Disclaimer: I typically don’t like prologues. This post will probably lean toward reasons why you shouldn’t include a prologue but I will admit that they have been done well.
Prologues. What are they? What are they for?
Prologues started in plays as a short speech given to the audience to prepare them for the story to come (check out the famous prologue from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). Rarely, they appear in movies (like the Star Wars opening crawl). In literature, they are often a shortened version of a first chapters that introduce some element of the story that won’t appear until later.
The most important thing about a prologue is that it includes the Hook.
The Hook is the question that keeps the reader turning the page. A Hook can be dialogue, setting, action, just about anything that gets the reader asking something that they can only answer by reading more. But the prologue must have it to be successful, otherwise it’s just confusing.
Why do I hate reading them?
I can count on one hand the number of prologues I have read that included the Hook. Most prologues want to show me part of an exciting scene around the halfway point or an event that happens before the story begins. With the latter, the prologue tends to be used as a setup but still often doesn’t include the Hook.
You always need the Hook. You rarely get it.
One example of a prologue (and epilogue) that I found riveting (and functional) is the prologue for The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It has some of the most beautiful descriptions in the (quite very) long story and it is used in conjunction with the epilogue to frame how the reader views the protagonist. It includes the hook in the last line, ” It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.”
The gorgeous description of silence and the setup followed up with that line? Hook, line, and sinker.
I hear mixed reviews about prologues that are just a scene copy-pasta’d from somewhere else in the book—usually before the halfway point, sometimes from the first chapter. I am not a big fan of these. Usually they either repeat the same text later—which distracts me from the scene—or use the prologue as an excuse to skip the scene/gloss over it and by that time, I’ve probably forgotten what was in the prologue in the first place.
And in that case, why would you even take that scene out of it’s proper place in the story?
So, why do I like writing them?
Funnily enough, when I have considered prologues, they are usually a short passage from the halfway point of the book—you know, the kind of prologue I typically find a little annoying.
I write them because I am just so excited to show you (my reader) the really cool stuff! I want to blow past the exposition and setup and description and get straight to the marrow of the story.
But, what I forget is that you, the reader, don’t have the context for that scene, that really cool stuff that I want to show you. I do and it all makes sense to me. But I can put the most thrilling, most compelling, amazing scene I’ve got as a prologue and it doesn’t mean anything to someone who hasn’t yet read the setup.
And if I write a scene that takes place before the first chapter, why not just make it the first chapter?
I will admit there are prologues in fiction that do a fantastic job of hooking readers and reeling them in to the story. But I still argue that most do not. A prologue should not require context, it should give it.
Epilogues? Now that’s a different story.
What do you think about prologues? Did I misspell “prologue” somewhere in here (because I don’t think I’ve said “prologue” enough)? Leave a comment below!