Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Prologues

Along with vampires in my Inbox, I've also noticed an explosion of prologues in partials. I also get quite a lot of questions about whether prologues are necessary, whether agents frown or smile at them, whether they should be included in partial requests. So consider this a post on all things prologue.

What is a prologue? Typically it is 3-5 pages of introductory material that is written while the author is procrastinating from writing a more difficult section of the book.

Ah, I'm kidding.

The most common question I get about prologues: are prologues necessary? Personally I think the easiest litmus test is to take out the prologue and see if your book still makes sense.

If you can take out a prologue and the entire plot still makes perfect sense, chances are the prologue was written to "set the mood". But here's the thing about mood-setting: most of the time you can set the mood when the actual story begins. Do you really need to set the mood with a separate prologue? Really? Really really?

Sometimes the answer to those four reallys is: "yes, really." Or the prologue is to be used as a framing device around the plot or to introduce a crucial scene in the backstory that will impact the main plot. So okay, prologue time.

What makes a good one?

Short, self-contained, comprehensible.

The reader knows full well while reading a prologue that the real story is waiting. A prologue makes a reader start a book twice, because it doesn't always involve the protagonist, and starting a book is hard because it takes mental energy to immerse oneself in a world. You're asking more of a reader, so they'll want to make sure it's worth it.

As for the more nuts and bolts concern of whether it should be included in partials sent to agents: yes. It should.

I want to see the first 30 pages as you want me to send them to the editor. If that involves a prologue... let's see it.

Do you like when authors use prologues? What makes good ones work?






184 comments:

Lisa Schroeder said...

I'm reading WATER FOR ELEPHANTS right now, and there is an interesting prologue in that book! Sometimes I like them, sometimes they just irritate me. Because you are so right, it's like you have to begin a book twice. I never thought of it that way.

Lee Ann said...

A good prologue sets the tone for the book: mood, character, mystery, etc. Think of a good prologue as the equivalent of the introductory music for a musical.

As you settle in your seat, sip on your coffee at your favorite Starbucks, the prologue plugs the reader into the mood and prepares them.

When I was a bookseller, I used to encourage customers to read the prologues of books to "test drive" them. The self-contained prologue can be the taste test into a new or unfamiliar author.

A bad or unnecessary prologue though can truly break a novel though and that's where editors need to walk the writer through the decision to either clean it up or rid it altogether.

The First Carol said...

A prologue jumps you into the book, you don’t know everything, or even all the characters, you’re not to suppose to, but you know if you read far enough you will. At a conference I heard the book is supposed to start at a life changing event, sometimes that’s mid-stream in the character’s life. Okay, all that to convince myself my prologue is fine. Bah! It needs a re-write….*The First Carol shuffles off to revise in order to evade working on taxes.*

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field said...

A lot of the time they strike me as lazy writing.

I recently read Evernight, and I felt like the prologue was there mainly because the author wasn't confident that the first few chapters would be engaging without letting us know that something suspensely would happen later on. She was kind of right, but the solution, in my opinion, would have been to fix those early chapters.

When I do like a prologue is when it sets up a false expectation of what's going to happen without feeling like a cheap trick. When the prologue is a scene included in the book but has a totally different interpretation then, it can be an awesome effect. But it's hard to do this without it feeling like the author is cheating.

I also like prologues that are engaging in their own right. Too often they're describing a moment of suspense, but since you're not yet invested in the characters, the stakes feel too abstract.

Roland said...

I just don't understand why it's not part of the first chapter.

Forwards make more sense. The forward in The Killer Angels, for instance, sets up the actual story perfectly and is arguably necessary to help the reader understand the events leading up to The Battle of Gettysburg. That's very different from a prologue and very useful.

As a reader I just want the story to start. I want to meet the protagonist(s) quickly.

Charlie said...

Thank you for justifying the inclusion of the prologue!
In my case, the prologue introduces characters that make an appearance (their first otherwise) late in the story that impacts the protagonist in a crucial way. Without the prologue, there’s no reason for her to make the decision she eventually makes.

I tried writing the “prologue characters” in through flashback but it slowed the pace down too much.

When you rep me, you’ll understand!

Fawn Neun said...

I started my recent work with a prologue in order to introduce some backstory, an event in the distant history that effects the present.

I found that I was going to have to expand on that history in greater detail anyway, and felt much better after a quick cut and paste to where there was better "space" for it.

That way, the story could start where I intended it to start - at a life-changing moment in the protagonist's story.

Bane of Anubis said...

I agree w/ Elizabeth that prologues are sometimes included to buttress weak opening chapters or b/c the author wants to set a more global picture than what can be accomplished in the first several pages.

I used to deplore prologues b/c I thought them uselessly ancillary, but I've softened my stance. I definitely appreciate the ones that are short and can help set global mood that might not be evident in the beginning otherwise - i.e., prologues for undertone.

Lupina said...

I'm sure there has been a good prologue I've liked sometime in my reading life, but I can't think of one offhand. Generally they irritate me. I'm sitting there itching to get into the meat of the book, and here is this hurdle. I think it takes far more skill and hard work to set the tone, etc. in the first few pages, and that it is definitely worth the effort.

Blow in my ear on the first story page and I'll follow you anywhere!

ryan field said...

I'm not a huge fan of prologues and never write them.

But there are times when they are necessary. The problem is that most of the time they aren't.

WendyCinNYC said...

Most of the time, I dislike prologues. I read them in sort of a skimmy way, just trying to take the information I need. Sometimes they suck me in and that's great.

I also hate quotes from other works before the chapters. Song lyrics. Poetry. Skip.

Yes. I'm lazy.

Conjurae said...

As a writer? I loved my prologue. It began with a hook, captured the essence of my plot, set up the main characters, and left the reader with a keen sense of what to expect.

Then, one morning, I killed it - martyred, for expediency's sake - and I never looked back.

As a reader? I consider the story. If the author has elected to begin with a Prologue, I'm rarely offended, unless it's clunky or underloaded. If the first few Chapters fail to keep me interested, then I'll put the book down and move on...not because the author had elected to begin with a Prologue, but because the author failed to start strong.

Martin Willoughby said...

If the first few chapters aren't good enough for someone to get the feel of a book, then a prologue may be needed.

If the chapters are good enough, then no.

If we're not writing good opening chapters, why do think we'll get published?

Jeremy Robb said...

I've always considered a prologue to be necessary to identify the author and their bias. A prologue is necessary for that reason alone, as far as I have seen. It frames the rest of the book by identifying the author's point of view.

That being said, I've only found it useful in scholarly books. I've never read a good prologue in a work of fiction of a non-scholarly tenor, and actually find that what would normally would be a prologue could just as well be a really good first chapter.

The only other reason I would see a prologue as being useful would be compiled serial chapters into a book, or compilations of short stories that are loosely related, and need something to tie them together.

Dara said...

I think the prologue has to be something that introduces some crucial plot point to the story. Normally I don't mind reading them, although there have been some that I thought were just filler.

I initially had a prologue to my book. Then I realized that it really wasn't needed. It was just a little bit of backstory, which I knew would be mentioned at some point in the course of the "actual" story. So, it's been chopped :)

Rachel said...

I agree with Lupina. I'm sure there are good prologues, I just can't think of any. To me, it seems like they are mostly used to try to hook a reader to get through a couple of chapters that might otherwise be a little dull. But, again, I'm sure there are good ones out there. I'll have to check out WATER FOR ELEPHANTS.

Elissa M said...

I agree with WendyCinNYC. I tend to skim prologues. The best ones suck me in anyway. The worst ones make me put the book down. And I HATE little quotes, poems, etc. at the top of chapters. They seem pretentious and just interrupt the story. I especially despise them when they are in a language other than the novel.

Kristan said...

Like any aspect of a book, I think [what you're saying is] if it's well-done, it's fine.

Helpful but not at the same time, haha.

One thing I noticed in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books is that she uses the prologue to create tension: she gives a glimpse of the climax (albeit vaguely) and then leaves you to wonder how the protagonist got there, and of course how they're going to get out. It drives the reader through the book.

Regardless of liking or dislike the Twilight books, I thought it was an interesting technique and use of the prologue.

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan,

I love your flexible approach to books. Too often, advice for writers sounds like paint by number kits for the written word - one style fits all. My feeling is that, if a prologue is done well and is an integral part of the book, it should be included. If it doesn't add to the quality of the book, then it should be edited out.

Alexa said...

As with everything you get good and bad prologues, sometimes I like them, sometimes I think they're a waste of time.

In the case of The Book Thief I thought the prologue was really effective and got me into the mood of the book.

Like Lisa, I thought the prologue was interesting when I began Water for Elephants. When I finished I really loved how it was used.

Vancouver Dame said...

Prologues work if the book is a sequel that's been a long time coming out. I don't usually like a lot of advance reading before the story begins, but if the prologue is interesting, then it may be necessary.

I like to think that that information could be woven into the story itself, for as Nathan said - it sometimes seems like two starts to the story for the reader.

