My Inevitable Prologue Post

Prologue
I had a mini-rant on Twitter today about my deep hatred for prologues. My feelings are of no surprise to people who regularly follow me. I recently compared them to bad pilot episodes and agreed (jokingly!) with Brent from Naughty Book Kitties that they were “abominations.” Still, I received a lot of responses asking why I hated them so much and what would happen if a story made no sense without one and seriously why am I such a hater. Clearly I have strong feelings on the subject of prologues, so I decided to finally turn them into a blog post.

Chapter One
Prologues are generally used for the following reasons:

1. Foreshadowing events that won’t be known until later in the novel.
2. Introducing a character who will be very important, but who we won’t meet until Chapter 7.
3. Giving back-story (a la Star Wars) that might take a reader out of the narrative if it’s presented later.
4. Offering the main character’s reflective voice before diving into the story that leads him or her to that point.
5. Using the past as a means to set up the present or give a detail about the main character.

The necessity of prologues are greatly exaggerated. For each of the above intentions, there is an argument against them. Remember I speak only for myself on this blog, and not for all agents, or even my own agency. If you are 100% convinced that your prologue is necessary, then good for you for having confidence. Send it to every agent in the book. But, consider the following rebuttals before sending it to me:

Numbers 1 and 2.
I’ve mentioned before (Things to Avoid) that I thought 99% of prologues can turn into the first chapter. I’m revising this previous thought, however, because sometimes prologues take place in another world/time/setting. In these cases, prologues cannot be used as the first chapter because it would be out of place, so instead just delete them. Forcing a reader to immediately swallow very important information, before they know it is important, won’t intrigue them as much as it could confuse them. A prologue used in this way isn’t confusing by itself, but when paired with an often radically different first chapter, the shift can be jarring. It forces the reader to begin the novel twice, and you don’t want them to spend what should be the second chapter thinking about what it was that they just read.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for foreshadowing. That said, using an entire section of your novel to accomplish it isn’t as exciting for the reader as other forms of foreshadowing. Revealing seemingly unrelated details within a chapter in a clever, precise way will make readers intrigued. Savvy readers will want to know how and why these details will influence the story.

The same is true for introducing a character who doesn’t show up “officially” until much later in the novel. By that time, the reader has forgotten everything they were supposed to retain from the prologue because the novel itself has taken such a consistent turn elsewhere. By the time your foreshadowed characters return, the most the reader might say “Oh yeah, him.” The ends do not justify the means for a pay-off this insignificant. Instead, drop hints throughout the narrative that a very important character is about to be introduced. It will make meeting him that much more exciting.

Number 3.
Now, I love me some Star Wars and actually think all of the back-story about the wars make sense before the movie begins. This is an instance of a prologue working, but is it absolutely necessary? Not really. We get a sense that there is a war going on just from watching the movie. Obi-Wan and Yoda help us out along the way for anything involving Luke’s father. Everything else is just fluff that we can take or leave, none of which really influence the plot. Plus, if you’re worried too much back-story will take a reader out of your narrative, then you are more likely having a “showing vs. telling” problem rather than a plot problem, which, lucky for you, is fixable.

Numbers 4 and 5.
These two are tricky for me because sometimes it is nice to have a reflective voice or know a character’s past/lineage before meeting them. In these cases, just make them your first chapter. A reflective voice sustains throughout a novel regardless of prologue, and if you use your past correctly, it will be popping up again in the present fairly quickly.

I understand why writers add prologues. They are a good starting off point and help you get your thoughts together. They can answer the questions “What story am I going to tell?” and even “Where will this story end?” That’s all well and good, writers, but what ends up happening in these cases is that your prologue can read like an outline.

When you’re ready to query, go back and read your prologue. The writing might be top notch, but ask yourself if everything the prologue was meant to accomplish isn’t answered in a more thoughtful, organic way throughout the narrative. If it is, then delete your prologue. And if it’s not, then reconsider your prologue’s connection to the narrative as a whole. You see why I’m so against them. They’re self-indulgent and rarely enrich the story in a meaningful way. Even in the rare instance where the prologue actually works, I’d still rather see it tossed aside and begin the real story right away.

Does this mean I won’t accept submissions that have prologues? Of course not. I feel disappointment when I see them, but I would never begrudge someone a request just for having one. I will warn, however, that I skip them completely every single time, and I am never, ever confused when I keep reading. (If I am, there is usually a larger issue involved.)

