Let’s talk about prologues today!
Every author and, in turn, every reader, has their own opinions about prologues. This is especially prominent in the world of independent publishing, as prologues are often misused to convey information that could easily have been shared in the first chapter. Beyond this, many authors, editors, agents, and publishers, are of the belief that prologues are pointless and shouldn’t even be included. After all, why include information about characters or part of a story that we’re only going to get for a page or two?
This is exactly what I wish to discuss, and why I’m bringing the conversation surrounding prologues to the table. There are many right and wrong ways to write an introduction to your story.
It’s important not to get a prologue and a preface confused for each other, first of all.
1. an introduction to a book, typically stating its subject, scope, or aims.
I almost always enjoy a preface, especially when it’s written by or about an author who is no longer with us. For instance, Douglas Adams prefaces his Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with a history of the Guide, his writing career, and some personal comments. Neil Gaiman prefaces Good Omens by talking about the time him and Terry Pratchett spent together writing the book. In some cases, Steven Brust writes a short preface to his books as well, though they are typically with a slightly different flavor than the previous two. A preface is from the perspective on an author, and it is not part of the story. (This is called a foreword if it is written by someone who did not author the book.)
1. a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work.
· an event or action that leads to another event or situation.
Even recently, I’ve read a number of prologues that can be easily defined as “good.” Without sharing any proprietary information, I edited a fantasy whose prologue brought me, the reader, to a time and place before the events of the story. It was short, only about two pages long, and it set the scene for the story, introducing characters we weren’t necessarily going to spend time with, showing us their actions which pertained heavily to the story and the main character, and it did so without giving me enough time to really get attached to the characters in the prologue.
I’ve also read prologues that fall victim to easy mistakes. If the information shared in the prologue could be part of the first chapter, it doesn’t warrant its own section. This includes things like…
· being written in the perspective of the main character
· sharing events leading directly and sequentially into the first chapter
· including a hook that should be part of the first chapter, not on its own.
Additionally, a prologue should always be short. Never introduce your audience to characters with the intent of getting them attached, only to turn around and reveal that the story is about a different set of people entirely. Most likely, your reader will feel that you attempted to deceive them or, worse, that you don’t know whose story you’re telling.
In tone with my notes in the first paragraph, a good prologue can highlight something telling from your fictional world’s past…but it can also highlight something from the future. So long as you take care not to spoil your own story, a prologue that takes place after the events in your book can be an excellent hook and build suspense.
Having a hook in the prologue is great, and, if you’re going to write a prologue, it should build suspense and perhaps even introduce an idea that your reader may forget about after a few chapters. You, the author, should remember every details of your prologue, and make it count. Every word matters when writing a compelling story, and this includes your introduction! Even with a great hook in your prologue, chapter 1 should be compelling on its own, in case your readers skip through or the initial hook doesn’t quite take. It’s a tricky balance, but it’s a line you must learn to walk as an author.
Be careful, in the world of prologues, not to info-dump. It can be tempting to do this in the prologue in order to avoid doing it in the first chapter, but I promise you that it’s not any better. I’ll cover the topic of info-dumping and sharing background more deeply in next month’s blogs, but for now I’ll leave you with the simple advice not to do it.
While researching this topic, I found a couple of articles (that I won’t list here) that suggest you should use an exciting scene from your story as the prologue. Don’t do this. My Significant Other and I frequently have conversations about movie trailers, and how, very frequently, a trailer will feature a spot from the film that is the “funniest” or the “coolest.” I can’t recall which trailer it was specifically, but I remember one specifically that we saw together wherein the trailer literally spoiled the climax of the film. The last 15 minutes! And it was featured in the preview! That is something you should avoid. First of all, as the scene from the trailer draws nearer, context creates a lot of clues that will give away what’s going to happen; in the case of a climax, this ruins the tension because you already know what is going to happen. The same is very likely to happen with your story if you use an interesting or “favorite” scene from within the book to try and catch your reader’s interest.
A prologue should also not serve the sole purpose of setting atmosphere. While it is important that every paragraph should speak to the mood and setting of your story, a prologue should do more than this alone. It needs to set up frame work for the entirety of the novel.
On a personal note, I must say that I don’t believe anything novella-length or shorter should have a prologue. If your book is only 50 pages long, they should be pages that pack a punch all on their own.
I have said before, many times, that one of my favorite things about writing a good story is sharing bits of information at key moments to create tension and drama. It is also my favorite thing as a reader; when the author reveals just enough that I’m left with more and more questions until the pieces start painting a bigger picture, well, I am happy as can possibly be. Keep pace, setting, and tension in mind when drafting your prologue.
There are many different types of prologues. Some are poems or song lyrics, diary entries, or just prose written in a different voice than the rest of the story. It’s important, whatever method you choose, to separate the voice of the prologue from the voice of the main text.
Many arguments exist against prologues in general. For instance, if your story is action-packed and fast-paced, you may want to avoid them altogether as they can stunt the pace of your first chapter. If you want to throw a reader straight into a gunfight in the streets of LA to set the tone for your book, it’s best not to do that with a prologue but, instead, by jumping straight into the story.
You may decide to write your prologue before, during, or after the first draft of your novel. However you do it, make sure you read through the book as a whole and ensure that the tone of the prologue matches the tone of your book, even if the narrative voice itself is different. It depends on what you find most comfortable, as does the decision to even include a prologue. Ultimately, you are the only one who can make that choice for your story, but I hope you can make it now as a more well-informed author!
Next Sunday we’re going to tackle homophones, and I’m excited to announce that we will once again be enrolling new beta readers from April 1-April 5! April will also be a month dedicated to the structure of a novel, so make sure to tune in if you’ve ever had trouble or are currently struggling with your outline, character planning, or anything in that ballpark, or even if you haven’t started yet and would like a good leg up.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to seeing you all next Sunday!
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