I agree with those that say most of the time it's irritating, when I just want to dive into the story itself. This is something that I haven't used in my writing, mainly because I'm not a fan of them.

Some genres may require prologues more than others. I've seen them in science fiction, and in fantasy books.

Another interesting writing topic, Nathan. Thanks for the information from your POV as an agent.

Scott said...

Here I go zagging again, but in my latest I have an epilogue only. Has anyone else done this? Does it make sense to have an epi without a pro?

As I see it, it beats the "first five pages" blues that I find a number of agents ask for in a query sample, and I can get that added "future look at our heroes" that really ties up the story. I guess in a sense it could have just been another chapter, but an epilogue felt more appropriately after the fact.

In general, I don't mind prologues as long as they're interesting and have a definite point to them. I often view a book as an author's artistic expression rather than just "a story", so if they have something in mind, I'm down.

Rick Daley said...

I like prologues that sow the seeds of mystery, or set a similar hook.

I just double-checked the nearest book on my shelf, THE WOODS by Harlan Coben. It has a prologue (two and a half pages), and I think it does a great job of inspiring me to turn the page to find out what happened in the past, and what will happen next. It makes me want to keep reading. I think every page in a good book should do that, regardless of whether you call it Prologue, Epilogue, or Chapter 37.

WORD VERIFICATION: comalit. Very dry, boring literature that will put you in a vegetative state upon reading.

Trashy Cowgirl said...

Wow! That has been really helpful. I have a prologue, though I lie and call it ch 1 (for now). Critters just love to tell you to dump them without having an actual read. My prologue is in place to give the reader the most raw image of my protag, possible, as well as to set the mood and frame what is going on. My plot is non-linear and spans mpre than one era. The prologue is also important, because it is a beacon toward which the reader knows they will be moving. Could my plot work without it? It could, but it would take far longer for me to elicit the same ammount of ampathy for my protag, and the reader would perhaps be less trusting of where I was leading them.

But, I know some of you HATE prologues. So, if you are looking for a cat to kick, please feel free to click the Trashy Cowgirl, and come lay your boots to it. I love a good thought provoking kick in the rear.

RW said...

AS a reader, I've noticed that I'm often turned off by them without consciously having a good reason why. I suppose because the cover and flap copy have promised me a certain story which I've made the decision to sample and now I'm spending time first on this other seemingly unrelated story before I can get to the thing that drew me in to begin with.

A related/opposite phenomenon is that the prologue sometimes ends up being more interesting than the present-action story and chapter-by-chapter I keep resenting how far we're getting away from the prologue. Last year there was a very popular sensitive-boy-and-his-dogs novel that I ended up not being a fan of. I gave up after about a hundred pages (which was only a fraction of the whole), the whole time wishing that I was instead reading the story that had been teased in the prologue.

Jason Crawford said...

Wow Nathan, this is very relevant to me. I just finished a MG novel and queried Caitlin Blasdell, who asked to see a partial. Then she passed pretty quick so it's got me questioning EVERYTHING, including whether I should have included the Prologue.

I struggled a bit and realized that, on the one hand I was taking way too long to get to the central event in the story, but on the other hand, I needed the Prologue because a device was found there that helps the heroine beat the bad guys in the end.

So in my case, the Prologue seems irrelevant for most of the book, but it turns out to be quite relevant.

Long story short, I would say a prologue is needed when it's central to the plot. But I think it's wise to get in and out of it as quick as you can.

You're exactly right, I originally used the Prologue because I didn't know how to begin my story...it was purely a procrastination device.

L.C. Gant said...

I think prologues work better for some genres than for others. In my dystopian sci-fi, for example, I have a brief prologue explaining how the world was ravaged by civil war before my MC was born.

While I have some references to these events in the story itself, I don't think it would make sense to explain everything through a flashback or some long, drawn-out conversation between characters. So for me, a two-page prologue works well, and like others have said, I think it helps set the tone for the book.

Melanie Avila said...

A prologue makes a reader start a book twice, because it doesn't always involve the protagonist, and starting a book is hard because it takes mental energy to immerse oneself in a world. You're asking more of a reader, so they'll want to make sure it's worth it.

That's the best explanation I've seen in the yay or nay argument on prologues. I always read them and could never understand people who don't, but I hadn't looked at it as starting the book twice. Excellent point.

That said, the prologue in my 2nd wip was written during a time when I was avoiding a difficult scene and needed words for nano. Yes, it will be cut.

Dawn said...

Just yesterday I asked a writer friend of mine to give me a clear definition of a prologue and she tried, then I come here and POW, you are discussing all things prologue. Thanks again, Nathan. I realize now that my first chapter is actually a prologue and I did use it to set the mood of the book.

Ink said...

I think prologues are often better for writers than for readers. Especially for those of us who don't always find it easy to start a story. A prologue allows us to explore without being forced into writing the story. It's a warm-up, a chance to find the right voice, the right mood. A chance to explore a character or setting or event.

But often once you do all that and find your way into the story and everything starts flowing... you look back and realize you don't really need it. The story stands fine by itself. And if you leave it in you might have readers wondering "Why do we need this? Why can't the story stand by itself?"

I've seen some that worked, particularly when there is a frame story set up around the main story. But even then... I've done that, written a frame story for a novel that was contained in the prologue and epilogue. But I didn't need it. It was better just to have the immediacy of the story with all distance stripped away. Out it came, since I didn't need it. Or, at least, the reader didn't need it. As a writer, it helped me find the voice and mood of the story. The tone I started unearthing in the prologue permeated the novel.

Process is not the same as product. Write it how you need to write it... and revise it in the way people will need to read it.

Just my take.

My best, as always,
Bryan

Anonymous said...

Ironic? Or merely a coincidence?!

I spent the morning writing and polishing a prologue and was feeling quite pleased with myself.

Until I read today's post and most of the responses.

Still in the proud, protective stage, but can see where I might have to murder this child in future. Ah, the writing life.

Marybeth said...

My husband and I were just talking about this the other evening. I agree that Stephanie Meyer's technique is very captivating. It draws you in right from the very first pages. Still, I do not think it is necessary with all books. Most books can draw you in without it. I like to think that my first paragraph does the job all on it's own.

Sharon A. Lavy said...

Good post. Thanks.

Ink said...

Nathan,

An off-topic question here about short stories. If an agent signs an author to try and sell a novel, would they also look to sell short stories? I'm guessing if it's a whole collection, yes... but what about individual stories? Would an agent ever send them out to publications? New Yorker? Glimmer Train? Playboy? Or would that be something that's still left in the hands of the author since short story markets are different from book markets? And would this vary from agent to agent?

I suppose the general topic would be whether agents sometimes hunt up extra work for their clients. Short stories, articles, etc., as that sort of thing seems to be encouraged. Platform! (Which always makes me feel like I'm waiting for the train, but hey...)

My best,
Bryan

reader said...

Hate prolouges. Never read them. Ever.

SF Writer of Note since 2022 said...

It seems to me that prologues are expected more in some genres than others. In historical fiction, they could be used to summarize the state of affairs the protagonist finds herself in or to orient the reader in time.

In science fiction, which often occurs in near or far future, a prologue can orient the reader to the type of future to expect in the story (startrekkian social utopia, post-apocalyptic maxmaxxian dystopia, etc). In fantasy, perhaps a magic system needs to be revealed.

I fell in love with Frank Herbert's ability to insert prologues even before each chapter (what does one call *those*?) that made (oft cryptic yet fascinating) comments as if by historians in the distant future on the events you were about to read about in all their immediacy in the chapter.

But all in all I wholeheartedly agree with the assessment that if the story can stand (and draw in and orient the reader) without the prologue- omit it.

Who was it that said keep crossing out unnecessary sentences... when you come to the first necessary one, that's your beginning!

Bane of Anubis said...

Vancouver D (wanted to shorten both, but that wouldn't be so good for your screen name :) - great point about prologues for sequels - I think that's more effective than doing the whole "let's recap the previous book and reintroduce character in the 1st 50 pages" sort of thing that, though understandable, is highly annoying.

Nathan Bransford said...

bryan-

It varies from agent to agent, and actually from publication to publication. I hope to have more on placing short stories soon.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Very diplomatic blog, sir! Me, I like reading a well-written prologue and I hope that occasionally those I do write are well written.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

"It was a dark and stormy night!"



Hey... I'm there! Gitty-up!

Haste yee back ;-)

:)Ash said...

The majority of prologues are pointless, and get on my nerves. Just start with Chapter 1, page 1.

Bane of Anubis said...

Nathan,

I guess along the lines of Bryan's good question, do agents sometimes seek out specific work to broaden their clients' exposure (e.g., there's an anthology coming out that includes writer X,Y,&Z and if my writer can get in there, it will help marketing) or is it something usually broached by the author (I'd like to get in w/ this anthology - could you hook me up?)... or does it just boil down to how much of a marketer/publicist both entities are?