Epilogue
Epilogues are also self-indulgent and generally useless, but I have slightly less venom for them than I do for prologues. My main reason for immediately putting an X through an epilogue is that epilogues tend to tie a neat bow around a novel, rendering the final chapter useless. Why bother coming up with a great ending line and powerful resolution if you are only going to undo it all with an epilogue?

Sometimes writers use epilogues to foreshadow the next book in a series. To me, this does your novel a disservice because all books should be able to stand alone, even if they are connected. More so, a brilliant cliffhanger ending will make readers want to buy your next book way more than a teasing epilogue would. If I had my way, my red pen would also extend to the ghastly ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. After hearing that Ms. Rowling wrote it because she felt these characters deserved a future, my opinion of epilogues being self-indulgent was cemented.

You do not need them, writers, and I will almost always tell you to delete them. Other agents might not mind epilogues as much. Personally, I enjoy when things aren’t completely tied up at the end of a novel. I don’t always need to know that the main character will live happily ever after, even if their story ends less optimistically. (Note: This does not mean plot can remain unresolved. I’m referring to emotional resolution or certain aspects left open to interpretation.) So, no, I do not like epilogues either. But, at least they’re not prologues.

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35 thoughts on “My Inevitable Prologue Post

  1. I HATE prologues! I can’t tell you how many books fooled me into buying them because I fell in love with the prologue– but I just hate the main story. Often the voice changes, I’m waiting for a character to appear for eight chapters, or sometimes it hooks me with actions then delves into a mushy romance. THANK YOU for filtering out that junk from our bookshelves.

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  2. It’s difficult to paint all prologues with in one sweeping brushstroke, however we read many, many, MANY manuscripts, so we see a lot more than most readers. In defense of authors dealing with the marketplace, many prologues result from the pressure of commanding an editor’s/agent’s attention with those first pages. They have to pull out all the stops simply to be considered and get us to keep reading. I think of The Walking Dead: The author ONLY got published after telling the agent that it’s not a typical zombie story, that by the end, aliens are responsible for everything. That served the same purpose as a prologue. It was false …as he said he knew the entire time that there are no aliens, but it’s the only thing that got his story read and allowed the wonderful details and characters to be considered.

    Some prologues can simply be first chapters and should be when possible. If well-written, they can serve wonderful purposes. I love getting a glimpse of an important character that no one but me (as the reader) knows is coming. Despite the above-mentioned anecdote, I DON’T like them when they reveal the end of the story.

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    1. Like with everything in publishing, NOTHING should ever be painted with the same brushstroke. There are always exceptions. Everyone has their own preferences. This post is about when prologues don’t work and why they fail so often. It should be implied that exceptions to the so-called “rule” will (and should) always exist.

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  3. If the Star Wars title crawl is a prologue, then so wouldn't the entire movie be? The last paragraph is about Leia's spaceship that is about to come on screen. So there is no time jump from that last sentence to the action. This means we're still in the timeline described in the crawl. Hence, the prologue ends with the medal ceremony and the actual story is about the movie being written and directed by George Lucas.

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  4. Yay! Someone who agrees with my feelings about Deathly Hallows, lol. After I read the epilogue, I immediately re-read the previous chapter so I could imagine the book ended where it should've. 😉

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  5. I can see what you mean on most of these, and in the case of explanations 1, 2 & 4, I agree completely.

    With number 3 & 5, I agree that these are reasons people use prologues, and I even agree with some of your reasons against them, but I also LIKE when a prologue is used in these instances. Sometimes, authors write a first chapter that actually is a prologue- it just isn't labelled as such (JK Rowling: books 1, 4, 6 & 7). Still, the voice of that chapter, the setting, the time period, something just doesn't mesh with the main story, and the reader, in essence, “starts the story twice” anyway, regardless of what we are calling it.

    I can see why many agents would consider prologues to be sloppy writing, since they often serve as a “OK, this is what I'm going to talk about today” jumping-off point. And if that's how they function, they should absolutely be deleted or worked into the story in other places. It feels like this is one of those writing rules that you should know about, but be willing to break if you know (KNOW!) 100% that your prologue is totally necessary.

