You think that title is just a provocation, don’t you? Something to get folks riled and then clicking through to my essay. Honestly, I hope people do want to read yet another essay on prologues. But also, I honestly do love prologues.
I’ve been thinking about how many readers say they dislike prologues; how they routinely skip them or even refuse to read them. Are you one of these readers?
I’ve been thinking about how damn near everyone recommends against including a prologue when you’re trying to sell your story. If you’re wondering why prologues have been on my mind, well, I suppose I ought to get it out in the open, right at the top. The newest version of my WIP has one.
In light of that disclosure, you might think I’m biased. But in thinking about prologues—how many say they don’t read them or say not to include one when submitting—I still came to this simple conclusion:
I don’t just love prologues. I actually prefer when stories begin with them.
My Own Shelves
Perhaps we should start with a definition, so we’re all on the same (first) page: A prologue is a separate introductory section of a literary work. Simple enough, right?
My conclusion regarding my preference began with a quick survey of my own shelves. Even I was surprised by how many of my favorite books and series begin with a prologue. Or at least some version of one. Not all of them are labeled as prologues, so for the sake of my survey, I went back to our simple definition of a “separate introductory section.” For me, being “separate” implies that the story itself does not rely on the content of a prologue in order to begin or to reach its resolution. In other words, the story would make sense without them. Often, prologues occur in another place or time than the story’s starting point. Often without the protagonist present.
Let’s look at a few of the examples from my shelves that helped me reach my conclusion. My survey included (but was not limited to):
*The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien—Labeled as a prologue, this is really nothing less than a twenty page dissertation “On Hobbits,” and oh, how relatable they become. All one has to do to understand its importance is imagine having no idea what a hobbit is (not so easy for those of us raised after the books achieved popularity). Tolkien manages to make hobbits so much more than fairies, gnomes, or any other preconception of fantastical “little people.”
*The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb—This series begins with an italicized introduction that isn’t labeled as a prologue. It sets the scene, primarily regarding the political circumstance, which swiftly gives shape to the story’s world. It reads like memoir, and the reader instantly senses that it’s in the hand of an older version of a protagonist we’ve yet to meet.
*The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan—The series-starting prologue features a dystopian cataclysm, from the POV of a character whose identity and relevance is not fully revealed for several books! We have no idea if it’s a glimpse at a distant past or a terrifying future.
*The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie—In which the separate introductory segment, rather than being labeled as a prologue, is brilliantly titled, “The End,” establishing the humorous tone of the entire series in record time.
Let me guess. You’re thinking something like, “Roycroft is WU’s resident fantasy geek, and these are all fantasies. Those geeks love this sort of thing, don’t they?” If you are, I’ll forgive you and say you’re right. Then I’ll counter by saying my shelves also include these favorites:
*The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett—Remember the prologue? The hanging? The girl with the knife? The bloody cockerel and the curse? Spooky coolness!
*The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger—which includes a passage from each of the two protagonists. This introduction accomplishes the difficult task of setting up a very tricky premise, but it also foreshadows the scope of a tragic love story.
*The Tides of War, by Steven Pressfield—which includes not one but two prologues! Both are from a protagonist looking back: the first to give a broad sense of the historical backdrop and the second zeroing in to set the scene for the war in question. Together they establish not just the historical context, but the legendary feel and breadth of the tale to come.
I admit it, though. The majority of my shelf examples are Fantasy/SciFi. And those of you who don’t read much speculative and don’t care for prologues likely remain unmoved (if you’re even still reading). You might still think my claiming a preference is nothing more than a provocation. Or simply outlandish. But what if I was able to provide a unique perspective to help you understand my conclusion, that prologues can make stories better? Enough to become the basis for my preference?
What if we examine the premise in another medium?
Prologues in Motion…
…Pictures, that is. From the land of swimming pools and movie stars. That’s right, I’m talking about major motion pictures that include prologues. “Oh, but that’s completely different,” you might say. But is it?
Many major motion pictures begin with a separate introductory section, often in another place or time than the story’s delayed starting point. Often without a protagonist, and occasionally without any of the story’s characters. How about some examples? For the sake of universality, how about we stick with blockbusters?
