Ken sent us the following question:
“What’s the difference between a prologue, a foreword and a preface? Also, I’ve heard that fiction writers should avoid prologues and incorporate it into the backstory. Thoughts? Thanks in advance.”
Great question, Ken.
Prologues, I’ll tackle in a minute as there is a bit of disagreement over a prologue’s usefulness in fiction.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t have an easy answer for the difference between a foreword and a preface, but Google came to my rescue and I found a handy cheat-sheet at writersandeditors.com. I’ll steal from them thusly:
The foreword, says the Chicago Manual of Style, is usually written by someone other than the author or editor, usually someone eminent (to lend credibility to the book), and although the title page may say “Foreword by X,” if the foreword is only one or two pages (which is normal), the name of the foreword writer normally appears at the end of the foreword.
A preface, according to writersandeditors:
[Talks] about how you came to write the book, especially if that will help draw the reader into the book. Perhaps best in the preface.
•To sell the book to the potential reader/buyer (lure them, hook them, make them want to read more). In the case of Ruth Selig writing about the death of her twin, providing the personal details up front would be important, for example).
•To answer the question: why this book? why now? why this person? why by this author?
•To talk about how you got the information — what main sources (and how they differ from other books on the subject, if this is book #189 on the Kennedys, for example)
•To provide a framework for what’s to follow — the hooks on which to hang the pegs of story details
•To provide, in brief, your main argument or point of view about the subject. The alternative is not to express your position clearly up front and to weave it into the fabric of the biography so that the reader has to read the book to find it. Critics may object to this. My impression is that you want to suggest your conclusions or viewpoint up front but express them more fully and strongly in the concluding chapter, if there are conclusions to be made.
Now for prologues.
Let me state for the record that in theory, I believe that 50% of prologues in fiction are unnecessary and could have been incorporated into the narrative just as easily and without the danger of having the reader skip the chapter to get to the story. But I also adore them and have found the juiciest hooks at the beginning of a prologue.
Marg McAllister provides a handy definition of a prologue:
A prologue should reveal significant facts that contribute to our understanding of the plot. It should be vivid and entertaining in its own right (who wants to read a boring prologue, no matter how much of the background it explains?) It should make us want to read on.
She also offers a handy cheat sheet for writers deciding if they need a prologue at all:
- What if I just call the prologue Chapter 1? Will the story flow smoothly from that point anyway? (If the answer is “yes”, ditch the prologue.)
- Do I need to give the readers a fair bit of background information for the story to make sense? (If “yes”, the consider doing it in a prologue before the ‘real’ story starts.)
- Am I thinking of using a prologue just to hook the reader? (If “yes”, then ask yourself why you can’t do this just as effectively in Chapter 1 anyway. Do you need to brush up on your technique for creating suspense and conflict? Does your plot need revising? Are you starting your story too early?)
In other words, decide if you really really need a prologue first before committing to one. Some editors do not dig them at all, and I’ve heard that agents aren’t super keen on them either. If you can get away with starting your story at Chapter 1 instead of Prologue, then do it.
But I still love them.
Thanks for sending in the question, Ken!
What do you think about prologues? Love them, or loathe them?