Before the Beginning – do you really need a prologue?

Image by Annie Spratt at Unsplash

That symbol over there on the right tells you I am a member of the Independent Authors Support and Discussion group. An interesting discussion on our Facebook page the other day concerned prologues. One of the members is writing a sequel and wondered if a prologue would enable her to give readers who had not read the first book in the sequence some important backstory information.

The general consensus was ‘No, that’s not the function of a prologue’.

Several pointed out that it can be a device for letting the reader know something that happened years before the main story and which had repercussions which the main story is exploring. That’s how I began Strongbow’s Wife. Years before the birth of the protagonist her father did something that antagonised an enemy, thereby exacerbating a long term feud which became an important factor in establishing the course of events which determined her future and that of Ireland.

Early in her story she overhears part of a conversation referring to that event and is puzzled. This means the reader is party to knowledge which she still has to discover. Which she does, much later in the story, when her mother tells her.

I wondered what other writers had to say about prologues.

Agents dislike them.

Over at Writers’ Digest Meg LaTorre-Snyder begins her piece with this statement: “If you’ve attended a writing workshop, you may have noticed literary agents voicing their dislike of prologues.”

Readers find them frustrating.

At The Editors Blog, Beth Hill states: “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.”

An effective tool?

On the other hand, Belfast based Source Expert asserts that “it is universally agreed upon that a good prologue can be an effective tool in building your novel”

Readers skip them.

Claire Bradshaw at Writer’s Edit seems to sum up the confusion: “Some readers are OK with prologues. But some hate them, and will sometimes even bypass a prologue entirely on principle, skipping automatically to Chapter One.”

She continues by suggesting that “a defining feature of a prologue is that it in some way doesn’t ‘match’ or ‘fit in’ with the rest of the story. If Chapter One follows on directly from the prologue, then perhaps the prologue itself should actually be Chapter One!”

Maeve Maddox at Daily Writing Tips agrees: “Too often . . . what some writers call a “prologue” is undigested back story, mere scene-setting, or what should be Chapter One.”

None of the above will make me remove the prologue from Strongbow’s Wife when I upload a revised version in the next few days. What about you? As a writer, do any of your books have a prologue? How do the above opinions make you feel about it? As a reader, does the presence of a prologue make you sigh in frustration? Would you decide not to read a book if you found it began with a prologue? Feel free to join the discussion in the comments.

22 thoughts on “Before the Beginning – do you really need a prologue?

  1. Here’s one danger no one seems to have mentioned, but I’ve read prologues that I liked and then went on to be disappointed in the rest of the book because, damn it, the prologue hooked me. Don’t let get me get attached to a bunch of people I’ll never see again.

    Grumpy reader, aren’t I?

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Prologues have their place but they should be used sparingly. I don’t use them but then I write children’s stories. It sounds like it works for your story though. I read everything the author writes including the prologue and often go back to it after I’ve read the end and think, now that makes sense. Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue.” (The Tempest)

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Interesting post. As the writer who asked the original question, the advice received was very useful and welcome. I’m pleased to say I’ve begun my work in progress at chapter one. However, as with Strongbow’s Wife, I do believe there’s a place for prologues, and I have used one very short one in a previous novel, The Silence of the Stones. It describes a childhood experience that has a profound effect on the character’s life but would have disturbed the flow of the forward-thinking adult who opens the story, and who is attempting to escape her past. This is it.
    ‘Katherine pulled the duvet over her head and pressed her hands over her ears. Her parents’ raised voices carried through the floorboards and made her curl into a tight ball. It hadn’t always been like this, though she couldn’t remember when the shouting had begun. She took her hands from her ears.
    ‘That child…’
    She clamped them back again and curled into a smaller ball. What had she done wrong? She wouldn’t do it again, she promised, if only she knew what it was she’d done. Hot tears soaked her hair. The garble of voices fell quiet. Footsteps thudded on the stairs and the door to her bedroom opened. She didn’t want to be Katherine anymore: one day, she promised herself, when she was grown-up, she wouldn’t be. She clutched her need tight inside her, built a little wall around it so it wouldn’t cry out, and pretended to sleep.’

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Fantasy novels often start with a prologue, so readers of that genre usually don’t question the prologue and often expect it. All the books in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series had one, if I remember correctly. The first one did for sure, and I recall at least one other that did.

    I’m almost finished reading Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, book one in the Stormlight Archive series, and it has a prologue (which he calls “Prelude to the Stormlight Archive”). I get why it’s in there. It’s set apart from the main story–hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the past.

    That’s the purpose of a prologue, in my opinion. I never skip prologues because I consider them part of the story even if they’re done poorly and are info dumps. But if the prologue is done poorly, then that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the story, so in that case, it’s also a red flag.

    Tolkien could’ve used a prologue in LOTR and no one would’ve faulted him for showing the history of the ring that way. Instead, he had Gandalf relay it to Frodo in the second chapter, “The Shadow of the Past.” Some would say that slowed the book down. You step from the immediate action into a scene with two characters sitting and talking. I found it fascinating, and that history of how Sauron forged the rings and what happened to them pulled me deeper into the story world, but I’d bet others would’ve preferred an action-filled prologue of the same content. When they made the movies, they did move that piece to the beginning as a prologue, probably because it would’ve been even worse in a visual medium to have two characters sitting and talking about what happened even if you flashed back to the long-ago scene with voiceover.

    I think in your case, it makes sense to have it, though you might have gotten away with simply calling it “Chapter One” and subtitling it with a date in the past or relaying to the reader within the narrative that it’s in the past.

    But savvy readers aren’t fooled by the prologue-as-chapter-one bait and switch. They recognize if a first chapter is actually a prologue masquerading as chapter one, so doing that might backfire.