Thanks.

Alan Orloff said...

Call them prologues, call them first chapters, call them Ishmaels. Whatever. If the first x pages of your book are captivating and compelling, and belong to the story, then keep them in.

Otherwise, excise them.

JMHO

Jen P said...

Our book club just finished Sebold's 'The Lovely Bones' - I missed altogether that it had a prologue, as it's not labeled as such, and I went straight to the start marked "one". Did I miss it? No, not at all. I'm still not certain why it is there. But as Alexa mentioned, and I'm reading now, Markus Zusak's 'The Book Thief' has twelve pages of prologue, which are critical.

I suppose it's like any part of the story, if it has a valuable role and is necessary, it belongs. If it doesn't, take it out, even if you like it.

Thanks for making us think about it.

selestial-owg said...

I am of the opinion that it has to be necessary and add to the story somehow. A lot of people skip prologues, so as a writer, if I put one in I need to know that 1) it might be skipped and 2) it has to have something extra in it for the people who DO read it. I've written novels both with and without prologues. The one without didn't need one, the one with, IMO, did (it was about 500 words on something that happened centuries prior to the meat of the novel). *shrug* Love them or hate them, I don't think prologues are going to go away.

giddymomof6 said...

As of a year ago I was never going to be an author, let alone get an agent, or try to get a publishing deal. All that changed last March and I had to learn not only how to write a novel (I've now written 6), but how to get an agent (got one in August), and how to promote myself and basically everything else that involves living behind the scenes in the author world.

Until I became an author I never, ever read prologues. I found them completely annoying. I never looked at who published a book. I never read about the author, or went on their website or anything. Now, I've completely 180ed and I find myself fascinated with ALL things about a book from its price, to its acknowledgements, to the blurb on the back and GASP! I'm even reading the prologues. Will I ever write a prologue in one of my novels? Probably not. But it's interesting to see the way other writers start their stories and what secrets I've been able to uncover much earlier. Plus I’m always eager to learn what worked for another author who’s already been published. Jenni

Ink said...

selestial,

They'll be going away if my new virus works...

Melissa said...

My first novel had a prologue, one of those mood-setters that was completely unnecessary. I took it out and voila, the book was much better!

After that, I swore off prologues. So my second novel? Has a prologue. But this one falls into the category of an earlier event that propels the entire narrative forward (in this case, a kidnapping).

Robert Treskillard said...

If a book has a prologue, I always read it, and I'm generally happy I did so.

Now that assumes that it's in Nathan's 3-5 page range. If you delay the main story any more than that, then you better have a good reason to do so.

One of my kids skips them like flat rocks, and it drives me crazy.

"Do you know what you missed?" I say, and all I get back is a shrug.

Ray Rhamey said...

For the "Flogometer" on my blog, Flogging the Quill, wherein I and readers critique the opening pages of novels, sometimes a writer sends both the prologue and first chapter. I post the opening pages of both and we decide whether either is compelling or not. Prologues seldom win.

Ray

Mark Terry said...

Prologues sure gets some people going. My take on prologues is simple:

If the book takes place in a specific time frame and you want some sort of introductory material or part of the story takes place in a different time or place, a prologue works very well. For instance, in my novel The Devil's Pitchfork, the story itself takes place in about 28 hours pretty much in the Washington, DC area. But I wanted to introduce the good guy and the bad guy, what happened to them, what happened to the bad guy to make him a bad guy, and to do that, I had a scene that took place X number of years earlier during the first Iraq War when they were both Special Operations soldiers behind enemy lines.

Otherwise, I question the value of prologues.

Christine H said...

I am so glad Nathan put this up today! It goes right to the heart of my current dilemma.

I am writing a fantasy novel in which the action is motivated by something that happened in the past, specifically, a civil war. Now, if I were to refer to the American Civil War, readers would instantly have a frame of reference. But because this takes place in a different world, they have no idea who fought whom or why, or who won.

I wrote the first chapter so that it jumps right into the story and I love the way it flows, but my test readers are begging to know more information about what happened before, and about the world and the people who live there, so that they can put the current conflict into context.

So, the other day I inserted some expository material here and there, but think it interrupts that lovely flow I used to have. So now I'm considering a brief prologue - or forward - or whatever you call it. Maybe just two paragraphs, like those words that scroll at the beginning of Star Wars.

But I’m also thinking, “Well, hey, maybe it’s a good thing that they want to know more. Maybe that will keep them reading.” As the book is now, the history from the past is explained mostly in some dialogue in Chapter Two, and also in other dribs and drabs throughout the story.

Any suggestions?

P.S. Feeling both bold and desperate today, I am putting the opening scene, with and without the exposition, up on my blog. So anyone who feels moved to go there and express an opinion is welcome to do so.

adrcremer said...

Nathan,

Off-topic anecdote: There was a line in Dollhouse ep. 6 that immediately made me think of you.

After FBI agent threatens internet mogul, said i-mogul replies haughtily:

"You're talking about taking on the entire e-industry. They'll throw the Kindle at you."

Sarah said...

As a reader, I often skip a prologue unless it's short and absolutely enthralling. In the back of my mind, I'm ready to get to where the real story begins.

I think Terry Pratchett writes prologues sometimes. But then, I adore his books, so I trust his prologues (if that makes sense).

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

A prologue would be good for a historical book or a sequel, but for a novel with completely new characters, there's really no need for a prologue.

allegory19 said...

At first I was thinking "Ugh - I HATE prologues" - But now I'm thinking that I just haven't read a good one.
If a prologue did "set up a false expectation" or "impacted the protagonist in a crucial way" I'd probably feel different about them.

And Rick said it best:
It makes me want to keep reading. I think every page in a good book should do that, regardless of whether you call it Prologue, Epilogue, or Chapter 37.

AMEN!

Sun Up said...

Some of the best books I've ever read didn't have prologues.

But I suppose it's all in how you present it...

Bad prologues make me itch in not so pretty places.

Erika Robuck said...

I'm a prologue junky. I love to read them, I love to write them. They're like literary foreplay--the text is sweeter when you have to wait (just a little while) for it.

Kristi said...

Interesting post - I think Stephanie Meyer may be part of the reason you have an explosion of prologues in your inbox. I do have a short prologue to my fantasy MG novel, however, I was already planning on sending it to my critique group for their "yea" or "ney" on including it with the final version. BTW, I thought the prologue in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS was brilliant.

I am also extremely interested in Bryan's questions regarding short stories, so I'd love your knowledge on that subject. I just finished several adult ones (meaning for grown-ups, not x-rated!), but was starting to look at the submission process for Glimmer Train, etc. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Cussler made a career out of using the prologue, with his classic setup:

Prologue
1593, The Caspian Sea
...
...
...
Chapter 1
Present Day

Several adventure/thriller/action authors have successfully copies this formula.

Yat-Yee said...

I was just mulling over the prologue in The Cabinet of Wonders, whose review I just posted today. I didn't like it initially and didn't know the reason for it being there until the end, when I understood the reason for its existence. I still wonder, though, if the problem could have been solved a different way.

The prologue in Edgar Sawtelle seems to weird and disconnected, but I liked it, maybe because it creates that question in my mind the entire time I am reading, about the relevance of a Korean potion, to the story. Plus it's moody and dark and sinister.

Robert A Meacham said...

I look at a prologue as a narrator before the movie begins, or a voice before the curtain rises. I wrot one for " News At Ten" but is was less than a page long, maybe then it was not even necessary.
I can take or leave them.

E. J. Tonks said...

As far as I'm concerned, the writer could have twelve prologues and a fold-out addendum before chapter one and I'll devour them all without complaint if the writing is good and the story is substantive!

Anonymous said...

Lee Ann said...

A good prologue sets the tone for the book: mood, character, mystery, etc. Think of a good prologue as the equivalent of the introductory music for a musical.


I so agree. Very nicely put.

Roland, Nathan,
Can you please tell me what the difference is between a forward and a prologue?

Thanks.

CNU said...

Yeah... prologues... I 'always' read those... Unless you're doing some sort of 'field work' or something that REALLY needs framing, I wouldn't even bother.


-C

Christine H said...

As a reader, I uses to skip the prologue or introduction to a book (if there was one) and just start reading Ch 1, then go back when I realized there might be something I needed to know that I missed. Now, I read them first to save myself the trouble.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Forewords tend to be either expository information in nonfiction or written by someone else to otherwise introduce a book. (think, a currently famous author writing a foreword on the importance of another author).

Prologues are preludes to a novel.

CindaChima said...

I used to have a prologue problem, but I'm in a program and making progress.

My first three novels all had prologues. They arose out of a desire to provide information about past events in scene, instead of as a flashback (horrors) or narrative or some other lame way.

My next three novels have had no prologues. Apparently I got it out of my system.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I confess, I have a section at the beginning of my novel.I like it. So far others like it -with one cautionary comment about info dump.
(And, we'll see how it fares if it ever gets to the agent or editor stage.)

