Thursday March 23
Subscribe to RSS Feed

Pros and Cons of Prologue

July 6, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 10, 2014

Include a prologue or jump straight into the story, that is the question. At least it’s a question. One you should ask yourself before beginning your story.

Yes, you can always drop or add a prologue after you’ve written the first draft, but you might want to think about the pluses and minuses before you begin writing.

Let’s define prologue before looking at the pros and cons.

Prologue is the section of a novel that comes before the true beginning of the story (pro logos, before the words). It can consist of a few lines or be as long as a chapter (though if you’re going to write a chapter, consider making it a real chapter rather than a prologue).

A prologue often sets up the story, giving readers a view of events that happened earlier, even years earlier, in the characters’ lives.

A prologue can provide background, reveal what’s happened to get the characters to the current moment, establish the tone of the work, or introduce the theme.

Of course, a writer can achieve all these things without a prologue.

A prologue stands out. If you want to draw attention to events that happened before the current story time, you can highlight those events via prologue. You could also use a flashback later in the narrative or convey the past through dialogue or character thought.

A prologue can be told in a different voice than the rest of the story or be presented by a different viewpoint character.

A prologue is often boring and often looked upon without fondness by readers.

Prologues are out of vogue for the most part. I’m guessing here, but I’d say the reason is because readers want to jump right into the meat of a story and a prologue is a frustrating delay. Readers want to know the now of a character’s life, not what happened to his grandfather 60 years ago.

Or prologues might have gone out of style because writers abused them, piling on any and everything as a means of getting the reader’s attention or because they thought readers need to know a lot more about the past than they truly need to know to enjoy a story.

A big info dump, even in a prologue, is still a big info dump. Readers really don’t need to know everything that writers know about their characters and their lives in order to enjoy a book.

A bad prologue, one that doesn’t lure the reader in, can serve instead to hold him away. Remember that once a reader has a book in hand, he wants to read the story. Don’t give him incidentals at the opening. Give him substance. Draw the reader into the tale.

This is not to say that you can’t have a prologue to serve as an introduction. But you’ll want to make it compelling. And relevant. And necessary.

Ask yourself these questions:

if the reader didn’t read the prologue, would he still enjoy and understand the story;

can the information in the prologue be introduced in the main story itself, through dialogue or action or thought;

is the information from the prologue so important that the reader must keep it in mind as he reads the story, juggling the revelations from the prologue with the unfolding drama from the current story line (and being discouraged from, distracted from, sinking fully into that current story);

is the prologue too slow and uninvolving for a true story opening;

does the prologue detract from your true opening?

Prologues can serve a purpose, but they can also detract from a story, especially from the impact of the story’s opening pages. If you need or insist upon a prologue, make it a great one. Make it accomplish your purpose without interfering with the flow and impact of the full story. Put it to work or take it out.

Understand what prologue brings to a story. Keep in mind what it can do, positive and negative, to your novel.

Pros
Introduces elements that might be difficult to introduce through dialogue or through exposition without an info dump.

Can reveal character motivation.

Can quickly establish tone.

Can quickly set up questions in the reader’s mind.

Can provide story direction or focus with only a few words.

Cons
Delays the start of the current story.

Forces readers to think about elements or characters or events that might not come into play for a long time in the current story (or might not have a part in the current story line at all).

Can divide the reader’s focus.

Can set the story off in a direction different from the one intended by the rest of the story.

Can keep readers from becoming fully involved in the now of the story as they try to figure out what the prologue has to do with other story events.

Prologues are out of favor. Readers (and publishers) might bring their negative impression of prologues in general to yours in particular.

______________________________

Can you include a prologue? Of course. You’re the writer. Include whatever works for your story and the vision you have for it.

Might a prologue enhance your story? Of course it might. But you have to ensure that it does so without detracting from the story more than it enhances.

Could you just skip a prologue and jump right in with action or dialogue or scene-setting or a setup for tone? You can do that too.

Do whatever works for the story. Listen to advice, but don’t fear trying something that others aren’t doing. They might have valid reasons for not doing something, so you’d be wise to consider those reasons. But if you can work out a fix, something that would take into account their reasons to not try something, something such as including a prologue, then by all means try the fix.

