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What's the point of a Prologue?
Timothy Maguire
Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 10:31 AM
Joined: 8/13/2011
Posts: 272

I've been doing quite a bit of reviewing recently and one thing I've noticed is that a lot of writers really don't know how to use a prologue. Prologues can be extremely useful, especially in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, for laying out the back story to an author's work, but all too often they can be major deal-breakers for a reader. Prologues are the first thing a reader sees and they have to be interesting to the reader.

(Note: these are my opinions and I can probably find examples of completely opposing styles of prologue in best selling novels, so don't take all of this as gospel)

So let's start from the beginning: what is a prologue? Well, Wikipedia, in its endless desire to help, says: 'A prologue (Greek πρόλογος prologos, from the word pro (before) and lógos, word) is an opening to a story that establishes the setting and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information.', which is actually a good start for us to work from. Prologues are stories at their core. They function best as tiny vignettes that get across the information that the author feels their readers need before the main story begins.

So, what ruins a prologue? Well, firstly, the same things that ruins any other piece of writing, but there's normally one other thing I always finds wrecks a prologue more than anything else: perspective. Far too many prologues abuse an omniscient perspective to drop all the 'needed' information into the reader's lap. This can often be a mistake, because, to be frank, it encourages a certain laziness. Now that the author 'knows' that reader 'knows' about the back story, it's no longer necessary for this information to be in the book proper. This is of course a mistake. The back story still needs to be present of course.

(Having said that, the prologue from 1632 by Eric Flint is written in the omniscient style and is quite effective. This is mostly due to its contents being mostly irrelevant to the plot at hand, merely explaining some aspects of the time travel plot device)

Personally, I find prologues most effective when they give a specific perspective on the unfolding novel. It's not uncommon to see prologues in genre fiction that are excerpts from history texts, giving the reader some context for how the world came into being. This can often be useful to the reader, but one trick that can really add to it is having these texts written from a biased perspective. For example, in David Edding's Belgariad series, each of the prologues is taken from a different holy book. In the last book, the prologue is from the evil god's book. As you might imagine, the considerable cognitive dissonance in this particular section gives you a good idea of just how crazy this guy is.

(Another example is the prologue of Tom Kratman's State of Disobedience. If by the end of the prologue you haven't worked out exactly what you're about to be reading, then you've missed something)

An alternative to a historical or retrospective prologue is the out-of-synch scene. Basically, the prologue is a scene set either before or after the events of the novel and gives the reader an additional perspective on the story ahead of them. For example, a prologue set after the novel might have someone giving a retrospective on the events leading up to the novel, while a preceding prologue might deal with the motivations of one of the characters or the villains. A good example of the latter can be found on Book Country. Pathfinder, Lost by Hudson MacHeath, features a prologue suggesting exactly why the villains might be after the main character without making it entirely clear.

So when should you include a prologue? Well, neither of the books I've put up on Book Country have prologues. That's for different reasons with each book. In Orphans of Talos, the characters are coming into the story cold, so they were going to be asking the questions the prologue would have answered. There was no point putting any information in the prologue as it was all going to come out in the text. In Spartan, I wanted to hit the ground running, letting the story unfold as the characters experienced. Personally, I think that prologues are at their most necessary when the reader needs to have certain information before the story begins.

One element of prologues that is definitely useful is in giving the reader of a series a reminder of the events of preceding books. Similar to a 'previously on' from a TV series, putting a retrospective prologue onto a sequel can help remind readers of what happened before, especially the plot points that would come up.

One warning I would give to keep it under control. Prologues aren't full chapters and unless you've got a lot to say, they shouldn't be bigger than one. If anything, I'd try to keep them to one to two scenes at most.

So what am I trying to say? Well, basically, a prologue is a useful way to info-dump on the reader. The trick is in the dressing up. It's not enough to simply info-dump on the reader, you need to actually build a narrative out of the information. Envision your prologue as a short story, a separate tale to the full novel that reflects upon it. Above all, I'd recommend having a little fun with it. Organize what you want to say with it and they work out a way of telling it as a story you're going to enjoy telling. Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cain novels are 'written' by a friend of the main character disseminating his unfinished memoirs. The prologue of all of them is a note to the reader, giving some context to what the story's about and how it fits into the greater narrative of Cain's life. What makes them fun is that the intent of the books is to illustrate to the reader the difference between Cain's public reputation (hero) and his real personality (coward). Several of the sequels' prologues include a complaint that many people are reading the books for entertainment, rather than illumination.
So, any thoughts? What kind of prologues do you like to see? What do you hate to see in a prologue? What have you tried to do with your own prologues?
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 6:34 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

This is a good topic because I too wonder what the use of a prologue is. I use one at the beginning of my novel Hands of Ash that I don't think I've completely nailed yet. (I'm considering rewriting it for the third time for POV reasons.) In it I give a formative moment in the protagonists past that is also relevant to the main plot. I've battled with myself over tossing it or not, but I've realized that it plays an important role by establishing why my protagonist has some of the problems that she does, and why she is so close to her father figure.
Posted: Monday, November 28, 2011 1:15 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 103

There's some good discussion on this on my post "The purpose of the prologue" under this same heading
(Plot, Pacing, and Structure)

Timothy Maguire
Posted: Monday, November 28, 2011 1:24 PM
Joined: 8/13/2011
Posts: 272

My apologies. In my usual highly attentive style, I'd missed that.