    I’ve avoided using prologues, sprinkling any backstory into the narrative as needed, but for my stories, that’s all that was needed for readers to understand the story. I think the times it doesn’t work is when, as in your case, the characters involved are unaware of that history. In Sanderson’s case, this distant history had to be done as a prologue because showing the scene was better than telling it later or flashing back to it. It’s history outside the current events but affects them, and it’s ancient history the characters aren’t aware of.

    In Martin’s case, I thought it was debatable that he had the first chapter as a prologue and not chapter one. It wasn’t ancient history in this case. It was just a minor character’s POV, so maybe he offset it as a prologue because you never get that POV again.

    Fascinating subject. Thanks for an interesting post.
    Prologues have a point. Sometimes. It’s one of those things that can be a useful tool if used to show an important scene from the distant past, or it can be a nuisance to readers if the author is tossing in backstory in an info dump.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Interesting topic and readers’ comments. The leader of our writers’ critique group had dissuaded me from including a prologue in my debut novel (USA, 2019) for the same reasons given in your post. I ignored his advice, since the prologue was vital in revealing what drives the male protagonist’s obsession to have a son. To draw readers in, I’ve kept it short (642 words) and headed the opening scene with the name of the location and date. Chapter One takes place three years later with the upcoming birth of his long-awaited son and the political upheaval in the country. To Ellen’s point–I, too, would be grumpy–the characters featured in the prologue are main players in the story. The book’s ending comes full circle with the events, not fully revealed, described in the two opening pages.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. As others have pointed out, I think it depends on the story. I’ve read books with prologues that introduced the book beautifully and prologues that didn’t do much for the book either way. As a reader, though, I don’t object to prologues and don’t agree with Beth Hill that readers hate them–some readers, maybe; some prologues, maybe; but in general, the books I’ve read with prologues, the prologue served a purpose that provided an introduction that saved the author from having to interrupt the following narrative with niggling details and helped keep me, as a reader, from being blindsided if they hadn’t been provided. Of course, over the years I’ve read a lot of fantasy and SciFi. Particularly in other world / other rules stories, I like having a bit of background going into Chapter 1, so that, where the story is the people not the environment / world / timeline / technology, the story can clip along once it starts.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Only two of my books have prologues, and both are short (one is 2 pages and the other about half a page). Interestingly, in both, the narrators (these books are in first person) say they are remembering the events that are to follow. I had in mind those movies that show something like a funeral, for example, while the opening credits roll. Then the scene changes to the past and the movie begins. Prologues can be done well or badly, just like first chapters. I disagree with those who condemn them out of hand.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Someone said the opening of my book, Summer Day, was not strong enough. I reissued it with a prologue that was a repeat of the first couple of pages of the last chapter leaving the reader quite literally with a cliff hanger (ok, then, a tree hanger). Chapter one then began with the heading “12 hours earlier . . .” This seems to be a common trope in TV dramas.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great discussion 🙂
    I have done a lot of research over the years on prologues. I tend to side, generally, with the notion, “If you don’t need one, don’t have one.” So, what is “need?” Like Val Tobin said, she’s able to integrate the backstory for her characters in bits and pieces throughout and doesn’t require a separate “this is how it all began” at the beginning of her books. And this is what many modern readers prefer.

    However, Val also highlights that some genres use prologues as a tool and their readers aren’t adverse to them.

    I will always advise a new writer to see if the story can stand on its own without the prologue first. Then, if something is “missing” we examine how to address it. Recently, I advised an editing client to add a prologue. He’s writing a clean contemporary romance. Chapter 1 is woman celebrating the memory of her dead brother. Chapter 2 she finds a letter written 5 years earlier, just before he died, that contains his last request. The prologue, short and sweet at 600 words, is now 5 years earlier at the graveside, alternate POV to woman but important POV for later in the story. This prologue actually does a lot of heavy lifting for the story in terms of setup and follow through for character arcs. Without it, the author had a series of important setup scenes/chapters from the female POV and it wasn’t until chapter 5 that we got the male POV. Now, by having the male POV as the prologue, the different perspective it brings to such a pivotal plot point brings balance to the story.

    I agree, in general, that a good prologue is any mix of the following:
    – based in a significant time in the past
    – hold insight into the future action of the story
    – is from a secondary or alternate MC’s POV
    – is not an info/history dump
    – is short — no more than 2 book pages
    – should be used only when necessary

    Prologues have gotten a “bad rep” over the years because of two things:
    1. Reader expectations and experience have changed
    2. Authors have abused their usefulness in exchange for having somewhere to keep their darlings

    Ultimately, think of your reader and their expectations for the kind of story your writing.

    I still have a 7 page prologue from book one of my sci-fi/fantasy series that never saw the light of day. It took place 2000 years in the past and dealt with characters who we don’t meet until the 2nd half of the book. I thought it was a cool glimpse into the past at a critical time in the history of these people that launched the present-day quest. However, more often than not, readers said it confused them because those characters suddenly disappeared and they’d forgotten about them by the time they were reintroduced later in the story. So, while my prologue hit many of the “good” points, because of that disconnect, it never got published.

    I hope my ranting has brought at least a little bit of insight to the debate 😉

    Like

  9. Prologue, if used properly, isn’t bait. There’s an old saying about being able to dump backstory when you need it but unless you’re technically proficient or have a non cliche mechanism it’s always suspect or a speed bump. A prologue that introduces people we’ll never see again is pathetic. Prologue to set up a relationship or tie some things together that are assumed in the later text serves a purpose. It’s one of the only ways we can do the old movie trick of dates and years flying off a calendar unless we break the story up, don’t call it a prologue and start section 2 “Twelve Years Later, the Southern coast of France.”

    Liked by 1 person

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