Include in each story what works for that story. And entertain your readers.

If a prologue works and entertains, keep it. If it doesn’t meet this criteria, toss it.

A simple way to decide on a prologue, I know. But simple often works well.

And often helps us write both stronger and more entertaining fiction.

***

Share

Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

34 Responses to “Pros and Cons of Prologue”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Beth,

    Are prologues just out of fashion or out of favor or both, making it a definite No, No as in slush pile?

    What if one uses it in the opposite direction, going from present to past? The same rule of thumb would apply, would it not?

    Thank you!

  2. Anon, I would never say never include one because prologues can work. And some genres are more accepting than others. But with all a writer (especially an unproven writer) has to work against, why make it harder to get read by that first reader?

    If your prologue is awesome, I’d say you could go for it. But realize it might be a handicap. As long as you know up front that a prologue might count against you, you can at least prepare. I’d guess that established authors would get more leeway than unknowns. That is, maybe get yourself pubbed first and then try some of the actions that so work against unpublished writers.

    From present to past meaning present in the prologue and past in the story? That’s been done, sure. A character can look back at his life, reliving the events that brought him to his present position.

    Again, just make all the elements compelling. And keep in mind the tone or mood you establish just by showing a character looking back over his life. Often the feel of such an opening will be bittersweet. But the character could feel regret or satisfaction, either of which would color the story in a different way.

    Because of what they are and do, prologues definitely begin a story in a way different from stories without prologues. If you intend to include one, may I suggest you read a couple of stories (stories new to you) that have prologues, mostly just to see what the prologue accomplishes and how it makes you feel. If you like the results, go after your own prologue.

    Good thoughts, Anon. Thanks for jumping in.

    • Thanks! The way you explained this was deep and wise
      .
      From present to past meaning present in the prologue and past in the story? That’s been done, sure. A character can look back at his life, reliving the events that brought him to his present position.

      Can you recommend any books that has a prologue similar to the one you talked about in this part of your reply to Anon?

      Thank you and best wishes!

  3. “Prologue” means not only “before the word,” but by extension, “the story before the story.” In the best of fiction it serves as an action clip to engage the reader because the first chapter is boring or otherwise not engaging enough to get the reader to read on. If you are compelled to write a prologue, do as you would when you study any form to see how best to do it yourself: read all the prologues you can find and see what the best of them do. One of my favorites is the opening to Peter Matthiessen’s AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD.

  4. Chris says:

    Thanks for the article, this helped a lot. I’m a new writer, working towards my first book. Now I was wondering, if a prologue is needed in a novel, as mine is, is it ideal to include dialogue? Or should the prologue only be based on the narrative point of view? It is written in first person, and my protagonist is alone with one other minor character. It happens years before the main “beginning” happens, in chapter one, but is crucial to the plot for later on. Is it acceptable to include dialogue between these two characters in my prologue? Thanks for the help!

  5. Chris, dialogue is fine for a prologue. Actually, anything you can put into a chapter you can use in the prologue. Just make it compelling.

    Good luck with the first book! There’s nothing more exciting than starting—and then finishing—the first one.

  6. F. Armstrong, I’m with you on studying the prologues that work. Pick out the elements that make the prologue strong and adapt them for your own prologues.

  7. Mary L. Ball says:

    I remember when I first started writing, I was told to do away with the prologue and make it a chapter. That was good advice. A prologue is tricky to pull off, it has to be strong!
    Mary L. Ball
    “Escape to Big Fork Lake”

    • Dave says:

      I thought od doing it that way however your in-depth explanation gave birth to even better ideas.

      I love the site.
      … and Mary wrote about doing away with prologue, and making it a chapter.
      Would we or would we not, have to include the protagonist in that chapter?

  8. Mary, prologues are indeed tricky. There are many reasons they can hurt a story. Not all prologues are bad, of course, and not all hurt the story that follows. But they do have a lot to overcome.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  9. Dear Beth

    Are headers used for the Prologue page, the Introduction? Thanks so much.

