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.
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.
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.)
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.