Are prologues necessary?

Posted on September 14, 2011 (Subscribe to Blog)

This is a subject many writers seem to ponder over and argue about. I personally like prologues and always read them, but I've heard (albeit only from other writers) that a lot of readers skip or skim over them. Why? Because, writers say, prologues are usually massive info-dumps about the world we're about to enter. The argument is that a prologue, more often than not, is totally unnecessary and the novel is better without it.

*Shakes head violently*

Okay, it's probably true that the privilege of adding a prologue is sometimes abused by the writer. I suspect epic fantasy and science fiction writers are the biggest culprits when it comes to annoying prologues; often they contain gigantic narratives about which king is ruling what land, why his brother has been angered and is seeking to usurp the throne, and what magical stone was lost in the river for four thousand years. Those prologues are all TELL and not SHOW and are, I agree, boring. When you hear such narratives on a movie, at least we have something to look at on the screen – knights in battle and so on. In a novel, the reader can't help thinking, "Come on, come on, introduce me to the characters and get on with the story!"

Other prologues are thrown in deliberately to trick the reader. You see this on TV shows in the form of teasers: well-known character Kate supposedly shoots another well-known character Rick, and since both characters are best friends and colleagues, the audience thinks, "Oh! What the heck? Why did she do that?" And thus, the audience is hooked for an hour. Later on, towards the end, events unfold and the reason for the shooting becomes clear: because there's an axe-wielding maniac approaching Rick from behind, and Kate is forced to shoot over Rick's shoulder to stop said maniac. This teaser isn't necessary, but it certainly hooks the viewer.

And then there's a really good prologue that offers a tantalizing glimpse of what's to come later, or contains a scene from the past that sets the tone and makes you think, "Ooh, what was all that about? How does that tie in with the story?"

As far as I'm aware, everyone I know likes prologues. And yet an alarming number of writers seem to be of the opinion that prologues are the subject of "lazy writers who can't be bothered to drop the material into the book where it belongs."

Not so! – at least as far I'm concerned. Whether my prologues are any good is up to the reader, but my own personal reason for writing them is far from being lazy. In fact, the opposite is true; it takes a lot of extra work to do the prologue, and if I simply dropped it and added the material into the book later, it would normally have to be in the form of verbal exposition – which is far quicker and easier to write, but in my opinion not half as interesting.

As you know, the Island of Fog books follow Hal throughout, and writing prologues gives me a chance to go back in time and view a scene from someone else's point of view. Island of Fog's prologue is very short – less than a page – and takes place 12-13 years before the story starts on Chapter One. Is it necessary? Well, it's certainly not crucial; the story would survive without it. I've had one or two writer types tell me it's unnecessary, that readers will probably skip it, but I've had more than a few readers tell me they were "hooked" by that short page. And hooking the reader is the aim, right?

Labyrinth of Fire's prologue is probably the least necessary of the four I've done. In retrospect I admit that it's sort of an info-dump, and takes place in the present day, too. In fact, I could easily have transplanted that entire scene into a later chapter without even changing the wording.

In contrast, the prologue for Mountain of Whispers is probably the most important of the lot, containing what I believe is a strong and effective flashback scene. Is it necessary? I think so. Essential? Absolutely vital? Well, yes. Maybe.

The prologue for Lake of Spirits is not vital to the story. If I removed it, the story would quite happily start at Chapter One. But I like the scene, as it offers a view of Simone as a young lass. How else could I do that from Hal's point of view? It's not essential to the plot as those plot details can be dropped in later – but it does add what I think is an interesting layer. And stories are layered, right? They're not all about plot. They're about character- and world-building. Often the author throws in details that are totally irrelevant to the plot (such as what the characters are wearing) but those details help to build a picture in the reader's mind.

The prologue for Book 5 (coming in 2012) will show what happened on the mainland all those years ago. We already know what happened, but everything has been told secondhand. Wouldn't it be nice to drop back in time and actually see it unfold? I can't achieve that so well without a prologue. A prologue like this allows me to SHOW and not TELL. And although some writers insist you can just call it "Chapter One," I totally disagree; the point of view and the timeline is too vastly different to simply be included in the main narrative of Hal's story.

So I think prologues do have their place in novels. However, I do agree that some writers abuse the privilege and include them for the sake of it. Heck, maybe that includes me; readers should be the judge of that. But for writers to insist that prologues are unnecessary, that we should always just start with Chapter One, seems daft to me. I've heard the arguments and the only one that gives me pause me is the suggestion that "agents and editors don't like prologues and will skip your manuscript if you have one" – but I've yet to find overwhelming evidence supporting this. And clearly there are plenty of prologues in published novels, otherwise this wouldn't even be a discussion!

