Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Pros and Cons of Prologues

It's Karlie here, with a rather controversial question for you guys.

I know many agents/editors/professionals discourage prologues, saying they tend to be info dumps and most readers skip over them anyway. I agree with this to an extent - I know some writers have a bad habit of just pulling an exciting scene from somewhere in the middle and calling it a prologue, there for no other purpose than to 'hook' the reader.

But...sometimes prologues and prefaces are unavoidable. Take Eragon for instance - there was no way that would have fit in somewhere else in the story, and still done its job. Twilight - the preface was the turning point of the novel; it was the culmination point, and personally I like the way Ms. Meyer used that.

I don't know if anyone out there has seen The Prestige, starring Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johanssen, but it uses the preface to perfection. (Yes, there can be prefaces in movies). It was so artfully done that when the reasons behind it was revealed -  about half-way through the movie - that it was just a jaw-dropping moment. All writers should watch this movie, btw.

So I believe prologues should be used for those two reasons only: To say something that absolutely CANNOT be worked into the body of the story, and to state the theme/turning point of the novel in a way that draws the reader in and works toward an "Aha!" moment later, when it's fully revealed.

What are your opinions about prologues? Readers, do you usually skip them?

Lisa: I don't skip prologue/prefaces (writers are generally too nosy to skip something), but I do tend to skim. So, while I'm not against them as a writing device, it's probably better not to have one if you want readers to enjoy every bit of your novel. Most of the time the prologues people deem necessary are those which tell of a very specific event that happened in the far past (which is why people tend to skip/skim them as it's not current and pressing). Oftentimes, though, I've seen where the retelling of that event could be worked in the rest of the book, and people are less likely to miss out on valuable details of that scene due to skipping or skimming. For example, the event could be told to another character when the topic comes up and questions are asked,  it could be in a letter or diary entry the main character finds, a flashback, or your character thinking about the event here and there and little by little filling the readers in on the details about it. That adds a little more mystery too. If you think about it, all of our characters have pasts and it's our job to try to work that past into the story while progressing the plot. One thing I have seen that seemed to be very necessary was the prologue being in someone else's POV. It doesn't have to be in the past for this to work either. This device becomes especially necessary if there is an unreliable narrator.

Caitlin: The first time I heard that most readers skip prologues, I was surprised. What if there's something important in there? So, no, I don't skip prologues. But I still don't think they're a great idea. Like with all "rules" in writing, this is another one you can break but you better have a darn good reason to have a prologue. I've also heard that most prologues just turn into first chapters somewhere along the publishing process anyway, and usually work fine. However, I recently read Chime  (good but challenging read, btw) and I think that's what happened with the first chapter. It read much more like a prologue and timing wise it didn't make a lot of sense as a first chapter (but, again, did as a prologue). So I do think it's possible to avoid the prologue to a fault.


  1. When I'm reading, it more or less depends the prologue. If it is just something that happens later on, I generally skim if. If it is something about the past, or knowledge we should have before reading the rest, then definitely! I have nothing whatsoever against prologues.

    As for my writing, I will use them where necessary. Loving Hell and Chase both have em. Well first I created them as prologues, then made them into chapter ones that take places years before, but when I edit I'm probably switching them back. My other novels don't have them, because they don't call for them.

    But yes, overall, I'm fine with prologue. In either my reading or writing.

  2. Hi Micheala. :)

    I think using a prologue is best in a time jump, too. Less confusing. I think Caitlin got it right - it's possible to both overuse and avoid them to a fault. It all comes down to what the story needs.

    Thanks for commenting. :D

  3. I think that most of us who grew up reading epic fantasy (like Robert Jordan) are sort of trained to expect a prologue. As a reader, I don't mind them. The problem, I think, is that new authors tend to rely on them to do things (drop right into action, provide backstory, etc.) that we have trouble doing in chapter 1.

    This may be why prologues are a hard sell to agents and editors these days.

    1. Excellent point, Dan. Thanks for stopping by! :D