But it reminds me more of movies that introduce you to some important event first before begining the current story
or those TV shows where they start out by saying:

"Previously, on ER, Heroes, whatever..." and then go into some pertinent details that help you catch up on important past points. Sometimes it is a 30 second drop - sometimes it's a ten minute drop, but I really like it.

Then, I'm INTO the story line with the right information and hooked at the same time.

It works well with acted stories anyway.

Hell, even Shakespeare seemed to like to rant a bit here and there before letting the action begin.

Neil said...

In the hands of a great writer a prologue is a potent tool to pull a reader effortlessly into a book. As I reader I honestly do not give a shit if a book has a prologue or not; if it's good enough I won't notice it's a prologue. It'll just be the gripping beginning of a story I can't wait to devour. On another note, are we saying epilogues are like ending a book twice, then? Because a great epilogue sometimes throws another light on the ending and enhances that ending in unexpected and inventive ways. I say: prologues and epilogues are part of your arsenal as a writer. Like all weapons, they should only be used if absolutely necessary, and you'd be wise to consider their consequences before you brandish them. But if you have the skills and the combat is unavoidable, it's time to fight.

Christine H said...

According to Ask.com, a prologue is the start of the action in a novel, is often a pivotal moment, and requires an epilogue. An introduction is "a framework for what's to follow - the hooks on which to hang the story details."

Word verification: penom -Pen name.

SPITsisters said...

"You're asking more of a reader, so they'll want to make sure it's worth it."

I'm not really fond of prologues, but I never thought about the fact that prologues DO ask more of a reader and, perhaps, are a bit of a cop out. Interesting!

Stephanie Faris said...

I've been paranoid about prologues since first reading your statement against them a few months ago. I had started banning them from my books but then I submitted a romance novel to a publishing house where every book I read from that publishing house had a prologue. I put one in and now I realize I've forgotten my original paranoia about them! I promise the next book I write will NOT have a prologue.

Audrianna said...

I personally can never write a prologue the way I like. Mostly because when I go back and look at it, it makes no sense whatsoever! So, I just play it by ear. If it needs a prologue, I'll add one. But if not, I'll just stick with writing the story.

I do have to admit, though, that I love reading prologues. It gives me a sneak peak into the past or future of the characters - and since once I start reading a book, it's very nearly physically impossible for me to stop - I get to get a little taste of what's to come.

wonderer said...

As others have commented, I think prologues can be necessary but often aren't. World-building information in science fiction or fantasy - as a reader I don't need to know it up front, I'll find out as the story goes on. Character backstory - often ditto. An exception is when an event in another time period or with other characters is what launches the main story. Even that I find much overused.

Scott said...

Personally, I don't use 'prologues' in my writing.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay had a prologue that set the entire tone for the absolutely brilliant (IMHO) book. Without the prologue (which took place years before Chapter One, the 'loss' that is the driving force for the main characters would not have made sense. So, in the right context, I think a prologue makes sense. In the case of Tigana, the sense is implicit.

Sam Hranac said...

I've never been tempted to include one, but there are times when I have enjoyed them. Some novels are a grand meal that deserves an aperitif. If it doesn't serve this purpose then, to me, it is wasted.

Chad Goller-Sojourner said...

I usually view them as I do movie trailers, I’m either hooked or not. The problem arises when I am hooked and later find out that they like many movie trailers promise much more than they deliver or contained all the good parts. As a memoirist I understand the importance of the back story as it relates to the central event. While my title: Sitting in Circles with Rich White Girls: Memoirs of a Bulimic Black Boy speaks to the central event it doesn’t speak to how in 1981 a black boy becomes bulimic. From a craft standpoint I opted to begin chapter one with the central event and then begin chapter two with how growing up fat, black, gay and adopted by white folks got me a seat in Bulimia Camp. Of course I’m also intrigued with how Henry Louis Gates (Colored People) and Judith Moore (Fat Girl) brilliantly mask their preface/prologue as letters, so this may all change. Thanks for this delightful, well written and informative blog; I can hardly imagine the time and effort it takes.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I can take or leave prologues. Like everything else, they have to be written well to be effective. I prefer them when they introduce something essential to the narrative that we might not see otherwise, depending on the POV. The interludes (sort of a prologue to each separate "book") in Robert Charles Wilson's DARWINIA serve this purpose. And sometimes I appreciate them better in retrospect. For example, in George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, I initially thought the prologues were interesting but otherwise unnecessary additions--until I got far enough into the book to understand their importance, and realize that this is what I was waiting for. If the prologue is just there to set up a feeling of suspense--i.e. showing a scene of intense emotion/angst/danger from later in the novel--I'm not totally against it, but I sometimes wonder if there's a better way.

I cut the prologue from my last MS after realizing it was just an excuse to use pretty language but didn't really add anything to the plot, and the opening of my first chapter was stronger. (I kept the epilogue, though, because I felt it hinted at a few of the "what's next?" questions while still allowing for a complete ending.) My current WIP's opening is somewhat between the length of a prologue and a chapter. I currently have it numbered as Chapter 1 but am constantly considering whether I should relabel it. However, I kept it because it sets up backstory with several of the major characters and hints at the motivation for their action throughout the book, and is something we wouldn't get from the main character's POV.

Also, I think when people are confused about sending prologues to an agent, it's because many ask for the first three chapters instead of X pages. They wonder whether the prologue counts as a chapter, or if it's acceptable to send the prologue + 3 "real" chapters. (Give us something to worry about, and we will, you know.)

Nikki Hootman said...

Worst prologue I ever read: 15 super, seriously gripping pages with a really riveting main character. Followed by a novel about someone else entirely, doing something completely different. I got ten pages into the novel itself and quit because it was so disappointing after that super prologue.

Prologues are dangerous. Use with caution!

Anonymous said...

Word verification: amesper. It means I am a psychic who can see where the whole story is headed just from reading the prologue.

Chapter 1
It certainly seems some genres use them more often and better than others. SF&F need prologues to establish the world you've just walked into; they establish what is normal for this world so you understand the MC's life changing experience as abnormal.

Other genres use the prologue to show a life changing event for someone other than the MC, such as the antagonist or even the world at large. A poor use of prologue is adventure stories that use them to establish the macguffin.

-Jon

rms said...

For me, it depends on the prologue. One of my favorites is Stephen King in 'Salem's Lot. The prologue is a glimpse to the end of the story, what happens after, and creates a wonderful need to know how the characters get there. I especially love the brief sentence about the boy going to the priest for confession and confessing everything. As a reader, I wanted to know what had happened to cause such a dramatic event and that drove me into the story.

Just_Me said...

I can't think of a good prologue off hand. I'm sure they exist, I just don't remember them. What I do remember is the bad ones.

When the prologue sums up the entire book between Chapter One and Chapter Last so that you can skip from prologue to the end without needing the rest of the book, that's bad. I want a prologue that sets the stage, not that sums up the entire book.

Christine H said...

I heard one author talk about the prologue of his thriller. Originally, it was Chapter One and contained a pivotal moment in which a building was bombed, but the characters in that scene got blown up and (obviously) the protagonist wasn't one of them. So the editor made him turn it into a prologue.

My current Chapter One was originally a prologue because it contains a pivotal moment for the character, but is separated by the rest of the action in the book by about four months. Now I'm thinking maybe it should go back to being a prologue. Help! My head is spinning.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

I associate prologues with bad writing advice, because I was once advised to add an info-dumping prologue to my work. Apparently it's just what fantasy novels are supposed to do!

But seriously, I think the only time a prologue is necessary is if the story simply doesn't begin with the protagonist. If it's more efficient to set the plot in motion from someone else's point of view, sure, do that before we meet the hero it's going to affect.

Scott said...

As of a year ago I was never going to be an author, let alone get an agent, or try to get a publishing deal. All that changed last March and I had to learn not only how to write a novel (I've now written 6), but how to get an agent (got one in August), and how to promote myself and basically everything else that involves living behind the scenes in the author world.

Did everyone miss this? I found every word absolutely astounding. Six books and an agent in one year, and you never even wanted to be an author?

*tosses pen into the air*

;)

I also wanted to touch on those comments concerning not fully understanding something you've read in a novel until the end. I presume we're not talking about mysteries, as well. I've done this throughout my novella; we never really know what is going on or who our characters really are until the last chapters. There are clues, but some of them try and trick the reader, even though they withstand scrutiny in the final analysis. It was reviewed very favorably on a book review website, although the reviewer first found the style "annoying". But the payoff, well, paid off, and my book got highly recommended.

My question is, are we just too impatient these days to allow books to toy with us a bit? Does everything have to be so straightforward and simplified? I also see a lot of "just tell the story" in writing hints. Jebus, did anyone ask Picasso to just "paint the thing"?

It's becoming a little distressing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifications.

Ink said...

Scott,

I thought that earlier post was a mirage. You know, like when you're in the desert and you see a beautiful oasis with a pool of glimmering blue water and you rush up and dive in only to drink a mouthful of sand? I thought it was like that. Hey, look, this is how Publishing works! I don't trust mirages.

