A title by any other name

would sound as sweet.

Let’s have a chat about prologues. In the writing community, there seems to be a divide on this topic. One faction is the prologue haters. They seem to think that prologues are evil, disgusting, vile things – an excuse for lazy authors to give an info dump in a fantasy novel, or worse, a character waking up and going about her day without anything happening! *gasp* How boring! How predictable! How unnecessary! *hiss* Bad! Bad!

Then there’s the other side of the argument, the “I don’t really give a shit but make it good” faction. I’m more of a member of this faction.

You don’t always need a prologue. In fact, most books without prologues do very well, even in the fantasy genre. Look at Harry Potter; it starts right at Chapter One with no prologue in sight. The Lord of the Rings is another good example of a fantasy book without a prologue (although we all know how much Tolkien wrote in the Appendices of that book. And one could say that The Hobbit is technically a prologue to LOTR.)

Another amazing fantasy book without a prologue is my very own The Crown and the Mage. *insert shameless plug here*

Now that that’s out of the way… Let’s look at when you should include a prologue.

If I read a book and it’s got a prologue, this is what I expect to see, as a reader and as a fellow author.

1. Your prologue should have a purpose.

This is the most important aspect of a prologue. If your character wakes up, eats breakfast, hits the gym for a quick workout, goes to work, attends a meeting, makes a presentation, has a tuna sandwich for lunch, works some more, goes home, and goes to bed, that’s boring. Yawn. In fact, if that’s your prologue, I won’t even get to the part where he spreads the butter on his toast while his morning coffee brews.

However, if your prologue sees the main character attempting a rescue mission of a kidnapped infant but then he gets captured by the enemy and needs to find some way to escape, depending on how you write it, that’s a pretty interesting prologue and I’ll stick around to read it. (by the way, that’s the prologue I’m writing for my next book) Your prologue should either relate to the main plot of the story or else have its own mini-plot.

Let’s look at another example of a well-done prologue: Sabriel by Garth Nix. The first book in the Abhorsen cycle sees a band of traveling nomads trying to assist a woman in labor. We meet Abhorsen, a strange necromancer, and we see him use his powers to save his newborn daughter. We also meet an ominous character in Kerrigor, who is later revealed to be the main villain of the book. And in addition to meeting some of the main cast of the story, we also get to see a lot about the setting of the story and the worldbuilding, like the construction of the Wall and the difference between the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre. (and wow I can’t believe I spelled that right without looking it up first.)

I occasionally write prologues. As mentioned above, my current manuscript has a prologue. And while it’s still not perfectly polished and ready for publication, a lot of critique partners have said that it works and it’s a good prologue, so I’ll be pointing out some aspects of my prologue and why it works. I’ll also use some other various prologues I’ve read as examples.

2. Your prologue should not be an info-dump.

If you want to use your prologue to reveal worldbuilding information (for those who are unfamiliar, worldbuilding is usually specific to fantasy novels and refers to how your fantasy world works, like its political system, its currency, its educational system, etc.), that’s perfectly fine, but don’t just give us a huge info-dump as to your world’s economy, politics, and geography. A prologue needs to have some element of story to it, including conflict, character, and emotional impact. My good friend Krisna is writing a novel at the moment called Dragons of Atlantea, and it’s got a prologue. I was given the opportunity to read and critique her first three chapters, and I think her prologue works very well in this aspect. It contained a lot of worldbuilding information about the story world and how it works, but there was also a plot about a princess trapped in a tower and forbidden magic and people getting turned into dragons, making it interesting to read.

3. Your prologue should not just be “Chapter One”

The purpose of a prologue is to introduce some aspect of the story or scene that does not fit in the timeline of the main story. So for example, Krisna’s prologue was set hundreds of years before her “chapter one,” in which Mer, a cripple, is living as a servant in a mansion and is trying to earn a scholarship to escape her situation and go to school. The same with my prologue, and with the prologue in Sabriel. My prologue takes place twenty-some years before the main story happens, so it doesn’t really make sense to label it as “Chapter One” because then it would just confuse the reader. And in Sabriel, the prologue happens when Sabriel is a newborn, and then we meet her again in Chapter One when she’s eighteen.

But do all prologues have to take place “before the story?” Not necessarily. Eragon by Christopher Paolini has a prologue that takes place almost instantaneously as the first chapter: Arya is captured by the shade Durza and sends the dragon egg with magic. In chapter one, Eragon is tracking some deer and finds the dragon egg in the forest. We later learn that Arya was captured by Durza the moment Eragon first held the egg. So sometimes your prologue doesn’t have to be “before the story.”

