It seems that in the writing community, there’s a lot of talk about prologues — whether they’re allowed, whether they work, if you should include it in a work you’re querying, et cetera. A lot of people are against prologues on the whole, and an equally large group are staunch defenders of the prologue.
I’m here to explain some points of view of the Prologue Discourse and to (hopefully) give you some advice and perspective about when to keep and when to cut your prologue!
Disclaimer: my advice here 1. is yours to take or leave as you like! 2. is not “one size fits all”! and 3. applies most especially to YA novelists hoping to be traditionally published.
Why do people hate prologues?
I think this is kind of a misconception. I think people hate bad or clumsy prologues.
I think a lot of this pro-/anti-prologue conversation comes from agents who get a FLOOD of submissions in their inboxes, including a flood of not-that-great submissions, and a flood of not-that-great prologues. If 9 times out of 10, they read prologues that are clumsy or unnecessary, they’ll raise an eyebrow when they get a new submission that also starts with a prologue.
So what is a clumsy prologue?
The best way to know if your prologue is clumsy is to have critique partners and beta readers give you their honest feedback about your prologue. But generally, I’ve seen some common cases when prologues are done poorly:
- The prologue centers on a character who isn’t our main character: This is a problem because when you send your first ten pages to an agent, the more time we spend in the prologue being invested in Character A, the less time we get with Character B, the main character. We get invested in Character A, and then we spend 90% of the book with Character B, and have to become invested in our main character a second time!
- The prologue takes place years and years before our main character is born: Same thing; we have no context for why these characters or this setting is important, and for that to very drastically change by chapter one with a whole new setting and all new characters can be kind of drastic. Again, this is all about hooking an agent’s attention. You have a very very short window of time (or page count, rather) to lure them to reading more.
- Dream sequences: My personal beef with dream-sequence openings is that they can really muddle the tone for the book and confuse me regarding settings. The book opens with a gorgeous, mystical forest and a girl with magic tears, and then suddenly the main character is a teenager in Oklahoma getting ready for school. The magical world barely comes back. This is a contemporary all along. NOOO I WANNA GO BACK TO THE MAGICAL WORLD. WHY AREN’T WE THERE. Is this book a fantasy or a contemporary? Can we travel to this magical world or is it Symbolism Of Problems to Come?
- Info-dumping: This is the biggest prologue sin that I see. The prologue is there to explain how this kingdom came to be and how magic works and why there aren’t dragons anymore and why the penguins came into power. For YA especially, our focus is going to be on a main character and their emotional arc. Instead of a big long Wikipedia article of a prologue, introduce the world through your main character’s eyes as they interact with it!
But Catherine, published books have prologues
Yes, they do! Published books break the querying “rules” in lots of ways (especially in high word counts).
The difference is that Published Author has already been vetted through the querying process AND the editorial process. You haven’t yet.
So here’s the secret:
When you have an agent, you may be able to bring back that prologue.
When you have an agent, you’ll have been vetted past the querying stage. They know that you don’t info-dump. They know that you NEED a higher word count to really explore the richness of your book. So if you decide to cut your prologue, keep it in a separate document. You may have a chance to bring that prologue back!
It’s also worth mentioning that I have friends who queried books with prologues… and got agents!
I also know someone who sold a book, and her editor asked her to add a prologue!
Querying is a whole other battlefield. It’s got some weird rules and some rules that get ignored when you’re further in the process. But a lot of the times, the rules are for your own good. People abuse the rules. They write books that are entirely too long. They do write info-dumpy prologues.
But not you!
If you’re here, you’re looking for advice, and you’re open to critiques. If your readers all agree that your prologue does its job well, try querying a few agents with the prologue intact. If you’re getting a lot of rejections, take time to reassess.
As I mentioned above, my advice won’t apply to every prologue. I don’t believe that all prologues are inherently bad. In fact, I think there are times that you SHOULD write a prologue. There are times where prologues STRENGTHEN a book.
Write a prologue just for you
I have done this! Sometimes you want to just info-dump somewhere. You want to have a big ol’ Wikipedia article about your character and their parents’ backstory and the kingdom’s backstory and how the first Emperor Penguin came to power. Write that!
You can write yourself an info-dumpy prologue. It helped me while I was drafting! I had all the worldbuilding info in one place. Then, after I had finished drafting the book, I cut that prologue. That info was helpful for me as an author, learning about this world for the first time, but it detracted from a focus on my main character exclusively. Plus, I had already naturally woven that info-dump information through the story, now that I knew the backstory in full.
Short (1-2 pages) prologues can get away with a lot more because, as I mentioned above, when querying, sometimes you can only send 5-10 pages to an agent. If your prologue is only 1 page long, we’ll still have 9 pages to get to know our main character.
Setting atmosphere and tone
Sometimes, a short prologue can do a very good job of setting the tone of the world we’re about to enter. Ideally you should weave this in through the whole novel, but it can also act as sort of a little sample taste of the yummy atmosphere to come.
Suspense: reader vs. character information
Sometimes, a prologue will give information to the reader that the main character doesn’t have. If done well, this can be super suspenseful.
For example, your prologue starts with, “Anna Smith will turn into a penguin on Friday.”
And chapter one starts with, “Anna Smith was excited for a Wednesday morning for the first time in her life.”
OH NO! We know that she only has two days until she turns into a penguin! But SHE doesn’t know that!! As she goes about her day, goes about her story, we the reader will get to feel the looming penguin-transformation danger while she goes about unaware.
Alfred Hitchcock has a great quote about the power of suspense when you give the audience more information than the characters have:
“Let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!” –Alfred Hitchcock
In short, sometimes a prologue can be used to color the upcoming reading experience and make you excited about what’s to come!
At the end of the day, I don’t want this post to make you anxious. I want it to prompt you to reflect on why you have (or haven’t) included a prologue, and to also look at the Twitter “prologue hate discourse” with a critical eye.
Gonna say this again to really hammer it in, not all prologues are bad. You can write a strong prologue and sometimes you SHOULD include them.
As with everything, I believe that strong writers are 1. patient and 2. willing to listen to criticism. If you think your prologue is pure gold and are being consistently told by agents and readers that the prologue doesn’t work… proceed with an open mind.
If you are willing to listen, willing to grow, willing to revise, you have the makings of a great writer!
Also, I’m just a girl in Missouri with a blog. I’m not an authority. Read widely, compare opinions, and keep learning! You’ve got this.