So I'm refusing to admit it's there, and I'm gonna just keep plodding on through the desert. Damn heat.


My best,
Bryan

~Sia McKye~ said...

Pretty much the consensus is, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Personally, I don't have a problem with them when I'm reading a book and most I've read add something to the plot or the tone, or has a neccessary part if the backstory.

As a writer, I've not used them often. I have one story I did. heard sll the hoopla about bad bad writers to use a prologue. So I tried rearranging it into the story itself. Didn't work. It was neccesary where it was. So that's where it stayed.

Karen said...

A well-written prologue can really enhance the story.

The problem is that I have seen too many authors write a prologue that is essentially some portion of an intense scene later in the book that is supposed to make you want to hurry up and get there and find out what is going to happen.

This is beyond frustrating.

In fact, off the top of my head, I cannot think of an actually good and useful prologue. And I read a lot of books.

The debate some of my friends have is whether you can have an epilogue without a prologue.

Bane of Anubis said...

What's that phrase -- "it ain't bragging if you've done it," but damn, that mirage made me feel about the size of a thimble (holes included).

MelissaPEA said...

My critique group had a hard time believing that my MC would do certain things in my novel. I went back and added a prologue that got us into her head based on a childhood incident. Now they believe she would do all those things. If I shove the incident as backstory into another chapter somewhere, it will slow down the action of those chapters. So this feels like a situation where the prologue is necessary.

Christine H said...

I missed that mirage, but now that you've mentioned it, I do see it up there towards the top.

Time for a very large drink of something very strong. And, of course, there's nothing like composing an algebra test and grading 80 statistics assignments to make you forget you ever had a creative life. So, bring on the numbers!

Word verification: Caticom - the hidden device inside cat's brains that lets them communicate telepathically.

Mira said...

Scott, Ink, Bane,

She's doing adaptions. It's a very clever idea, but alittle different than doing 6 brand new books in a year. Lol. Check her website.

Good luck to you, giddymomofsix.

Nathan, what you said about the writer starting over with a prologue - that hit it on the head. That's why I sigh when I see a prologue.

I think your point that if it's not essential, don't include it, is one I agree with.

Sometimes it is essential, and then I think it needs to be extremely well done. There have been some prologues that knocked me off my feet.

Julia from Atlanta said...

MelissaPEA,
your thing sounds like the same type of thing done in Chapter 1 - not a prologue - of The Kite Runner. Not that I am saying it's truly parallel to what yours is. It's just that, I think that works because it IS in Chapter 1, not a Prologue.
I don't mind Prologues, but I write YA, and I don't write them.

Sandra G. said...

What Elizabeth Wrigley-Field said...bingo.

I too read WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and I agree that the prologue in this novel was excellent, likely because how it tied into the rest of the story. It all came back to what Wrigley-Field commented on - it didn't feel like a cheap trick.

Mind you, I've read other prologues and have seen when they do not work for the story at all.

Ink said...

Mira,

See whose website? All I see is desert.


:)


My best,
Bryan

Chris Bates said...

Personally I think they are a cheat when used in my own writing. I get lazy. If I'm gunning to include a prologue it usually means I'm looking to sucker punch the reader because I have a sneaking suspicion that I could lose them in my first chapter because it is overwritten and full of literary ambition!

Solution: rewrite.

However, in other people's writing I tend to roll with it. In fact I expect it in certain genres - mystery/thriller. Maybe the Dan Brown story formula wouldn't have a prayer without a prologue. Perhaps Cussler's scene flow would drown without the historical prelude.

That's their schtick ... so I go for the ride.

Litgirl01 said...

I have never really thought about it. If the author includes one, I just read it. No questions asked.
:-)

Jen C said...

I've always disliked prologues. I agree that they feel like a hurdle and I tend to skim them if they're any longer than a page. I never thought I would write a prologue, ever.

Especially in fantasy novels, I knew that 99% of the time it was historical, and the prologue character wouldn't even make an appearance in the main work. Yes, I hated prologues!

Then, I started my current project, and I added one. In the context of the book it feels necessary. I tried taking it out to see what would happen, and it just doesn't work. My book is historical, and I'm using the prologue to help frame the timeline.

However, it is in the voice of the main character, not an anonymous secondary character, and it's only half a page long. So I hope you will all forgive me!

Mira said...

Bryan,

I think you're joking right? But if you're not, look at her profile and there's a website.

I admire her. She came up with a great idea, and ran with it. She's clearly energetic, and very good at networking and promotion.

But don't forget. She can't write YOUR book. Only you can do that. And that's not a desert. That's a lush field of sunflowers.

Oh. You're a guy. Um, a lush field of....what do guys like. Corn chips? Burgers? A lush football field? :-)

Christine H said...

Okay, I know I've been very chatty today... but I have another related issue: so-called "information dumps," whether contained in a prologue or not.

Perhaps I'm old-fashioned, but I like knowing the set-up before the action takes off. Let me get a feel for the location before we start roaring down the runway and battling terrorists for control of the plane.

For example, I enjoy the leisurely openings of Jane Austen's novels, which give a brief description and history of the characters before their lives are disrupted. Or Tolkein's description of hobbit-holes and hobbits at the start of The Hobbit. On the flip side, The Street Lawyer is so relentless, you never even learn the first-person narrator's name. I lost interest in it after the first chapter. Actually, after the first few pages.

So why must modern writers always jump-start things with some kind of explosive action? Isn't that, in a way, catering to the laziness of readers who don't want to make the effort of getting to know the context of the book?

Just thought I'd throw that out there.

Anonymous said...

NO! Prologues mean one of two things: 1. The writer isn't very good at writing or, 2. The writer is so stupid they can't figure out how to incorporate the prologue material into the acutal storyline. One or the other.

LCS249 said...

Nathan, you are wise beyond your years. Taking something out and seeing if it still works is one of the best pieces of advice a writer can get.

The Ms. S said...

As a reader, I love em!

A juicy prologue makes we want to dive right in. It's like a yummy appetizer before a meal...it promises more deliciousness to come.

Amy said...

I also just started WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. The book has a prologue and is written in first person present tense. I love books like this, but often times in writers workshops I have other writers lambast me for this style. WATER FOR ELEPHANT has made me come to terms there's nothing wrong with this type of story telling.

Good books are good books, whether they are about Vampires or have prologues.

LCS249 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott said...

Lest anyone think otherwise, I give mad kudos to giddymomof6. Cheers, Mira, for doing your homework. Still, whatever her idea, that's a lot of work in a short amount of time and a very swifty move up the ranks.

Still a mirage, though. ;)

Horserider said...

I don't mind prologues as a reader, unless they're one huge world building info dump with information that could've been revealed later inside the story rather than separate.

My first novel began with a prologue that I cut in the first edit. It was just world building and definitely wasn't required in the least. So I guess the real question is: is the prologue important or are you just trying to "set the scene?"

Kathie Leung said...

I'm pawing through the responses, it'll take me near a week to do 'em justice as apparently this is a very hot topic! Like Scott, I'm flustered :::tossing laptop out the window with Scott's pen::: to read the bit about the author with an agent and six novels in a year who didn't even want to write to begin with. However, the "be specific, to the point, don't waste words, get right into the matter, don't overdo descriptions" etc. doesn't fluster me. I'm gonna write the way that it feels good to me. Nor does the whole debate about to prologue or not to cause me angst.

The whole debate has been one that rages on in our writing group and I suspect won't ever cease. Bravo!

I did read a wonderful prologue not too long ago by a fellow writer in our group. His covered a very short span of time when "The Event" occurred that caused the world to change dramatically and thus spiraled into the main thrust of the story. That deserved to be called a prologue. He questioned if he should call it a prologue. My suggestion was to simply title it "The Event" and then number the chapters from that point forward. He liked it and I hope to see more on that story, but I digress.

Some prologues are important, others make you wonder who let them get away with writing it and not just titling it "chapter one." And then like another commenter noted, there are the ones that make you want to itch in all the wrong places (lovely analogy).

PurpleClover said...

See this is probably where I have the most problem.

I started with a prologue that was a flash forward to a crucial turning point in the story. Then chapter one started a week earlier. Then I read prologues are *bad* so I made the prologue chapter one. But then I was advised flash forwards are not pretty to agents (it will be the only "flash" forward or backward in the book). The scene is a great and crucial scene so it must stay, but I can always move it to the correct place chronilogically but then my beginning doesn't pack much punch because its a lot of dialogue and scientific info. I mean I could just make someone die in the first chapter and hope its enough punch to carry it for a bit. ;)

ugh. I'm just so confused.

AW said...

I'm also interested in the concept of an Epilogue. I wrote one for a book as a 'wave goodbye' chapter to round off a few remaining threads (not central to the plot), a bit like the stuff at the end of movies that lets you know that Fred was freed after eight years and became a real estate salesman and Jane ended up CEO of a multinational company, married the major shareholder, and was divorced two years later and now lives happily in the backwoods of Wherever'.