    Mary Ann Eiler

  10. Hello again, Mary Ann. In case you don’t see my response on the other article, I’ll repeat here.

    Include header information, fonts, page numbers, and the spacing in prologues and introductions just as you would with the manuscript. But make sure you truly need an introduction before including one.

    Readers, and that includes agents and editors at publishing houses, want to read the story. A prologue or a necessary introduction that works for the story should, of course, be included. But keep in mind that readers want to jump right in. The less delay you can give them, the better.

  11. Can the prologue be considered a flashback? Or does a flashback have to be in the actual story?

  12. Erica, do you mean in technical terms? A prologue, at least of a particular kind, could be referred to as a flashback, though it’s not usually called that. If the story hasn’t even started, nothing is actually flashing back. The story line isn’t being interrupted by something that happened earlier—as far as the reader is concerned, the prologue is the story, at least until the full story gets started.

    And while a flashback is a scene, not merely a line or two of narrative back story, a prologue doesn’t have to be a scene. It might be only a line or two of narration or explanation. It might be a description of the story world and feature no characters. Or the prologue might feature characters, but none that appear in the rest of the story. The prologue could take place days or years or hundreds of years before the events of the rest of the story.

    Or the prologue might actually be a scene from later in the story, a teaser of upcoming events, with chapter one beginning somewhere before the events in the prologue. In such a case the prologue would serve as a type of flash forward.

    Or the prologue might serve as the opening of a frame story, where the narrator tells who he is and explains why he’s going to tell a story. That definitely wouldn’t be any kind of flasback.

    So . . . If you needed to explain what a prologue might contain, you could say it might present back story the same way a flashback inserted into a story does, as a scene detailing events that happened earlier. Yet keep in mind that as we’ve seen, that’s not the only style of prologue.

    And to confuse matters more, you could have a true flashback inside the prologue. So if your prologue is a full scene, you might have a character introducing a flashback to an earlier place and/or time. I wouldn’t recommend such a practice, but the possibility is there.

    I’ve not heard a prologue officially called a flashback, but one style of prologue would be constructed in the same way a flashback is. It’s simply not actually flashing back.

    Does that answer your question?

  13. Dave says:

    I began reading my novel in a writers group. There are always many fantastic writers there. While I knew my subject matter —remote viewing, out of body and psychic operations…most of my audience did not. That kind of (hurt), however I can understand why they did not know what was going on behind the conventional perception of warfare and espionage.
    A prologue explaining the history and weaving it within context of story would fit my novels dilemma. At least at this juncture…the beginning.
    I am 100,000 words and into story with possibly 5-10,000 words left until my second draft. If the beginning is not right, than what is the use of an ending?

    Oh my website needs work for my CD’s and fiction ventures.
    Any insight would be appreciated.

    • Dave, a prologue may indeed be the best way to introduce readers to the behind-the-scene elements in your story. But you don’t necessarily want to “explain” in a prologue. Can you show those elements through an action scene, make it clear what’s going on without looking like you’re laying out at explanation before readers delve into the meat of the story?

      Maybe a man is coming to grips with his knowledge of these psychic operations? Maybe you show someone (or even a class full of people) practicing a technique that alerts readers to the psychic elements behind seemingly common actions/events? Or maybe you could show a character reading a report about remote viewing (or one of the other psychic activities), with him gaining insight about the issue or discovering something new about the practice or even almost ignoring the issue, because it’s nothing special to him, and him following up instead on another section of the report. You’ve seen something like this in movies, I’m sure, where several bits of information are revealed in a report, but where the character zeroes in on only what’s important to him. Meanwhile the audience (viewers or readers) gains insight into several issues, not only the one the characters is interested in. This is a great way to set a scene, relaying crucial information but not really stressing it or focusing on it as the major issue of the scene.

      Or, rather than include a prologue, perhaps include a quote from a famous (or even imaginary) expert on psychic operations, about how the general population knows little about the subject and how that lack of awareness leaves them open to exploitation or ignorance or some other problem which will then become apparent in your story.

      You’ve got a couple of options for showing what’s happening behind the scenes, but a prologue may be perfect for a story such as yours.