4. Keep in mind that some people skip the prologue entirely.

This is an optional aspect of a prologue. Sometimes you’ll run into people who skip your prologue entirely, simply because “it’s a prologue and I hate those.” I think of a prologue as the equivalent of having an appetizer or an alcoholic beverage before a meal. Some people enjoy snacking on chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant while waiting for their food. Some people don’t like chips and salsa. Both are justified in their reasoning. For the people who don’t enjoy chips and salsa, they can still enjoy the meal without having them. It isn’t as if the rest of the meal hinges on the person eating the chips and salsa beforehand. And the people who do have the chips and salsa before the meal can also enjoy the meal itself in a different way than can the no-chip people.

It’s the same with prologues, in my opinion. When I write a prologue, it’s something that’s its own mini-story and that definitely deserves its place in the book, but will also please the no-chips people, aka the prologue haters. The people who don’t read the prologue can still enjoy the story just as much as someone who does. The type of enjoyment is different – people who do read the prologue will experience the story differently than those who don’t. Yet neither will feel like the story is lacking in any way.

Again, this is just an optional part of having a prologue. If you want to write a prologue that introduces crucial information to the plot that can’t be skipped, you’re absolutely within your right to do so. It’s not your job to please the prologue-haters. (Come to think of it, I might be too nice sometimes…)

I sometimes see beginning authors ask “Do I need a prologue in my story?”
No, not in the least. If you don’t think your story needs a prologue, you shouldn’t write one. If you think you might want to write a prologue, feel free to try it. These are just some tips I tend to give to beginning authors who ask this question. I definitely do not agree with the prologue haters who think that all prologues are evil and a mere device for lazy authors, but neither do I advocate for them in every situation. If your story calls for a prologue, then write one. If it doesn’t need a prologue, don’t write one. It will depend on your story’s needs and your needs as an author.
That’s all for today. What do you think is the most important aspect for a prologue to have? Comment below! 乙女


4 thoughts on “A title by any other name

  1. I like that you mention HP because IMO the chapter one IS a prologue by another name. It’s in a different POV than any other part of any of the series and it’s set well before the story begins. I would think of it as a prologue and though you could skip the chapter and not be terribly lost, you’d lose a lot of interesting pieces the same as if you skipped most beginnings.

    I read a novel about 2 years ago where I started around chapter 7. By the end of the book I had forgotten that I hadn’t started at the beginning and felt like I knew the story. I then went back and read the first 6 chapters and could then see what I’d missed. So yeah, I think any beginning “can” be skipped and we’ll fill in the blanks with pieces later, but we won’t be able to know everything.

    I like two types of prologues: the ones set a significant amount of time before the story begins, and the ones that showcase a different POV than the rest(or most) of the story. So maybe it’s the villain’s pov for the prologue and the rest of the story is the MC.

    I like prologues. All three of my novels have them. I’ve never skipped a prologue. I didn’t even know it was a thing until a few years ago. I mentioned it to my mom and she said she skips prologues because too many are a clip from a future event(the whole show you part of the action that happens later so you’ll want to know what’s going on) that has spoilers in it. I personally dislike those as well because I get annoyed that I know have to read x amount of what I assume is dull material(I assume that because if it wasn’t why would you need to play a card like that?) until I get to the point where I find out what was going on. I then spend the rest of the story trying to speed read to reach that point without stopping to smell the roses.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Good post. I too had never come across prologue haters until I joined a writing community. Have one if you need it. Don’t if you don’t. I haven’t written anything that feels like it needs a prologue yet… although I am planning an epilogue on the next one. Now epilogues I love as a general rule.

    I don’t understand why someone would skip a prologue. It’s a chapter of the book. The concept of not reading it had never occurred to me until recently. And I still don’t get why someone would do that. My default assumption is that the author put it there for a reason.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A wonderful post, Corinne. I never knew that there were people who didn’t like prologues until I started interacting with other writers in Scrib. But your pointers on what makes a prologue acceptable is really insightful.

    I myself enjoy prologues. It’s like a teaser that whets my appetite for the story.

    The most important aspect of a prologue? I can’t think of a single one. Because prologues need to address a few essential aspects to be required in a story: a great hook, fast-paced actions or emotional events that is critical to the plot/ characters but happens out if sync with the main timeline of the story etc.
    But I guess the most important aspect of a book with a prologue is that the author should deliver on his promise of the expectations set by the prologue within the same book/ volume.


  4. Prologues! I’ve definitely run into people who didn’t like them before I arrived at Scribophile, but I’ve always been in the group that enjoys prologues as long as they are well-written (badly written or (gasp!) info-dump prologues have caused me to set a book aside before.) Only one of my books so far has needed a prologue… And the only one I’ve published yet doesn’t have one. Another trilogy I’m working on has brief segments before each part of the book detailing a bit of the focus character’s history that is relevant to the current plot, but I’ve done my best to cut them down to be less wordy/info-dumpy. In my opinion, if a book needs one, it should have one, but there shouldn’t be a prologue included for the sake of there being a prologue.

    That said, although I’m not surprised that some people skip the prologue, I can’t imagine doing that myself–I’d spend the rest of the book wondering if there were clues I was missing!


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