Prologues are like the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys; people generally have strong feelings about them, one way or another. I admit I skipped all prologues when reading books in high school. Extra pages-who needed ’em?
I think people resist prologues because we’ve learned they don’t always connect in a significant way to what’s happening in chapter one, making them an additional tax on our motivation and memory. It’s true: Readers can expend a lot of mental effort ramping up to a new story, and if the road the author has laid out is perceived to be too much like an uphill cross-country course, it may never be taken.
So when might it be a good idea to use a prologue? How about when you need to…
Establish Theme. Using a prologue to highlight structure and hook can be like knowing the notes in a glass of wine before taking the first sip; you can hone your senses more acutely on the details and probably appreciate them all the more in the end. Laura Hillenbrand, for example, began Seabiscuit by telling the reader the year, reminding us about the Great Depression and its effect on the human psyche. Two pages later, we understand why people were so deeply connected to Seabiscuit, and I do think the short memorial helped to invest readers right off the mark.
Peer Inside a Different Window. If you choose to begin your story at the point of change – wham, ch. 1 – it can be tricky to work out how things were before or why the character needed that change without a big info dump. Including a prologue can be an elegant solution, providing the reader with information through either a unique POV or a window to the past. Allison Brennan used this technique in her novel The Hunt, taking us twelve years off the beaten path that is chapter one to show us the horror her protagonist Miranda lived through. Was this better than telling us about the incident within the story or showing it to us through flashbacks? This reader thinks so. Miranda’s ordeal was riveting, frightening and vivid, immediately showing us both the stakes and the potential for drastic character change. Bonus: It hooked hard.
Give the Reader a Helping Hand. Our own Marsha Moyer used a prologue in her second novel, The Last of the Honky-Tonk Angels, to remind readers where her protagonist had been and what she’d endured. Because Marsha’s first and second books were released about one year apart, readers who’d been introduced to the heroine in The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch may not have read the character in a while. But that single page spans the distance between Lucy Then and Lucy Now, and Reader Then and Reader Now simply, while also reminding us of Marsha’s melodious voice. New readers benefit as well, as they’re given a root to cling to, some hint of Lucy’s past.
Some stories are tough to get unless you’re told what’s going on from moment one. Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, used her prologue for protagonists Henry and Clair to reveal that Henry was a time traveler, taking us deep inside the characters’ minds. How does it feel to time travel? How does it feel to be left behind? Niffenegger gave us something to think about and created empathy for both characters before taking us one of the wildest literary rides imaginable.
Wonder when you shouldn’t use a prologue? Check out this post HERE. Write on, all!