      ————
      As for your website, I suggest you study the sites of other writers to see how they set up the pages for their products. There are dozens of ways to display books and CDs and other products—I’d check out at least 15 to 20 sites to see what they’ve done. You can always copy the setup you like. And you could use something like WordPress for the product pages of your site, even if you don’t use it for the rest of the pages. WordPress makes it easy to set up and sell products.

      I hope the info helps. Let me know if you have other questions.

  14. Thanks for this article. My writing group kept telling me that prologues were out of fashion so I wanted to know what they thought that. Your article pointed out good things to think about.

    • Nichole, I think one reason that prologues are out of fashion is simply because they delay the start of the real story. Our society is different from the way it was a hundred years ago. We want what we want now. We don’t want to wait. And that includes being impatient about getting involved in the now of a story as soon as we open a book. Prologues are a sign, maybe an unconscious one, that we’re not going to get the story’s true opening just yet. Writers shouldn’t want to frustrate their readers just when they’re trying to hook them.

      It’s not that some prologues don’t or can’t work. It’s just that many don’t.

      Maybe one day you’ll let us know how yours works out for you.

  15. Dave Powell says:

    Hello Beth,

    What is your take on epilogues?

    • Dave, personally, I like them. As long as they don’t go on for too long and they don’t tell me what happens to the main characters 30 or 40 years into the future. I want to bask in the current story—the emotions and the implications—without being told what the characters are up to several decades into the future.

      It’s a bit different if the characters were working on an issue and the epilogue contains some mention of how that issue resolves in the future but doesn’t necessarily tell the reader what the characters did in the intervening years—

      2815, sixty years later

      The change was gradual, but Quillan Five saw restoration. Water again filled the lakes, the numbers of fish and animals grew, and visitors from Za’ar and Glock, at least the bravest ones, booked adventures for their holidays in the high peaks above Sambrosa.

      ———–
      Epilogues shouldn’t try to tell too much, but they’re great as a way to ease the reader (and characters) down from the high of a story’s ending. They can be used to wrap up loose ends and be used to hint at the next story in a series.

      It’s likely that a reader who finishes a book actually enjoyed the book, so an epilogue can be looked on as a bonus. Unlike the prologue which delays the start of a story, an epilogue is a good way to wind one up.

      But again, you don’t want to include too much. If there’s too much explanation, you wipe away all the emotional resonance of the final chapter. And because an epilogue tends to be filled with explanation, there’s absolutely no tension. (Again, unless you’re setting up an issue for another book.)

      A few paragraphs or a few pages, depending on the genre and the length of the book, are typically sufficient. However, I recently edited a manuscript in which the epilogue was the length of a chapter. It was action, although there was some explanation, and while it touched on what had happened in the story, it also pointed straight to the next book in the series. It worked as a bridge to the next story. And it worked well. The current story did end and in a satisfying manner. But the reader will definitely be primed for the next book.
      ————-
      Did you have a specific concern about epilogues?

  16. Dave says:

    I feel RICH…a wealth of information.

    Thanks Beth

  17. I just added a very simple, very short prologue to my novel. It’s only a few sentences long. Ideally, it would be at the top of the first page of the first chapter – after the title but before the words First Chapter. Or would would that look too odd?

    • Brady, you can try anything. And now that I’m thinking about it, I probably have seen short prologues on the same page as the first chapter.

      Are you considering this for a manuscript that you’re submitting to agent or publisher, or is this for something you’re self-publishing? I’m thinking that if you’re submitting it, you might want to keep the prologue on a separate page. Once you sell the book or get an agent, then you can talk to agent or publisher about how to format it for the book.

  18. Peggy says:

    My short prologue is about the MC when she is a baby. Since the book is third person limited POV and some of the prologue necessarily is third person unlimited, to put it into the first chapter would change viewpoints in the novel, which I didn’t want to do. There are actually two episodes, another when she is a child and both are action oriented. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Peggy, I’m sure you’ve asked this question (maybe multiple times), but ask again—is the prologue absolutely necessary? What information in it must be presented before the “real” story begins? What other ways could that information be presented? Do readers truly need that information, especially before the story begins?

