Why am I writing on prologues? Because I LOVE PROLOGUES!
A few years ago, I made a horrible discovery; there are MONSTERS out there! REAL PEOPLE who DON’T READ THE PROLOGUES!
Okay, so they may not be monsters (at least no more than I am for being one of those terrifying people who dog-ears books), but it genuinely was a shock. The concept of skipping a prologue didn’t exist in my mind, and since that time I’ve seen discovered that not only do people skip them, but agents and publishers generally seem to avoid them too.
Now, as a disclaimer, I just want to say that if you are querying, and the guidelines specifically warn against a prologue, or you are aware the person you are querying doesn’t like/want prologues, maybe try and avoid them. Like the plague. Or a Spin Doctors reunion tour.
But in a desperate bid to work out how I can get around this and include my beloved prologues, and hopefully help others that want to do the same, one thing has become clear; people don’t like bad prologues. And the majority seem to fit this category, tainting the rest as well. To get a prologue working, and give it a fighting chance at both submission and first read, the criticisms levelled at them need to be addressed.
The biggest criticism I see is that they are just massive, world building info dumps. That’s actually a really easy one to fix. First of all, remember that if a reader is reading your prologue, then that is their first introduction to your writing. Which brings up a couple of questions;
Would you open your first chapter like that?
Would you write a short story that way?
If the answer is no, then its probably not a great idea to open a prologue like that.
I’ve always liked Patrick Rothfuss’ opening to The Name of the Wind for this. It talks of a silence of three parts, and I remember being so fascinated with the concept of dividing the silence (geographically? Component? Orchestrally?) that I was immediately hooked.
Rothfuss still has some issues with his prologue though if I wanted to be supercritical. . .which I do, as it leads nicely to the next point I learned.
People don’t read prologues because they think they don’t matter.
This one, I have to concede, it often right. In the case of Rothfuss, it can be skipped without consequence for the rest of the story.
It also makes it tough to pitch. If people are going to skip it anyway (they don’t yet realise the brilliance of your prologues), then it can’t matter too much or readers who skip it won’t have context for the remainder of the story. But it still needs to be relevant, or it has no purpose and would, therefore, have no reason to remain.
Enter Robert Jordon’s Wheel of Time prologue. It is relevant to the core idea of the entire series, yet it can be skipped without consequence. How? It is it’s own, self-contained short story. Yes, it portrays a critical part of the world’s history, but that is also explained over the course of the series too. But the story of Lews Therin is heartbreaking, epic, and fantastical from the start. It reminds me of the action bit before the credits of detective shows, the part that is usually a murder or the discovery of the body. It sets the mood immediately, it shows parts of what happened that will be shown later anyway as the detectives put the clues together, and the episode could start at the established crime scene just fine. But it doesn’t. The prologue entertains and is relevant, so even though it isn’t essential, it stays.
The third issue relates to the others, but basically comes down to the complaint that prologues are too long and delay the ‘real’ start of the story.
To be honest, I don’t think there is much that can be done for this. It comes down to good writing – if the words don’t serve a purpose, get rid of them. The same goes for prologues. If they go too long, then they need to be given more importance to justify their existence. Which brings us back to the earlier point – if they are too important, and people are going to skip them anyway then the reader is being set up to be confused.
By the time they reach a few thousand words, it may be worth considering them as a chapter instead. Which leads to another option for keeping the prologue;
Call it something else!
The classic example is Harry Potter. That first chapter was apparently meant to be a prologue, and even reading it now it reads like a prologue. But it has enough action and hooks to draw readers in and no one will skip it because it’s called Chapter 1! Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s (Pterry for those in Djelibeybi) Good Omens does the same thing, giving it the less subtle name of ‘Eleven Years Ago’. It might be obvious and simple, but it genuinely seems to get around prologuephobia if the prologue is good enough.
Which is really the critical part. Prologues may be judged harsher than other components simply for the fact that they are often done in a way that is detrimental to the reading of the story. There are ways around it, but these will only give the prologue a fighting chance. Only one thing is guaranteed; it still needs to be high-quality writing. Don’t suddenly forget the rules, conventions or guidelines just for the prologue. It might seem like a different beast, but in the end, they are often the first words people see (except the monsters who skip prologues). Make them quality, and make them work to ensure the reader turns to the next page. Then make the turn the next one. And the next one. And so on. Until they’ve read all the way to the end, without even realising they have read, and finished, the prologue.