Would you like to do a similar exercise for Epilogues, Nathan?

Ink said...

Mira,

Yeah, I'm just having fun. Actually, I think it's pretty cool what she's done. She had a saleable idea, went with it, put it out there, and was rewarded. That's the name of the game, isn't it? And she seems to be having a blast doing it! That's the ticket.

And I'm still going to pretend she's not there. :) I like deserts. They're, uh, sandy. Very sandy. And hot. Can't forget hot. And sandy.

And a lush field full of Peek Freans cookies (especially those rectangular chocolate ones from the variety bags) and NBA tickets would do me nicely... where it at?

Bryan

Bethanne said...

I don't have a problem with prologues. I usually like them. I might skip it on a second read of a favorite book. Otherwise, it doesn't matter to me if I'm 'starting' a book twice. I mean, I don't even see how that can be true. It's like coming into a house through the side door or the garage door. You're still in the house...it's not a different house. Stairs in the same place, bathrooms all where you expect them to be...you just get there using another route. :-D

T. Anne said...

I do read the prologues. I might even enjoy them. It's flashbacks I won't read, they annoy me.

Amethyst Greye Alexander said...

I'd like you know how you feel about epigraphs, actually . . .

Thanks!
Amethyst

K. Andrew Smith said...

I hate prologues that are near incomprehensible, that are actually from the middle, or even end, of a story.

Inevitably when a prologue is like this, it's written in an obscure way to disguise what is being written so that the reader doesn't understand what's really going on. If the prologue is disguised in such a manner and ends up confusing the reader, then what's the point?

Another thought on prologues: they're often used as a crutch. Authors have already determined where they want to start the story, but can't figure out how to work some necessary information into the narrative, so they take the easy way out and add a prologue. This isn't always the case, of course, but I see it happen far too often for my taste.

I look at it this way: I spend a lot of effort to make the start of my stories interesting, to make readers want to invest their time. Why mess that up with a prologue?

So I guess in general, I'm against them. While they do work occasionally, far too often I find them just lazy writing.

Deb Lehman said...

I like a prologue that creates suspense. The master of the effective prologue is Jodi Picoult. She pulls me right into her stories without seeming repetitive.

Jil said...

I always read the prologue if there is one but if it gives the wrong impression of the book that followsI may not read on. Mark Helprin, my very most favorite author has one in his latest, "Freddy and Frederica." It is written by a fictional character and really piques the interest in and sympathy for the Royal, rather foolish, couple the novel is about. "Pretty Birds" a novel about two girls during the Serb -Bosnia war has a prologue that proves the writer, a war correspondent,was there and knows what really occurred so one never doubts what happens to the protagonists when their story begins..
He did however use one saying twice in both end of prologue and beginning of first chapter which was annoying.

I have never found reason to use one myself, but would if it added some necessary facet to the story that follows.

Lady Glamis said...

Great questions, Nathan! I originally had a prologue in my novel, but made into the first chapter. I have often wondered what you thought about prologues. Now I know. Thank you!

Madison said...

I have three complete manuscripts and none of them have a prologue. I have a trilogy I'm working on and I have a prologue in book one, but that's it. I used to write prologues all the time, then I realized that except on the very rare occasion, I don't need one.

Mira said...

Bryan,

Okay, one lush field full of Peek Freans cookies (especially those rectangular chocolate ones from the variety bags) and NBA tickets for you.

And since you like deserts, I've included some sand.

Of course, in order to get these items, you must write the book.

This is just the prologue.

:-)

JaxPop said...

I think a prologue works if kept short & to the point. I favor them when present day (in the story) is affected by a point in history (a shipwreck 300 years earlier). The trick is tying in the prologue without being redundant.

Anonymous said...

I like prologues if they aren't completely divorced from the opening action of the story, and don't leave me without a clue of what's going on. But I really don't like wondering what in the world the prologue was about for the next ten chapters before the question is finally resolved.

Charlie said...

I’m surprised that so many readers skip the prologue. I understand having a preference, but to intentionally skip it?

I feel that if the author included it, he/she had a good reason. I’ll trust the author and read it. I do not think the author is a bad writer for including one as Anon suggested.

Pro-prologue

YvettesGoneFishing said...

I guess I've been doing it wrong then. I have a prologue that runs 250 words and I don't include it with partials.

I don't want the added drama of explaining a prologue to an agent I'm trying to get to representation with, and I figure if it gets that far--to where I'm being considered--they may very well ask me to dump it anyway.

I start from page one, chapter one.

Laura Hyatt-Author said...

I absolutely loved the prologue of Assumed Identity. It tied in to the rest of the story, but not until the end. It was kind of like two separate stories/worlds collided at the climax. Without the prologue there would have been no basis for understanding the reasoning of the aboriginal people. As it is, it is totally brilliant. Gotta love David Morrell!

RainSplats said...

I don't have a problem with prologues. However, after Ms Snark said she never reads them, I skipped the next one - just to see what it was like. Skipping part of the book??? /gasp.

I haven't read one since.

Moth said...

I think there should be a NB blog prologue contest! :)

Richard Lewis said...

I write pre-prologues to really get things going.

And off topic, my laptop workhorse has the conficker worm. Can't do scans, access the antivirus sites, etc.

Doomed. Won't be online with this tomorrow until I see what's happening.

Of course, it's April 1st here in Asia right now, but I assume conficker goes live April 1st in the West, where it was born.

And I have it on good authority that it is programmed to turn all prologues into Nathan Bransford jpeg headshot photos.

Richard Lexic said...

Love prologues. Love them. Often they are my favorite part of reading a book- prologues are the hook that makes reading the rest of a book worthwhile. Can't imagine people skipping them- the author is obviously setting a tone for the story to come, and feels we need information to help us understand the world-view necessary to make the story make sense

Beatriz Kim said...

Most of the time, prologues annoy me. I love it when the first sentence grabs me and the author is able to include necessary information without a separate, "by the way".

Prologues are great in historical novels. It just makes sense. Especially, if it's good.

But like any writing...if it's bad, cut it out! I'd rather be left wondering a little, than filled with the unnecessary.

Jessica said...

The consensus amongst the writing community often seems to be that, as so many readers view prologues as unnecessary and skip them, you should never put anything in your prologue. Which always seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me. Not putting anything important in one's prologue for the benefit of readers who dismiss them as unnecessary will lead to...wow! Unnecessary prologues!

I always read prologues and remain baffled by those who don't. I haven't yet written one but, based on the above advice that is always passed about, I want someday to write a prologue that is so packed full of vital information that the reader who skips it will be lost.

World prologue domination will be mine....

Writer from Hell said...

As a reader I have never (abs never) liked prologues. It is like you said starting a story twice..... to read the same story actually.

Mostly I see it when some incident happens and then the story starts 20 years later. Though I wd have preferred it as a flashback woven intriguingly into the story - purely as a reader!

Nixy Valentine said...

I like it when writers (especially mysteries and the ilk) include a little bit at the beginning from the POV of the villain.

If a prologue is use correctly, they can add a bit of intrigue. Many times they're just a short "Chapter 1"

Word verify: plogly (describes my mood today perfectly)

Writer from Hell said...
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Writer from Hell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christine H said...

Okay, I think I have to clarify something I said earlier, now that I have figured out the difference between a Prologue and an Introduction.

I don't skip reading prologues, because they are part of the story. I skip Introductions. Then, if I find there's something I'm missing that might be in the Introduction, I go back and read it.

As a reader, I tend not to like prologues because they seem too gimmicky, as other people have mentioned. Unless they are well-written and not too far divorced from the main action of the story.

I dislike prologues/epilogues that frame the story in some kind of flashback mode, making it seem as if the rest of the book is just filling in the gaps between the covers.

Prologue: "As I raced along the cliff edge with the monster behind me, I couldn't help thinking that I never should have opened that darn box from Aunt Dora, or wishing that the UPS driver had had a heart attack on the way to my house..."

Epilogue: "So now I knew that the monster behind me was really the UPS driver, and wished to God he'd had a heart attack on the way to my house..."

Sophie Beal said...

I worried I was the only person turned off by prologues. I also like happy endings.
I think I'm an American reader trapped in the body of a Brit.

Heather said...

I've always wondered, "Why not just make the prologue be chapter 1?" (And the same goes for epilogues.)

Okay, I don't always wonder that because sometimes I like to think about shoes, but most of the rest of the time I'm pondering that question of life.

Haarlson Phillipps said...

Thanks for posting this, very timely. I'm currently grappling with this very issue. My writing group all said, "You need a prologue to show the events which are told in the first chapter dialog. Switch tell (dialog)for show (prologue,")they said. My trusted readers all said, "No! What have you done? You don't need the prologue - it detracts from the reveal in the first chapter dialog." I've got three weeks to sort this out before it gets printed up as an ARC. Your post is helping. Regards.

