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The Purpose of the Prologue
Marcie
Posted: Friday, March 18, 2011 11:38 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 103


I'm trying to understand the purpose of the prologue. I don't use it and I've seen very few examples where it actually adds something to the project. For this reason, I generally skip it when I come across it, especially in unpublished manuscripts. 

My questions are: What is the purpose of the prologue? When is it needed? How can a writer best convey the information he or she is trying to without bogging the reader down with backstory or characters that don't otherwise fit into the story.

The "good" prologues I've come across are usually one short, visual scene showing an inciting incident that happened long before the story the author is actually telling started. Later in the story, the reader discovers that the prologue scene is the key to the story's twist.

What are your thoughts? Can you give examples of well-done prologues?


cameronchapman
Posted: Saturday, March 19, 2011 2:12 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 51


To me, a prologue is only necessary if the information in it a) absolutely has to be known prior to the start of the story (or very soon after the story begins), and b) absolutely cannot be worked into the narrative in any other effective way.

Some of the best are in post-apocalyptic novels, especially those that take place a long time after the apocalypse (one that comes to mind is Angry Ghosts, by a friend of mine, Allen Farnham). It gives us a bit of bearing, and makes it easier to understand what's going on.

The other place I've seen them used effectively is at the beginning of series novels. They can be valuable for people who haven't read the previous books, as it gives some backstory without weighing down the current story for those who have read the previous books. Stephen King's Dark Tower series does this, though if I remember correctly, the prologues often give just a bit of information that might not have been in the previous book, making them worth the read even if you know what's going on.

I definitely agree that prologues should be short. The best take up a page or two at most. If it has to be longer than that, there's a good chance the author is starting the story in the wrong place.

Because so many people skip prologues when reading, the author runs the risk of confusing readers if the information is absolutely vital to the story.
Thothguard
Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011 3:25 AM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 18


If not done well, it's purpose will remain a mystery and piss off agents and editors...

Most prologues are used to give back story that other wise could not be given during the story without bogging down the story. This is often called an info dump... Some readers like them, some skip over and some totally hate them.

Prologues have become a staple in some genre's, like fantasy fiction. But that does not mean all fantasy fiction should have a prologue.

If you can get away with it, dump the prologue, start the story with the current storyline and show any back story where necessary in small snippets, when necessary.
stephmcgee
Posted: Saturday, March 26, 2011 12:11 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245


Somewhere down the road of the past two years someone posted a prologue in the blogosphere. It showed the characters as they were before the story started.

The point of it was to show you how a year or two before the one character was one way, but she somewhere along the way became what you see on page 1. The poster commented that the prologue made her want to see how the character became what she was on page 1.

Or something like that.

Generally, I think it's supposed to be a plot point the MC isn't privy to but is vital for the story moving forward. I've seen authors who put a little paragraph at the beginning of each chapter that acts as a mini-prologue for each and either heighten the tension, relieve it through humor, etc.

One book series I read used the prologue to show one character after the events of the entire series. He was recounting the events to an incredulous/unbelieving audience. It was a fantasy series so it also helped add some depth to the world the story was set in.
MB Mulhall
Posted: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 6:12 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 81


Super long prologues drive me crazy. I just want to get to the meat of the story!

I do use them in some of my own writing, but they are short. Too short to be a chapter. They kind of set the scene, or do some foreshadowing from a more minor character's point of view.

I definitely think they have their place, but if it's long enough to be a chapter, you might lose my attention.
Tori Schindler
Posted: Saturday, April 2, 2011 7:52 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 41


I've got two books that use them, both defining the character and some explanation how a genie got to where she was that the reader needs to know, but the book isn't about the genie. That way the reader knows some things the MC doesn't, like just what the genie is capable of.
Sinnie Ellis
Posted: Sunday, April 3, 2011 4:47 AM
Joined: 4/3/2011
Posts: 67


I have used them twice in my novels.

Once to explain that the Paranormal book is not based on religion and why the book was written.

The other book that I have written one in describes something important that has to be known, Scifi YA novel.

I used to skip over them myself but once I relized their purpose I actually went back and read some of them.

ANR
WenSpencer
Posted: Sunday, April 3, 2011 4:54 AM
Joined: 4/2/2011
Posts: 5


Prologues, unfortunately, are hugely abused by people thinking that the reader must know something about the world prior to the start of the story.

William Golden wrote once that you have a limited time to capture and hold an audience and what did that the best was a character that riveted them. Readers read a book for characters. They read to the end of the book not to see if the world survives, but if the people they care about make it out alive. Start at page one and keep the pages turning with "what happens next to this person?" A prologue usually gets in the way of this.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Sunday, April 3, 2011 8:23 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383


The only times I've used prologues are in sequels. Specifically, I use them to bring a new reader up to speed, and I make it as little like an 'infodump' as possible.

