To prologue or not to prologue….that is the question!

It seems nothing is guaranteed to start a debate among readers and authors more than the issue of whether a book ought to have a prologue. Does a prologue serve any useful purpose or is it a lazy way of starting into a story?

It appears the jury is still out on this one. Not too long ago, if you are to believe a lot of things written on the subject, the book industry’s top-hitters, namely publishers and agents, were set against the whole concept of prologues. For some reason their minds are changing – and I can see why.

Prologues work best when an author uses them as a platform from which to launch his/her subsequent story. In almost all cases they should be detached in time from the story about to unfold – a means to provide a teasing event, the significance of which will only become clear as the main story unfolds.

The best examples of the use of prologues are to be found in the novels of Clive Cussler. He has made an art out of beginning his yarns with a seemingly unrelated story, usually set in prior decades or centuries, only for the reader to discover that this story (or backdrop) is essential to the understanding and enjoyment of the modern-day tale about to unfold.

Cussler does it so well that often the reader feels a sense of loss at leaving the era of the prologue to begin the main event!

Naturally prologues don’t have to be as separated in time as Cussler often makes them. An event within a year, of even a few months, of the opening main sequence of a story, will serve just as well to grab the attention of readers – provided, of course, the need for a prologue actually enhances the overall reading experience.

The reason why a lot of people aren’t switched on by prologues is that often they are little more than Chapter 1, dressed up in a fancy title that authors somehow think makes their overall product look a bit more sexy. It doesn’t.

It’s plain daft to begin with what is called a prologue if the next chapter (now called Chapter 1) simply follows on from the events told in the prologue. I’ve read a lot of so-called prologues only to discover that the ‘first chapter’ begins with the same characters, talking about the same things a mere few hours later!

As I’ve said, prologues should be ‘teasers’ and used only where there is justification for back-dropping a story in a different context, or providing a related event, which will start to make sense for the reader as the story progresses.

They are often used these days as an early means to get inside the head of the baddie, say a serial killer, to tell the back-story of how he/she came to start their murdering rampage. The main story then opens with the detective assigned to the case, by which stage the reader has a sense of the difficulties that will be involved in tracking down the culprit. In this example, if the writer inserts a lot of graphic detail into the prologue, the reader will also engage immediately with the detective in the desire to catch the killer.

Generally, extreme care must be taken with the use of prologues. Not only should they have a proper context but authors need to be wary of the fact that these are the first views readers have of the style and pace of the writer. They are the shop window and if they’re not dressed properly the reader is unlikely to go much further.

Is there a simple rule on the use of prologues? Unfortunately not. Bearing in mind what’s already been said there is usually little need for a prologue – and so it’s not a question that should vex authors as much as it appears to.

A story should always be told with the reader in mind. I always like the philosophy of getting a story started in an interesting way, keep it flowing, and end it with as much drama, pathos and fanfare as you can muster. Nothing else matters.

But – and it’s a big but – if the end product can be enhanced by the use of a well-scripted and properly thought-out prologue then not only should the author go for it, but he/she has an imperative to do so.

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10 Responses to To prologue or not to prologue….that is the question!

  1. joemccoubrey says:

    Thanks Lil – and well said!

  2. Lil Gluckstern says:

    I like prologues when they present information, and character notes that will be reflected later in the book. The serial reader’s backstory is getting a little over used, I think. The prologue works better when it sets the tone that he story plays against. I’m not sure i said this this well. I’m not a writer, but love to read. 🙂

  3. krhughestlburns says:

    All great info! Thanks for sharing.

  4. joemccoubrey says:

    Theodore, the use of a prologue unrelated to the story opens up a whole new debate. I can understand why you chose to do so. Thanks for sharing this – it’s bound to attract further attention.

  5. Theodore Knell says:

    A great piece Joe. I am now on my second book, the first was non-fiction so had an introduction. However, the current one is what I like to call faction, fact based fiction. I thought it was important to provide the reader with some food for thought before they began to read the story, encourage them to explore the reasoning behind why people will choose one path over another and the possible damage involved.

    The Prologue in my case has nothing to do with the actual story but I feel it opens the readers mind to what may happen. As its only some two hundred words, most of those who have read it says it settles and focuses them before they begin to read the story. Just my thoughts, in this particular case it works, it may never work for me again.

  6. Brad Fleming says:

    As ever, a fascinating subject Joe. I’m writing my third book right now – the first had a prologue, the next two didn’t. I don’t believe there’s a hard and fast rule. In my own case the prologue depicted a short account of a tragic event. It’s aim was twofold. First, quite bluntly, to grab readers’ attention and entice them to read on. Second, and equally important, to lay a foundation on which the main thrust of the story is based. I’d like to add one further point. With the continued rise of the e-book and with the likes of Amazon offering the chance to read the first few pages for free, it provides the author with a great opportunity to showpiece the book. It follows that the first few chapters should grab the attention, and if a prologue helps do this, then go for it.

    • joemccoubrey says:

      Brad, your choice of when to use a prologue and when not to was spot on. Having read your books I agree with the need for one in your first novel and not in the other two. We read each other too well!

  7. Ruby Barnes says:

    Personally I try to avoid the prologue label and, if the story needs a set up, I do that and let the reader mentally put ‘prologue’ on it if they want to.
    On one occasion I included a prologue, called it such, and submitted my MS for a paid critique. Here’s an extract from the response:
    ‘The prologue needs to set the tone, provide a crucial piece of information to be recalled later, introduce a character, or have an event that sparks off all resulting events. What it really shouldn’t be is a pointless action sequence involving apes…’

    I think that’s apeish, or something ;-]

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