Here are some comments on a forum:

  • I know more than a few readers, myself include, barely even read the prologue.
  • I read them on the off chance I might miss something important. However, I can't recall a prologue I've read yet that did have something so vital that couldn't have been included in the main part of the novel.
  • I generally call them 'Chapter One', to make sure they are read.
  • Whether you personally always read prologues or never read them, be aware that most readers skip them.
  • If it is critical, the best way to make them read it is to title it Chapter 1 (chapters can also have time gaps and/or be nonlinear...)
  • Mostly prologues strike me as being lazy. There's information that the writer needs the reader to know, and instead of imparting it in the main text they just put it in a prologue.
  • I have been told countless times that editor or publishers do not like prologues. Try to put it in your first chapter.
  • I skip prologues primarily because I see it as kind of spoiler. Also when a book has a prologue, I imagine this to be a weakness of the writing approach

On the same forum, there are an equal number of opposite opinions like "Who told you agents don't like prologues?" and "I personally read them and so do all my friends" and "I can't call it Chapter One because it happened hundreds of years before the story starts."

Personally, I'll keep writing prologues until I'm 100% convinced that I shouldn't. What about you, writers and readers? Thoughts?

  • What's your general impression of prologues? Like? Dislike? Ever skip them?
  • What about MY prologues? (Honestly, please.)
Comment by MING on Thursday, September 15, 2011...

General impression: I love prologues. I always read them, they add to the story and are a bit of a teaser that pulls me in, doesn't reveal much yet, but it makes me want to keep reading.
Your prologues: Fantastic! As I said once, ages ago, they are better than Dan Brown's prologues, and while I personally don't care about his stories, I think his prologues are well written.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Thursday, September 15, 2011...

Thank you, Ming! Being favored over a big name author is praise indeed. :-)

Comment by SANDRA MCLEOD HUMPHREY on Friday, September 16, 2011...

Actually, I like prologues—especially in the mysteries that I read. I'm now following your blog and looking forward to your posts. Fellow MG-YA Campaigner

Comment by JESSE CONRAD on Friday, September 16, 2011...

I do read prologues because they're great way to hook readers in. If I skip the prologues, I'd feel like I've missed something out. I'm currently reading "Infected" by Scott Sigler and in its prologue there was a scene being described where it evokes a "what-the-heck!" moment. It hooked me into, wanting to find out what's going on and am anticipating to find out how that scene eventually connects to the story.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Friday, September 16, 2011...

Welcome, Sandra, and thanks for your comment. (I confess I haven't had much of a chance to do anything with the campaign thingie, but I always intended following the links to other blogs so will still be doing that. And of course I'll come by your blog asap.)

Jesse, my wife and I loved Infected (and the sequel, Contagion). That prologue you mentioned still sticks in my mind, and it's one I think of whenever the subject of prologues comes up. I had the pleasure of meeting Scott Sigler a few times at Dragon*Con, both last year and this year. I asked him when the third Infected book is coming out, and he said 2012... although I can't remember which month. But it's called Pandemic and I can't wait. I envy you, reading Infected for the first time. Have you got to the bit where—- no, I'd better not say. ;-)

Comment by BRIAN CLOPPER on Friday, September 16, 2011...

I like prologues. I do feel that there's a difference to prologues in modern fiction and those written ten or twenty years ago. I think older works tend to be more info dumps, while the more modern thrust of prologues is to make them leaner and more relevant.

I also like Sigler's work.

You know you're now obligated to write a post commenting on epilogues, right?

Comment by C. LEE MCKENZIE on Saturday, September 17, 2011...

I'm pro prologue as long as it really adds to the story—mood, a tease that lures me into the story. I think a test for not having one is if you take it out you don't miss it.

Interesting to consider.

Thanks. I'm on your Campaign and just stopped in to say hi!

Comment by KURT HARTWIG on Wednesday, September 21, 2011...

KidLit just posted on this today (link at end of the post). Her argument - generally not in favor - is that while the prologue itself might be a well-written hook, it often masks a weak opening chapter or two, and as such, is a disingenuous crutch.

Presumably, a good hook that preceded an equally hooking chapters 1, 2, and 3, would work.

Her answer was more specific and writerly than I had considered before.

http://kidlit.com/2011/09/21/weighing-in-on-prologues

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Wednesday, September 21, 2011...

Hmm, well, I've heard these arguments before and I partially agree but partially disagree, too. Everyone has an opinion, and so do I, but I really don't understand those who skip prologues on the basis that it "probably doesn't contain anything useful." Arrghh!!!

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