What is it with prologues?

posted in: On writing, Science fiction | 2

Should you write a prologue? I don’t know – it’s your story. I can tell you what I think and if that helps, hey – I’m chuffed. But I’ll tell you two things up front – one, I don’t usually like prologues and two, I’ve written one myself.

I don’t usually like prologues because so very often they are used as an opportunity to dump a whole heap of background information on the reader. Or sometimes a prologue is written because the story in chapter one isn’t interesting enough to grab the reader, so the author writes the gory bit first, hoping you’ll read the rest to see how we get there.  I think that’s why agents tend to rail against them and I tend to agree. I often don’t read prologues. I just move on to chapter one.

However, as with all the Rules of Writing, this one has been successfully broken. Jack McDevitt, award winning, best selling science fiction author, ALWAYS has a prologue. The structure of his books tends to be to introduce a mysterious event in the past, which the MC works to understand many years later. So his prologues are usually what happened in the past, which constitutes at least a whole chapter, followed by the real story, where the Mcs try to unravel the mystery. This works well in “Slow Lightning” (“Infinity Beach” in the US) but (for me, anyway) the prologue was just plain irritating in “A Talent for War”. I went back to read the prologue again after I’d finished “A Talent for War”, where it made a bit of sense but it certainly didn’t lead me into reading the book. To be honest, I would not have read past the first page of the prologue if the book hadn’t been recommended by a writing tutor. By the way, after I’d forced myself to read the prologue, I LOVED “Slow Lightning“. It’s a great read.

Given all that, I wrote a prologue myself. It’s in “To Die a Dry Death” and it’s about one page, so at least I kept it short. But why did I feel I needed one at all?

In my case, as a book-end. You will find the answer to the prologue at the end of the novel. I wanted some way of adding a ray of light to what was overall a dark and depressing tale. Feedback indicates it was a good move. Yes, all right, I admit that since I had a prologue I included a few facts that might help the reader understand the background to the story a little better. The test, though, is do you HAVE to read the prologue? Not to read the book, no. But when you get to the final pages you might well flip back to the start to see what you missed.

That said, I avoid writing prologues. Start at chapter one and write your story is my take on it.

What about you? Do you hate prologues or love them? Have you written one yourself? Why?

2 Responses

  1. John Booth

    I don’t think I would write a prologue for a new book. I’ve used them in the past and Shaddowdon may get published with the one I created for it, but more and more I come to the view that they are usually lazy writing.

    The argument for them seems to be that they titillate the reader. But surely your whole book should do that? Prologues are like clues to a crossword (my own included) but I’m not sure they add that much, Only two off my novels have prologues and only one was planned from the outset. That one drives the whole plot being a ‘how the hell did he get into that mess?’ exercise. It’s a special case.

    Nearly every prologue I’ve seen has made the book worse – use sparingly would be my advice.

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