Kimber An said...

A good prologue is a rare and beautiful thing. My suggestion to other aspiring authors is to try very hard not to include one at all. 99% of the time they're not needed and/or indicated sloppy storytelling later on. Try to include the information in the story itself. If you can't, go read some books with excellent prologues and emulate them in writing your own.

B.E. Sanderson said...

I like prologues, if they're done right. They're like the appetizer course. As such, they should prepare the reader for the main meal. Most of the time, you can skip the prologue and still savor the book - but the right prologue can make the experience that much more enjoyable.

mcpolish said...

I do like a good prologue...but only, like I said, if it's good. I see it as a delicious little taste that gets me excited to read the rest of the book, that hooks me in - I want to find out what they're talking about!

Sheryl Tuttle said...

Great post - thanks. I've linked to your post on one of my blogs as you've said it as well as it can be said.

Writer from Hell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Writer from Hell said...

As a reader, the hardest section about a new novel is starting it. The first few pages tend to be dreary till you connect with some character or something in the book and then its fun. Prologues do make the starting more (just a little more) tiring.

Epilogues are lovely coz though a book feels nice if it ends on an intriguing note, its still reassuring to know everything ended happily ever after.. ah the fairytale end magic can never go stale. - just a reader

Stephen D. Covey said...

I'm normally against prologues, but I've even recommended one for another writer in my critique group. The problem was that her first chapter failed to establish the genre - there was no hint of SF.

And we MUST establish a contract with the reader, so he/she knows what the story is about, its style, its genre, tone, even language, violence, sex. And if the story starts where the protagonist's life is changed, perhaps those other details won't be introduced until fatally late.

So use a prologue (if absolutely necessary) to set the tone and genre of the story, if Chapter One fails to do that.

ML said...

The prologue to Tigana was one of the best I've read. I have nothing against such pieces as that where you can get a sense for the characters in them and get a sense the book. That prologue almost made me cry!

I think it's sad to say no one should bother with prologues, because I think then you'd miss on some really good pieces of literature, but at the same time, a lot of them tend not to be necessary.

As long as people think about why it's there, and they feel it adds more than it subtracts, I don't care if people bother with them. If I don't like it, I skip it. If I do, I'm a happy camper.

litenup_rach said...

funny you should choose "prologues" on this incredibly bright sunny south florida day that the universe has seen fit to address this particularly crucial, timely, annoyingly relevant, and aggravatingly challenging topic.

ok... so this is my very first entry on your oh-so-cool blog -- btw - love it... can't live -- or write -- without it... gotta have it.

btw, please forgive my use of lower case -- i think i broke my finger playing basketball with my son last night and it's swelling to unmanageable proportions; lowercase minimizes pain.

i have been struggling with this 'prologue' thing for about six months on my 'halfway-there' memoir. i have read and reread your criteria for 'do you really, really, really' need it' and the answer is 'yes, nathan... i really, really need it.'

to wit, my guinea pig test subjects also seem to agree...it is definitely required writing on the front end.

but this isn't the worst of it... my dilemma is even larger than the 'to be' or 'not to be' prerequisite...

before i share, you have to promise not to run from the room, holding your sides laughing and crying in gut-wrenching hysterics... promise??

ok, then... here it is: my 'prologue' is 87 pages long...

hheyyy, no fair... you promised ;(

"ok," you finally manage to blurt out after pulling yourself together... "what the %&##% were you thinkin?" "are you begging for rejection?"

well, no... i don't think so, although i do tend to be a glutton for punishment. but here's the thing: or 2-3 things --

1. without this 87 page 'prologue' -- btw it is a 'dream sequence' -- there is no memoir... it is my 'raison d'etre;'

2. i do not want my readers to know it's a dream sequence until they get to the first chapter -- oops, too late for those interested in taking a looksey; since i spent the entirety of my formative years reliving someone else's past, it's crucial to the story that the reader lives it too;

3. the first chapter 'gently,' brings the reader to the 'here and now;' btw, though i use the word 'gently' so as not to irritate an otherwise already touchy subject -- the actual time change is obvious and powerful;

and lastly, what in god's name do i send if asked to submit the first 30 pages? the beginning is really good stuff but it doesn't get to 'my stuff' until the first chapter.

it was suggested to me recently, that instead of using the conspicuously claustrophobic term 'prologue,' to go with 'overture', then use musical references for all subsequent chapter headings.

another suggestion was 'prelude' although i felt like it sounded too much like 'prologue' and might be skipped by readers who just can't eat an oreo without first licking the creamy center.

i must admit, i do like 'overture' - seems like an 'acceptable' solution for an otherwise untenable situation...

but i really, really, really would appreciate your comments and that of your incredibly perceptive and well-thought out community of bloggers...

nathan and bloggers... thanks for sharing your insightful, witty, and really uplifting blog and comments... it really has been the only thing that has made me laugh, and think, and not give up the last couple of days.

Kate H said...

I have nothing against prologues per se. Your criteria for whether one is necessary sound good to me. What makes me get into a prologue is the same thing that makes me get into the story itself: wonderful writing, with a taste of characters, a world, and a story that I want to spend hours with.

Ink said...

Litenup,

That seems less like a prologue and more like a First Act. Or Part One? I like books with interesting structure, so the overture idea is interesting. And call it a prologue or not, I doubt a reader would skip the first 87 pages. And if it's that long, and that's how you start the book, then that is definitely what you should send an agent. And in your query that division of fantasy and real would probably be clear, anyway, so the agent will know what's what before they start. Frankly, the idea sounds great.

Best of luck with it,
Bryan Russell

litenup_rach said...

ink,

you have single-handedly reduced my stress level worrying about it and my query to zero... thanks for your comment.

btw - when i first started writing it, i was sitting in my jacuzzi at night with the rays from the amber street lights slicing through my shadowbox fence.

the vision is that of the beginning of the dream which was written with the intent of eventually turning it into a play or screenplay, or both.

your astute 'first act' observation is mucho, mucho gusto ;)

thanks ink... that's one 'thumbs up' for keep it and 'overture.'

hey nathan, any points in the author's bio and/or platform paragraph of a query for a blogsite 'voting' consensus?

just thought i'd ask... heh, heh ;)

Gale Sypher Jacob said...

One of my favorite prologues is the one to TUCK EVERLASTING by Natalie Babbitt. It makes you want to dive into the book.

Anonymous said...

I'd read in other professional blogs and sites that prologues are a 'no-no,' and that they are a sure sign of an amateur. I was made to understand that prologues are unnecessary, and if they contain anything worth reading it should be in the book, not in a prologue. This was distressing to me, since I've always enjoyed reading a good prologue. I like the way it sets a mood for the story.

Then, over the last couple of years, I started paying a lot of attention to the books I was reading. I found that about 90% of them had prologues, including some that were represented by the 'pros' who said they would never look at one. Go figure. I think you really just have to write what the story needs, and forget about outside opinions. Anyone who says 'never' in this business, probably shouldn't be in this business. The English language has suffered some horrific blows at the hands of artistic best-sellers. So what? I'd take the paycheck. That's why I'm off to start my next manuscript. Right. Now.

melissablue13 said...

I'll probably be hanged for saying this, but a prologue is essentially backstory. Why start your book with backstory? If you first page can't set the tone then you've got bigger problems. I've never read a prologue that couldn't have been deleted. Not saying they can't be entertaining, just saying that you should put all that effort into the first page instead.

knight_tour said...

I've never understood why so many dislike prologues. I've seen some good reasons to have them. I love the prologue George R.R. Martin has in his first book of the tremendous Song of Ice and Fire series. It is necessary as a prologue because it doesn't fit into his normal pattern of each chapter being told from the POV of one of the main characters.

Shannon Gugarty said...

The concept of the prologue has always been an iffy one for me. A prologue can make or break a book. I'd much rather keep the reader interested in why this character is the way s/he is. What happened to his mom? To his brother? Why is she so rebellious, anyway?

I choose not to include a prologue in my works. They take too much away and many find it too much effort to read it.

Mara Wolfe said...

I believe prologues are good, when they're not just used as information dumps. Science fiction and fantasy novels are the most at fault for this: writers think they can explain the entire world in a prologue and it only serves to confuse the reader.

Leis said...

I GROAN every time I see PROLOGUE, groan and wince, argh! Why, oh, why?

(In case I was being too subtle: I hate Prologues.)

Carol Kean said...

Leis, I'm with you (hate prologues) and love your sense of humor ("In case I was being too subtle: I hate Prologues.") I hated the prologues in the Twilight series but those books made me think, "I write better than this," and so I wrote a 94,000-work novel in 4 months. With a prologue...

Carol Kean said...

Leis, I'm with you (hate prologues) and love your sense of humor ("In case I was being too subtle: I hate Prologues.") That said, I just wrote a novel and then added a prologue. It sets up so many things in only one page. I hated the prologues in the Twilight series but those books made me think, "I write better than this," and so I wrote a 94,000-work novel in 4 months. With a prologue...

