prologue and Epilogue character in that series dies, actually.) I was less surprised he died than I was to find out the book wasn't about him-- because it defied my "start off with the main character" expectation. So I'm kind of curious as to your thoughts on writer-reader contract or reader expectations, and whether you have a post on that.

  12. Prologues are so tricky. I had a 'scene from the past' prologue on my current novel that I ended up axing, as it gave away my big surprise ending. I do have it on my webpage as a deleted scene though, with a warning to read it after the novel.

    I also have a fantasy novel that I'm debating on whether to include the prologue or not. Initially it was from a non-POV character, but then I decided to give him a place in the novel. It does explain his motivations, which do have a big impact on the story, so I'm leaning towards leaving it in. But I'm a little afraid it's too confusing to the reader. It's more a 'get on the second read through' kind of thing, which probably means I should leave it out.

  13. Rinelle, I'd trust your instincts on that fantasy prologue. A second read thing is a good red flag that you probably don't need it. But it might be something you can save for later in the story or even use as a deleted scene for your website after you sell it ;)

  14. In the Thriller genre, prologues seem to be definitely in the majority, and usually involve reasons #4 and #5. Maybe it just reflects my choices of reading material, but most of the prologues I read are an important part of the story, so the frequent diatribes against them seem a little odd to me.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Excellent analysis and advice, Janice! I'll be sending my fiction-writing clients -- especially those who've included prologues -- here to check out your great tips !

  17. (This is SBibb... 'Comment As' function isn't working properly for me).

    In regards to points 1-3, I think Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson does it fairly well. (It's technically a flashback, but there's a point later in the book where the main character is telling a group of people the scene, and it basically cuts out with the idea that you've read the prologue and so you know what he's told them.) I though it worked fairly well to set up the future conflict, even though it takes place several years in the past.

    Thanks for writing this post. It's something I'll definitely keep in mind. :-)

  18. I rarely read prologues unless it have something physical to do with many of the scenes. For instance, how a house is laid out.

  19. I have written a prologue that doesn't fit into any of these categories. It is a short history of a non-main character, told in third person. This character is dead in the actual novel, but his life has a bearing on the story because he has something valuable which the characters in the novel are trying to find. The location of this valuable thing is not mentioned in the prologue. This person is an intriguing character but as he is already dead for over a decade when the novel opens, the only way to get him in was via the prologue. What do you think?

    1. Hard to say without knowing the book, but if the character isn't in the book, and he has the "valuable thing" the book is trying to find, it feels more like backstory or setup that might give away info and hurt the story rather than enhance it. The prologue is information the reader "needs to know", not a tease or a character with a problem.

      The phrase "a short history of..." also raises a red flag, as that suggests it's infodump not story. You're explaining history.

      You can always write it, and give the story to two sets of beta readers--one with the prologue and one without--and see how they react.

  20. Janice, thanks for pointing me to this article, it made me think a bit more about what I'm doing. As I plan and structure my first fiction novel, I get these bursts of pantsing energy (Loose Outliner here). I wrote the first scene in a burst of energy, and once I saw it lacked context for the protagonist, I immediately pantsed a Prologue. Frankly, I rather like the challenge of not using it, and instead going back and seeing how I can use the material to develop the character. Most will happen in Act 1, but the arc itself likely further in. Still working slowly through Plotting Your Novel, again, great material...glad I set aside a full 18 months to plan and write this!

    1. Glad it was helpful! Anything goes in a first draft, so write away and see what works and what doesn't. Kudos for going for the more challenging option :) It'll be a good learning experience.

  21. I was doing a literature survey a few years back of popular 'classic' books and new best sellers in a genre I'd always loved reading prior to trying my hand at writing one. Only one book in more than two dozen had a prologue. That was lesson number one for me. Check what's typical in a given genre.

    The prologue? Awful. It gave the story away. It introduce all the main characters some 30 years prior to the events of the book when they were college students 'together' for the first time. The story built up to who was responsible for 'X,' but anyone who read the prologue already knew.

    1. Good lesson--always know your genre. Every one has different tropes and expectations.

      Sounds like a perfect example of when you shouldn't use one :)

  22. I like prologues, I always have and use them regularly when writing. A good exploratory tool for the novel that you are about to read. I expect that not all of my prologues have been necessary but often are used as a foreshadowing of events to come. "A Taster" if you like. If the reader enjoys the prologue, then there is a good chance they will enjoy the novel. If they do not, then there is little hope of catching them later.
    Perhaps it is simply my age, but I view such things with nostalgia.
    Plus, I always think to myself. Ian Banks, Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, John Connolly and so many others cannot all be wrong. After all, they have sold a few billion books between them.

    1. They have indeed, though they're all good examples of what established writers can do that new writers can't. But if you love prologues, and they work for you, keep reading and writing them:) I have prologues in both my currents manuscripts. Sometimes a book just needs one :)