What I did in one case was use a bit character from the first story and show the reaction of that character to the previous story. That let me introduce the main characters and show what had come before.

In another case, I used the MCs from the previous book to set up some background information, much like Marcie was talking about. Again, I wrote it as a scene in and of itself, not an infodump.

THAT is what I think you need to avoid in a prologue, unless it's VERY short and skippable - the dreaded infodump, full of indigestible expository lumps.
RFLong
Posted: Monday, April 25, 2011 8:39 PM
Joined: 3/31/2011
Posts: 11


I've got two novels with prologues, both of which I was asked to add by editors. In both cases they are exactly as Marcie descibed above "one short, visual scene showing an inciting incident that happened long before the story the author is actually telling started." I think that's a really good description.

Sometimes there's a moment which is key to the later story, a turning point in someone's life which makes them the character they will be for the duration of the main story or on which the change they go through hinges.

But like any first page, if a prologue isn't gripping and engaging, the reader isn't going to be hooked. So prologues full of infodumping and back-filled history which lead nowhere but to a ton of worldbuilding you wanted to crowbar into the story won't do it. Most readers will skim at best, or skip altogether. Worst case scenario is that they won't continue reading at all.
SusanElizabeth
Posted: Saturday, November 26, 2011 11:16 AM
Joined: 7/18/2011
Posts: 25


I've definitely skipped over many prologues that have been too lengthy. The shorter the better.

In regards to stephmcgee's comment "One book series I read used the prologue to show one character after the events of the entire series." I think some of the best prologues I've seen are ones that actually take place at the end of the story. It's interesting to see how this one short scene can completely change meaning after you've read through the entire story. I've seen this a lot in the mystery and thriller genres.


Jay Greenstein
Posted: Saturday, November 26, 2011 2:47 PM
On the good side, a prologue can demonstrate some characteristic of the characters or the situation that the reader needs to know, that for one reason or other can’t be demonstrated within the setting of the novel.

An example is that in Samantha my editor said that the protagonist appeared too accepting of her situation in the first two chapters, and wanted a scene that would demonstrate that she’s resourceful, so I showed her in a troublesome situation that both demonstrated her resourcefulness and made the reader know her general situation.

In mysteries, the prologue will often be the commission of the crime, which sets the scene for the rest of the book.

On the negative side, the reader may emotionally commit to someone who then vanishes, or a situation that’s unrelated to the one in the actual story, which can make the reader feel cheated.

But on the other hand, isn’t everything that happens before the inciting incident a prologue?

Marcie
Posted: Saturday, November 26, 2011 3:13 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 103


Wow! Some interesting thoughts here. Who knew something that seems so simple could be so complex?

PureMagic
Posted: Monday, December 5, 2011 11:45 AM
Joined: 12/1/2011
Posts: 35


To me, the prologue can be the most vital part of the book.  When I am looking for a new author to read, I often skip the jacket blurb altogether if the book has a prologue.  I can get a better feeling for how much I may like or dislike the story by seeing the style and tempo of the writing.  If I get intrigued, I read on.  But the jacket blurbs can sometimes give away too much, and the voice tends to be different from the actual narrative.

In the book that I am currently crafting, the prologue introduces two important characters, hopefully gives a clear indication as to the tone and voice of the book, and shows some of the mysteries and long-term plot lines that will be developed as the story progresses.  I want people to read that and wonder what is going on, to want to know more of who those characters are.  It is set before the beginning of the story (about 2 weeks).


Jay Greenstein
Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 2:08 AM
Don’t inflict the reader with irrelevant background material—get on with the story.”

~ James H. Schmitz

 “There are far too many would-be works of fiction in which plot and character are not revealed, but explained.”

~ Peter Miller
 
Both the above quotes sum it up. The problem is that reader don’t give a damn about the past. And they don’t want to have to study in order to read a story. That’s boring.

Readers want to know what’s happening. You need to know what happened to write the story, but, dump a load of backstory on a reader and their eyes glaze over. And readers have terrible memories. When you finally get to the place where that knowledge is necessary, they’ll have forgotten.

Why explain that the character is a coward, or brave. If he is, his behavior will demonstrate that.

The thing to remember is that if your view is external to the story, that of the storyteller, what you present is what you see, not what the character is paying attention to. You’ll talk about facts and setting. The character is focused on trying to control their environment, which is much more interesting than a history lesson or a travelogue.







Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 10:22 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356


Tara -

If your first chapter is slow, then you need to fix the chapter. Throwing a prologue in won't help.

Most agents I know (including me, when I was an agent) will skip the prologue because the vast majority of the time, a prologue is unnecessary and is added on precisely for the reason that you just mentioned - your first chapter isn't strong enough. Which just means you have work to do on your first chapter.

Best,

Colleen


Marcie
Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 7:07 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 103


@Tara sounds like a question to put in your author's note

stephmcgee
Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 10:50 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245


Tara, that definitely sounds like stuff we can help you with here on the site.  Between the author's note and the criteria you select for additional feedback I don't see why you can't get the spark you might need.  And, the site is designed to put prologues on your books.  When you select what type of book element it is, you can select prologue, chapter, epilogue, etc.
GD Deckard
Posted: Tuesday, December 13, 2011 7:08 AM
It sounds like the prologue is optional for both, the writer and the reader. I added one to my novel as an historical note to convincingly take the reader from where they sit to where the story begins.
The story must stand on its own, of course, since many prospective readers skip to the first chapter when deciding if they want to read a book. But I suspect that prologues don't put off readers any more than those other pages between the cover and the first chapter.
Revenant
Posted: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 1:30 PM
I read the first 5 posts and the last couple, so I'm not sure if this has been mentioned, but I love the example of George R.R. Martin's prologue in Game of Thrones. He uses a scene in which we get our first glimpse of one of the most fantastical and evil elements that will develop later in the book. I think this was especially prudent considering how we see a much more political, relational view of his world in the chapters that follow... So we get the taste and possibility of magic, the intrigue of evil creatures, and he even connects us back to it in the following chapter (as one of the men who witness this evil is beheaded by a seemingly unrelated character)... The prologue is a place for the reader to set their feet down, a preparation for what is to come... 

I am personally using a prologue, and actually just posted it (The Song the Bards Won't Sing). My purpose is to introduce the antagonist, and basically to provide the cornerstone moment for why he is the way that he is. As I move forward some 10 years after this moment, it becomes a source of information for the reader, a backdrop for the person that will slowly be revealed through the other perspectives in the work
Marcie
Posted: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 5:56 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 103


Good example @Revenant. Thanks
Marc Poliquin
Posted: Friday, February 17, 2012 12:47 PM
Joined: 1/9/2012
Posts: 67


I've always believed that a book should start with Chapter 1.  A short prologue can be useful, however, to set a precedent.  In Dead Switch, my prologue started out as chapter 1, and was set three months before the main story.  As I wrote, I decided to include short, dramatic flashbacks at key moments to develop character while continuing to move the story forward.  I titled these flashbacks.  Because Chapter 1 was three months in the past, I decided to give it a title and make it a prologue so as to set up the flashbacks down the road.  When a reader hits a title, he or she will know they're headed back into the past.  At least that was my hope.

Tim Desmond
Posted: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 10:14 AM
Joined: 11/21/2011
Posts: 1


This topic has come up with some previous discussion, so maybe "prologues" are an issue with editors or agents. I think it was a certain trend in the 1970s and 1980s techno thrillers like those by Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, Crichton's early work "Terminal Man"  has an introduction by him. but no prologue, but, in later works he has both an introduction and a prologue. I think of introductions in nonfiction books mostly, and I think that in the techno-thrillers it is ab explanation of the science behind the premise of the story. Clive Cussler can have chapter length prologues of twenty pages. UK author Phillip Kerr has no prologue in "Esau" but has a prologue of one quotation in "The Grid." Len Deighten spy novel has very brief spy document as a prologue in "Ipress File" but his "Billion Dollar Brain" does not. Robert Ludlum jumps right to the story in "The Sigma Protocol" with no prologue. So it appears that the genre maybe a part of it. Legal novelists Scott Turow and John Grisham jump right to the story. Turow's "Ordinary Heroes" has a dated 1944 photocopy/military letter in twos pages in front of Chapter one, but does not call it a prologue. Crime writer Agatha Christy used no prologue, and modern crime writer Michael Connelly has no prologues either. In fact Connelly does not number his chapters either, at least "the Last Coyote" but "Angels Flight" is numbered. Tom Clancey has from four to sixteen page prologues. The other issue is, if one has a prologue, it calls for an "epilogue."  I always found those interesting. The other thing that could enter this discussion is "Forwards" and "Afterwards."  I jumped right to story in my historical love/war story novel, but used Forward and Afterward in my conspiracy novel.    


Timothy J. Desmond


http://timdesmondblog.wordpress.com


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