Samie said...

I read this prologue before and it was so good that it made me want to start reading right away! but if its like a quote before a chapter, I would skip it. I know they take a lot of time choosing the right one, but i'm more interested in the actual story. i think prologues are used to get the setting up maybe let a bit of the future leak out to the reader

Star-Dreamer said...

I must admit, I am a prologue writer... but before any of you "prologue haters" jump down my throat, just let me say this: I don't write a prolgue for my book unless I deem it absolutely nessesary. And if I use one, I do deem it nessesary.

For instance, in the MS I'm working on currently, the prolgue not only provides backstory (in a sense of action, btw... because I do HATE those prologues that are just aimless thoughts without meaning) but it also has important facts that will be tied into a sequal. I did try to take the prologue out and include the info later, but it didn't work... seriously. And the info was too important to the story to leave it out. So there you go.

But in another book, I do use a frame method, where my MC is several hundred years old (no, not a vampire or anything like that... and not an elf either. *lol*) and she is thinking back on her much younger years. For this particular story, though, it is a very relevent and important fact that the whole story is basically a memory for her... sort of like "Water for Elephants".

I do enjoy reading prologues on occasion... the Prologue to "Eregon" was certainly a hook for me... but it really depends on the writing more than anything else.

So that's my outlook on the subject anyways.

Tomara Armstrong said...

I alway skip the prologue (If the book I am reading has one). If the book was good, I will usually go back and read after I have finished. It's like I am trying to squeeze in that little extra love for the book I didn't want to end.
~2

Breeze said...

In my soon to be published novel there is a prologue...the protagonist is motivated her entire life by events of her childhood however the story is actually of her choices in her adult life. So the prologue is one pivotal revelation in her life that reveals her motivation for her behavior. To write her entire childhood story would have made the book too long...at 100,000 it's already lengthy so...oh, and it's a literary romance, if that matters :) Some of it is brought out during the story but the editor thought it needed more so we went with prologue. I think it works.

Breeze

Anonymous said...

How about starting the novel with a quotation?

And then moving into a prologue?

And then commencing the novel proper with a dream sequence in which the protagonist wakes up, only to discover a moment later that this was itself a dream, and that the protagonist has really been dreaming about having a dream?

In chapter two why not reveal that the whole thing is just a story within a story anyhow, and that what we're really reading about is a person who is writing a novel?

Maybe we could toss in a vampire for good measure?

Or how about a zombie love triangle?

Or better yet - a story about a lawyer/detective who was once a zombie, but has now become a vampire, and is presently dating a werewolf?

I've got a better idea - why don't we all just slit our wrists and hang ourselves... it would be the fastest and the quickest way out.

The Goose.

Linda said...

I think if you write a prologue, it's best to keep in mind that half your readers may skip it.

I read them grudgingly, if at all.

Sebold's "prologue" in THE LOVELY BONES is a ten line, double-spaced paragraph that took five seconds to read, and it was beautiful, lyrical and oh-so-perfect.

Irene said...

I usually skip the prologue, author's notes and introduction and go right for the first chapter. You know what I'm thinking...the best story tellers start a story smack dab in the middle--then they have a choice of going forward or back or both.

Ginger Simpson said...

A prologue is only as good as its written. I think they have value at times, especially if you are introducing some critical backstory that would otherwise slow the story's pace. I certainly don't detest them enough to skip reading them as some have indicated they do.

Anonymous said...

Prologues have their place, but not every book needs one. My big complaint is when the prologue is too long. I don't want to wait until tomorrow to get into the meat. A good prologue may take the place of the darned-almighty flashback that would come later on and put a big speed bump in the way of a smooth read.
A prologue can be good or bad. No fast rule.
My project is a trur crime. I had a published true-crime author look at my first several chapters, and he said I should use the first chapter as a prologue. I changed it, showed it to another household name true-crime writer who said not to use a prologue, nobody reads them. So there you are.

Karen McGrath said...

Prologues annoy be because it's the story before the story. But when I wrote my recent novel, I added one half way through. Why? It was the one crucial event that gave the reason for everything else and released me from writing a bunch of boring backstory.

I made sure it mentioned at least one mc. I loathe prologues that don't and leave you hanging for chapters on end for some kind of connection.

My prologue is integral as a prelude. The story is not as salient without it, so it stays and the novel sold so I have to keep it now! But as a reformed prologue complainer, I'm eating my words and loving it.

Karen

M Clement Hall said...

It's a facile way to do back history -- which probably condemns it.
Elmore Leonard, who knows a thing or two about writing, includes Prologues in his list of things not to do.

CindaChima said...

I used to have a thing for prologues. My first three books (in a series) all had prologues. My next four books (new series) do not. Maybe i got it out of my system.
I think I tended to use them to deliver backstory in scene, because I was working so hard to avoid flashbacks and narrative.

The Editor Devil said...

As an editor, I will consider prologues if they serve as signposts of something important to come that otherwise couldn't be melded into the text.

Like if there's a lake filled with alligators, there'd better be a "Swim at Your Own Risk" sign at the shore.

Otherwise, I tell writers there's a delete button. (or copy and paste for those softies).

Teresa said...

No I do not like prologues. Capture me with Chapter One. I want to go on the journey of the story - I don't want you tell me.

Laurie Boris said...

It depends. Often I don't like them, especially the ones that get me invested in a character who is killed off by the end of the prologue. Urgh, that's annoying! If they're short, to the point, get me interested in reading more or fill in some vital character history that would drag down the main story, then they work. Otherwise, I just zip to Chapter One. I used them in my earlier novels; now I simply begin the story.

Janny said...

I have been a fan of good prologues for years, and I've got at least one story that has one. I like them. It's a dandy way of giving the reader a precipitating event prior to the story's taking place, but one which absolutely affects the rest of the story and how it will unfold. I've got one in my (singular) published novel(which rights have now reverted to me...sigh) that absolutely riveted pretty much everyone that read it. So I figure I must have done something right. :-)

OTOH, the worst prologue I ever read was 43 PAGES LONG--no, I am not making this up, and it wasn't manuscript pages, it was BOOK pages. The event in the prologue actually occurs/unfolds about halfway through the story, and by that time, frankly, you don't care. It also contained a glaring, absolutely incomprehensible error (to anyone who'd done a scintilla of fact checking). If that had been the first time I'd ever encountered a prologue, I, too, would run screaming away from them!

JB

verification word: "gewcapel." That's got to be usable somewhere...

Kim Batchelor said...

This couldn't have been more timely as I have a prologue dilemma. I intended the 1 1/2 page prologue to place the reader (this is a middle grade) in the narrative by suggesting that the story could be happening just next door. Now I'm considering dropping it. Nathan, you say to send it, but my concern is that the prologue might "kill" the agent's interest simply because he/she doesn't see it as I do. Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Guys, we get it - the word verification when posting a comment can sometimes sound funny.

Presently, mine says dontbesobloodyunoriginal.

Mary Malcolm said...

I believe in prologues if they are well written and integral to the telling of the story. I've written four novels and only my current one has a prologue. I use it to blend two parts to the story: the first part where the character faces major familial issues that began long before the book begins, and the second part where the character's life is still in termoil but has reached an entirely different point of impact.

Chapter one by itself is very strong and compelling, but gives the impression of a book going one direction, when really, it is only the beginning of part one. With a book broken up like this one, I felt readers may develop a complete misunderstanding for what to expect. By tying things together through the prologue, I hope their expectations are suspended long enough for me to establish that each part of this story is essential to this character's development and growth.

But if someone chooses to skip past my prologue, I won't be offended. I expect prologue skippers also tend to read ahead to the last page of the book (impatient types, and all) at which point you'll gather the information I give in the prologue anyway.

And either way, you are still reading my story. :)

Anonymous said...

I hate when there are huge prologues, I usually end up skipping them because I want to get to the actual story. I usually don't find this bad for me. What I like the most are the reall short ones, only a few paragraphs and no more than a page long. If the prologue is forever long, I'll skip it. I just don't like long ones!

Shadowfang said...

Though this oes explain some things I need, I feel somehow a aching horribleness about cutting to a new scene in my prologue.

NO! I SHALL NOT DO THAT! I SHALL CONTINUE! It is merely silly that I would want to do that to my beautiful Prologue, though sometimes I wonder... :(

Then again I live Prologues to bits and always include them when I can, because "CHAPTER 1" is such a horrible phrase. "Prologue" sounds much more sophisicated, that's why I put it in fantasy more often.

Only read one or two prologues, or skipped them, but they seem to make the characters seem more THERE so everyone, "MAKE PROLOGUES BETTER, OR IF THEY ARE TRULY BAD, THEY DO NOT FIT."

There we are, thank you for telling me this great information about prologues, and your opinions on it are inspirational. :)

bluerabbit said...

I skip prologues, and usually books that have them. Their presence signals a type of novel I don't enjoy. It's just a matter of personal taste. No book is for everyone.

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