      As for POV, are you saying that the story is in the POV of the MC but the prologue isn’t? That doesn’t have to be a problem but if you’re using a close narrative distance (with deep POV) except for the prologue, readers might feel that you’re cheating. It would be the same thing as using a third-person omniscient POV for a prologue of a story otherwise told by a first-person narrator. Readers may well wonder just who’s presenting the info in the prologue.

      On the other hand, readers may not be bothered at all. Still, there are limitations to each POV, and you’ve got to work with those limitations. You can get creative (especially by mixing POVs), but ask yourself what you gain and what you lose by your choices. Is providing a tidbit of information in a questionable prologue worth having readers wonder who provided that information? If, because of other options, the question of who is presenting info in a prologue isn’t a problem, you’re probably okay in using it.

      ———–
      How do you present that other episode? Is it a flashback in the MC’s POV? Does someone else report it?

      As I said, POVs can limit your options. But those limitations strengthen the integrity of the story. Working within those limitations may be your best bet.

      If the majority of the story is close third-person limited, anything other than that will stand out. A prologue told by an omniscient narrator might well read like an author’s cheat sheet for readers—here are a few notes to bring you up to speed. If that prologue, however, turned out to be in the POV of a character who gets viewpoint duties later in the story, that would probably work with no problems.

      ———-

      With prologues, it comes down to need—is the prologue necessary? If so, why? Is there no other way to present the same information.

      I’m not sure if I helped; let me know if you have other questions.

  19. phil huston says:

    I’m going to pile on here. Not with any brilliant suggestions, but I believed to set the tone for something that spanned eight years I needed to show the train wreck being set up. Not ancient history, just the two MC’s and (briefly) where it started. So any insight on this would be helpful. Or heck, Peggy, I’ll trade prologues with you!

    • Phil, my question to you is a version of the same I asked Peggy—is your setup absolutely necessary and if so, is a prologue the best way to introduce that information?

      Writers need to know a whole lot more of the back story of their characters than readers need to know. If you began your story without the prologue, what do readers miss? Do they actually need it? Is there another way of introducing that same info?

      There are usually multiple ways of introducing info and back story—a prologue is an easy one to write, but it’s not often the best option. It’s something other, something outside the narrative. If you can weave your back story into the narrative through thought or dialogue, that’s often the better choice. When you do that, the reader gains information through story events and not through outside sources, which is what a prologue can feel like.

      It’s not that you can’t use a prologue, of course. It’s just that prologues really need to tip the scales on the positive side in order to be worth risking the negatives that come with them.

      I challenge you to try two and maybe three other options. See if you can’t make those other options work as a way of presenting the info you think must be presented. I’m guessing that you’ll be able to find a workable option outside of using a prologue.

  20. phil huston says:

    I called it a prelude. Three short chapters. 1994, 1971, 1974 when the story kicks in. 94 is dad setting up the story as a fairy tale, 1971 when the train wreck potty mouth coming of age true love romance novel starts for the two MCs. I could easily drop the first bit, header date the second and the third with italics and let it go. The 94 bit works to telescope time through what would amount to boring story time. Dad and daughter could go back and forth a little about how dumb the princess was and how the prince should have stepped up and then boom…otherwise I end up with “Captain Blood” going on in and out of prison and the bowels of a ship forever or find a good narrative way to shrink time. Opinions? I need to give it up and join the forums and throw it around in there. All of the things you give us, we should buy Beth’s Brownies or something besides the handy PDFs.

  21. Hello, Beth!
    Wonderful work here! I stumbled upon this article and have found it quite enriching! I’m working on a debut, and I have a lot of…well, ambition. I intend to use the prologue as a tool for establishing the theme of my fictional piece; the setting. Is that okay? Also, does that mean that I have to include an epilogue at the end? May I title the prologue; would that give it more appeal than otherwise writing “Prologue”?

Leave a Reply

Pings and Trackbacks

  1. […] Proponents of in media res will argue against the prologue, though there are some benefits too. A case-by-case assessment is best […]