As an editor, I have never liked prologues. As a writer, I’ve never written one. As a reader, I skip them. Yet they keep appearing on my Flogging the Quill blog for criticism. I post the opening lines of the prologue plus the opening lines of the first chapter. Just about all the time, the chapter opening works best.
Yet writers persist. So I did a little survey of opinion on prologues given by blogging agents.
Agent Jessica Faust on the BookEnds blog
Well, I can tell you from conversations with colleagues that many agents hate them. Frankly, I never had much of an opinion about the prologue until I started talking to other agents about them and reading some of them more carefully.
The truth is that many writers use a prologue as a convenient way to introduce backstory without doing the work it takes to weave it into the book. Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to write a scene than to slowly unravel the information through the main plotline. I think prologues can often be predictable and lazy. Lazy for the reason I already stated; predictable because I see the same prologue over and over. Thriller writers, for example, love a prologue that introduces the killer making a kill. I’ve seen it a million times.
I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast rule for or against prologues. I think you just need to make sure it’s as important to the story as every chapter you’re writing and not something you’re doing because it’s easier than the alternative.
A couple of quotes found on the Internet:
“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
—Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”
—Laurie McLean, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents
Here’s what literary agent Kristin Nelson says on her blog:
Kristin’s incomplete list of why prologues don’t work:
1. When the sole purpose of the prologue is to fill the reader in on the back story so the real story can begin.
This is so easy to point out but harder to explain.
In the example of UNDONE, Brooke needed a prologue to show how it all started. To juxtapose who the girls were when they first “meet” versus who they are when chapter 1 begins. The prologue also serves a strong purpose. It sets tone, character, and sets up several questions. Why did Kori become a “I-puke-cheerleaders-for-breakfast” kind of girl? Something has happened but what? Why is Serena obsessed with her by her own admission? And it’s very clear that these two girls have nothing in common in this bathroom scene yet Kori calmly states that they are more alike than Serena knows. They are connected.
This is a prologue with a clear purpose. The reader should want to know more by the end or it doesn’t work. It’s also masterful. Brooke managed to accomplish quite a bit in just 4 short paragraphs and this leads me to the second reason why prologues often don’t work.
2. They are too long.
This is the death of a manuscript if a writer has problem #1 and then it’s combined with problem #2.
3. When the prologue is in a whole different style or voice from the rest of the manuscript.
Then when chapter 1 begins, readers are left flummoxed—especially if that style or tone of voice is never revisited.
4. When the prologue is solely there to provide an action scene to “draw the reader in” but then serves no other purpose or is not connected to the main story arc or is only loosely so.
5. When the prologue introduces the evil character simply so the reader can “know” what is at stake.
I can sum this up in two words. Clumsy writing.
6. When the prologue is supposed to be cool (or I might reword this to say the writer thinks it sounds cool).
Lots of writers overwrite when creating a prologue. It shows.
When all of the above is happening (and there are probably a dozen more reasons why prologues often don’t work), it becomes really clear that the writer isn’t paying attention to dialogue, character development, plot pacing, etc. All key elements of good writing.
This is why almost all the agents I know completely skip the prologue and start with chapter one when reading sample pages. A beginner writer might actually be able to do good character, dialogue, tone, pacing, and whatnot but it’s more than likely not going to show in the prologue.
Now in defense of the prologue, when it’s done well, it’s truly an amazing tool. The number of times I’ve seen a prologue done extraordinarily well in requested submissions? Well, I can count that total on two hands….
Agent Nathan Bransford has this to say on his blog
I think the easiest litmus test is to take out the prologue and see if your book still makes sense.
If you can take out a prologue and the entire plot still makes perfect sense, chances are the prologue was written to “set the mood”. But here’s the thing about mood-setting: most of the time you can set the mood when the actual story begins. Do you really need to set the mood with a separate prologue? Really? Really really?
Sometimes the answer to those four really is: “yes, really.” Or the prologue is to be used as a framing device around the plot or to introduce a crucial scene in the backstory that will impact the main plot. So okay, prologue time.
What makes a good one?
Short, self-contained, comprehensible.
The reader knows full well while reading a prologue that the real story is waiting. A prologue makes a reader start a book twice, because it doesn’t always involve the protagonist, and starting a book is hard because it takes mental energy to immerse oneself in a world. You’re asking more of a reader, so they’ll want to make sure it’s worth it.
For me, the key statement in Nathan’s post is A prologue makes a reader start a book twice. A very interesting insight.
Finally, the famous Miss Snark on her blog:
The problem with prologues is that, generally, they only achieve fullness of meaning in the context of the entire book. Some prologues don’t do this: they are used for things that can’t be explained, for example, in the first person POV of the novel. Those then are just a distraction from the main part of the novel, and in queries and partials, I just want to see if you can write well enough to read past page 10/50/whatever. I don’t start thinking much about how the overall novel looks/holds together till I’m reading the whole thing.
The reason prologues are difficult to write is cause mostly you DO NOT NEED THEM. Like crossword puzzles, if it gets harder and harder to figure out the right way to do it, you’re on the wrong track. Trust me on this: 6 down is MISSSNARKKNOWSALL
I agree with Kristen (Nelson) on this one, and for those of you who are busily crafting what you think is the exception to the rule, remember this: I skip them when I read your work. I read the first page of chapter one. If that grabs me, I might go back and see if you’ve managed to craft the Only Living Prologue Not to Suck.
Signs your prologue sucks: it’s about a dream, it’s about the weather, it’s about someone who is dead, it’s about someone who never appears again in the book. The first sign you are not the exception to this rule is if you think you ARE.
My view is that most prologues amount to “throat-clearing,” the delivery of information, whether it’s in the form of an immediate scene or not, that a writer believes we readers must have or we cannot truly understand what’s going on.
I don’t think writers who use prologues are being “lazy,” it’s just that they haven’t yet thought of a way to weave that information into the story as it happens. And I firmly believe that what readers want from a novel is WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW, not what happened THEN.
Well, a prologue isn’t what’s happening now, and the reader knows, just as Nathan Bransford says, that they’re going to have to start reading the story all over again when they get to the first chapter. So I say find a way to get that relevant information or backstory into the weave of the actually story, as it happens.
What do you think?