*Jaws—Who could forget Chrissie? Okay, you’re forgiven if you didn’t remember her name. But you’ll surely never forget what happens to her—how she lured the drunken boy from the beach party with the promise of a skinny-dip. How we see her from the perspective of the film’s lurking antagonist, tantalizingly treading water at the surface above. How she’s first dunked, and then pushed and pulled like a rag-doll through the water. Besides being the first victim, in my opinion Chrissie’s and the party boy’s experience are “a separate introductory segment.” Memorable–shocking and vital–but separate.
*Raiders of the Lost Ark—Okay, this one features our protagonist. But the (very exciting) intro of Indy stealing the golden idol, being tricked by his (unfortunate) guide, and ending up pursued by a host of local warriors, has no real bearing on the events of the story that follows. We could’ve just started in Dr. Jones’ classroom, couldn’t we? With the female student’s flirty assertion written on her eyelids. Again, this is a separate introductory segment.
*Gladiator—What a memorable setup!—the forests of Germania, an entire Roman Legion poised to fight an epic battle with upstart barbarians. What a memorable line Maximus delivers: “At my signal, unleash hell.” So, yes, we have our protagonist, and he’s arguably doing something that ties in to the plot (after his victory, Emperor Marcus Aurelius offers him the throne). But is it critical? I’d argue that the story’s inciting incident occurs when Commodus hears he’s been bypassed and commits patricide. I’d say the battle itself is a separate introductory segment.
*Jurassic Park—Who could forget all of the hardhat guys with electrified cattle-prods; the massive high-tech containment cages and the hapless worker controlling the gate; the screeching and the hunter dude yelling, “Shoot her!”? Do we really need it? Again, not really. The story really begins when the bag-man shows up at the archaeological dig to lure Doctors Saddler and Grant to the park.
I could go on (just think about most every James Bond movie’s opening sequence, pretty much since the Roger Moore era), but I think by now the pattern is clear.
Prologues Really Can Make Stories Better
It should go without saying, but of course I still like stories—in any medium—that begin without prologues. I’m merely trying to soften the stance of those who draw a hard-and-fast line against them.
In my opinion, all of these prologues are terrific at creating atmosphere. But prologues often do more. They can establish the story-world, set expectations, reveal broader or heightened stakes, lay out pertinent backstory, and provide enticing foreshadowing. Seriously, can you really imagine any of these stories–the cinematic examples in particular–without their separate introductory sections? I can’t. At the very least, can you acknowledge my case that each of these “separate introductory segments” manages to improve the story?
Good prologues can help to transport us to the story-world, and even put us in the proper mood to receive it. Simply put, they are an aid to immersion.
All I’m suggesting is that prologues are a viable tool for our writerly toolkit. I’m suggesting that generally disliking, and thereby dismissing prologues, is akin to disliking and thereby dismissing any aspect of storytelling. Heck, I generally dislike present tense in novels, but I’m sure glad I don’t dismiss or skip them because of it. I would’ve missed some pretty wonderful reads if I had.
All I’m suggesting is giving prologues the same chance you would any other storytelling technique.
The Reality Remains
In spite of my wish that prologues weren’t so disparaged and so often skipped, it remains true that many agents, editors, and publishing pros recommend avoiding their inclusion. So why would I include one anyway?
I could say, the older I get, the less I care about what other people think. But, if I’m being honest with myself, I know it’s not true. Not when it comes to writing. I want people to read, and enjoy, every word of my stories.
I could say it’s because I believe my prologue establishes an atmosphere; that it reveals an over-arching source of conflict which raises the stakes; that it provides pertinent background and enticing foreshadowing.
I could say I believe my prologue will be an aid to immersion.
But more than any of that, I included my prologue because I’ve grown as a writer. Grown to the point that I truly understand that the most important person to please is myself; grown to believe that true success requires us to always be writing the book that we truly want to read.
I’ve grown to accept not just my love of prologues, but that I believe they can make stories better, and that I actually prefer them. Why wouldn’t I include something I feel so strongly about in my own story?
What say you, WU? Prologue lovers unite! Prologue haters, feel free to “unleash hell.” I can take it. Let’s discuss this oft-disparaged writerly tool.