I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about prologues lately. Being on several writers groups has shown me that prologues are “a thing” for fantasy novel writers… But are they “a thing” because they are needed? Or are they “a thing” because “that’s the way the other guys do it and I want to be like them”?
I can now understand why some members of writing forums roll their eyes at every new critique request for “the prologue of my novel in progress”: There are just so many of them! Depending on the group, ten to twenty percent of critique requests are for prologues alone. And I’ve read a lot of very dry, exposition laden prologues in these critiques. Bad experiences that have come frequently enough so that I’m beginning to get a little twitchy every time I click on another one
To see the same things and mistakes repeated over and over again, one might think the best thing I could do for my fantasy novel in the making would be to ditch any idea of writing a prologue for it. That I should stay away from something that has be come Cliché in the genre.
Yet, at the same time I felt that my novel-in-progress, Unsundered, is in need of a good prologue all the same. Why? Because I’ve had problems balancing the story’s need for early exposition. There are some things in the story that are common knowledge to the characters and in the setting that have proven very awkward for me to divulge without killing the story’s pacing. These are also things that could not be more relevant to the plot; certainly items that would be helpful for the reader to know from the start. I’ve been putting a lot of effort into crafting a solid prologue to show these things and build an entrance into the epic tale that will follow. So far I have crafted several disastrous attempts at writing one that works, but I think that I’m getting there, step by step.
What am I keeping in mind as I work to craft my awesome prologue? And what makes me think that I should try to write one at all for my novel, given all the evidence to the contrary?
First, I’m going straight to the definition of what a prologue is to see if what I’m writing is indeed that type of animal and its presence is needed… Or if what I am really writing is something else, like a chapter one under an assumed name. The word in Greek translates roughly to “before the words”, a good concept to keep in mind. The intent of it should be to establish background details and setting that will aid the reader in understanding the full story to follow. Traditionally, they relate events that are connected to the main story but take place a significant amount of time before them. But I’ve read some great prologues that take place long after the story that is about to unfold as well.
In my opinion, a prologue should be structured so that it is tied into the rest of the work and reveals unique things not found elsewhere within it, but at the same time the reading of it is not absolutely necessary before reading chapter one. It should enhance the story but not be inescapably critical to it. I think that a well-integrated prologue is one where a reader who has skipped it and started on chapter one will feel that they have missed some details somewhere (and that would be true), but not be lost about what is going on.
I know that the idea might drive some writers over the edge because their work is not being read in the sequence they have painstakingly devised. But a lot of readers skip prologues right off the bat out of habit. Instead of fighting that fact, I’m going to work with it instead and say that a good prologue is one that a reader can skip. They can read it after they are several chapters in, or after finishing the whole rest of the book. The key thing to a good prologue is that when it is finally read it still adds to the story, even if read out of the sequence it was originally presented in.
At its heart, a prologue is like a quick recap to benefit someone walking in on any particular episode of a larger epic without other knowledge of the story. It’s there so that people can get a taste for and more easily immerse themselves into the story… even if they missed they last part. For those that might not need it, a prologue should reward their attention with flavor and detail that they otherwise would not have had.
Some would say that you shouldn’t try to make your prologue, if you have one, into a hook for your story. I disagree with that train of thought and say instead that it’s entirely acceptable, even wise, to use a book prologue as a hook to draw in a reader. Often it (or the first chapter) is the first thing an unsure reader is going to see before they decide to invest more time in your story or not. So you should try to make your best effort with it!
Prologues are in a unique position to act as a teaser or hook in this regard; when they are well done they are slightly divorced from the main work with an innate structure that stands on its own. They don’t give too much away, are not too dependent on what came before or after, and give the reader a taste of your style and story before the first entrée of the opening chapter.
Many stories don’t need prologues and I think a lot of new writers like myself make the mistake of tacking one on “just because” when they really would have better novels without one. However, if you are using the strengths of a prologue as a tool to give the heart of your novel better pace and storytelling, then you should use that tool to its greatest efficiency! Just avoid prologues that are a dry retelling of exposition and information… Just as you would avoid such things in any other chapter of your book. Show the reader the backstory, the events that are so important instead. Motivate them to see how these events effect what is to come in your novel. Excite the reader. Make them care.
Even if they skip the prologue.