    As for epilogues, I totally agree with you. So often they're big, fat, gratuitous outlines of what happened to everybody for the rest of their lives. But, again, I think they can be used well. Harry Potter (again, I know, but it's an example I am reasonably sure everybody can understand) uses an epilogue well. The story was wrapped up nicely, but there was a “where do we go from here, is this really the end?” feeling. Then the epilogue was brief and focused only on those characters that we needed to focus on.

    I appreciate you sending me this post- it's definitely worth thinking about 🙂

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  6. Funny to read Sarah – You know I have a story comprised up of only prologues and epilogues without any chapters ironically enough in this case it is called: How To Be A Critic. Though I in most cases will agree with you, you must not forget that a prologue in the hands of an apt writer can become a piece of art, Lermontov springs to mind right now:

    I learnt not long ago that Pechorin had died upon returning from Persia. The news afforded me great delight; since it gave me the right to publish these notes; and gave me the opportunity to put my own name on someone else’s work. God grant that my readers will not punish me for this innocent forgery!

    As for epilogues if done with some shrewdness it can bring another dimension to what you have just read as in Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar. But for most parts you’re right, usually it’s an ego trip that became too tempting to resist.

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  7. I've never liked prologues or epilogues, and have always felt compelled to skip them. Thanks for this thoughtful post on the reasons why they're generally unnecessary and irritating 🙂

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  8. @Jami – My advice on prologues is always to delete them, so I'm afraid that's how I'd handle your question. I'm not exactly the best person to ask this type of advice.

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  9. Certain genres (such as thrillers or suspense) often use prologues to establish the bad guy, their motivations, etc. Which of your categories would that approach fall into? Are those prologues any more legitimate?

    If the rest of the book is in the MC's POV, then it wouldn't make sense to just call the prologue chapter one (which could set up a reader expectation of a shifting 3rd POV rather than a solid single MC POV). The story probably *could* make sense without the bad guy POV prologue, but it *would* be missing something, as that type of prologue gives the reader insight into the dangers awaiting the MC. How do you suggest handling these types of prologues?

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  10. I literally won't buy a book that starts with 'prologue'.

    This is probably being too blunt, but I think epilogues and prologues are a mark of a lazy writer.

    If a story is written well, all the *important* information in the prologue should naturally come out within the story… not in an info-dump at the beginning.

    As for the epilogue, in my experience, if I have properly bonded with the character, I want to imagine for myself what happens after “the end” and an epilogue ruins that for me (Hunger Games is an excellent example). Occasionally, an epilogue can make me hate a book I really enjoyed reading (I can think of two off the top of my head). I think the only time an epilogue works is if I haven't particularly bonded with a character, and then I don't really care what happens in the end, I just want to finish the book. Then the epilogue is just a kind of, “oh, that's nice” experience before I close the cover and immediately forget the book and the characters -> so again, not a selling point for that author.

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  11. @Cynthia – My MFA program was big on “finding where the real story begins,” maybe that's where I get it. I was in non-fiction, but I'm sure the fiction people were told the same thing about prologues.

    @Claire – I like when books start in the middle sometimes. I'm a fan of most things as long as they work 🙂

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  12. This post is causing in me that worst of writer feelings: doubt.

    I have a story where I begin the chapter with a flash forward of a later scene. I've done this “end at the beginning” approach because I think it works for the purposes of querying. Were the book published, the blurb on the back would also give a reader some idea about the big events. But on page one, the characters don't know what's in store.

    It seems, to me, that a flash-forward is more helpful when we don't have an omniscient narrator, OR a back cover blurb.

    But darn. Now I have this horrible feeling I'll be lumped in with the people who write weird unrelated prologues in other dimensions. 😦

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  13. Question: I've seen scenes pulled from the middle (or near the end) of a book and put at the front. Sometimes it's labelled a prologue. Sometimes it's not labelled anything.

    What do you think about pulling a scene from mid-book to set a tone.

    (eg. Twilight.)

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  14. But what would Star Wars be without the rolling prologue?!?!!?!?! The music, the big yellow text! Classic!

    😉

    I've read prologues, forgotten them, and then halfway through the book remembered it's there and wonder when it'll have any relevance.

    However, I've also read prologues that make such awesome hooks, I haven't been able to put the book down. I'm a big fan of foreshadowing, although I also think there are more subtle ways to do it.

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