Why Prologues Get a Bad Rap

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Today’s post is by editor Tiffany Yates Martin (@FoxPrintEd).

“Always avoid prologues!”

“Agents hate prologues.”

“Readers won’t read a prologue.”

The advice in the writerly ether concerning prologues is vast and … well, not varied. Most of it revolves around telling authors simply, “Don’t.”

Yet riffle through a handful of books on the shelf at any bookstore and you’re likely to see at least a few prologues—many of them in bestselling books and classics.

So what gives? Is there a cabal of rogue prologuers defying the injunction? A secret password certain authors get that allows them to break this inviolate commandment?

Are prologues okay or aren’t they?

As I say in my book Intuitive Editing, like sharks, snakes, or bears, prologues aren’t inherently bad; it just depends on how you encounter them. A well-drawn, well-used prologue can set a story up and even become a definitive part of it:

“Two households both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.”

These first two lines of Shakespeare’s prologue sonnet can only ever evoke the entire story of Romeo and Juliet.

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

Just these few words in the signature opening crawl of the Star Wars prologue can set fans’ hearts fluttering (ask my obsessed husband).

But prologues have developed their dangerous reputation because often authors fall into one of several common traps in using them that diminish their effectiveness.

Why prologues fail

Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each unsuccessful prologue is unsuccessful in its own way, but what they have in common is often that they are used as some form of “cheat”—shortcutting the actual work of storytelling to circumvent potential pitfalls.

This type of prologue abuse can take several forms:

The backstory dump

Authors may use a prologue as a chance to “bring the reader up to speed” on backstory they feel the reader needs to know to understand or invest in the story. This can result in a slow, backward-looking beginning that can fail to hook readers.

As an editor I often suggest that whatever backstory may be essential to set up the story or characters may be more effectively woven in as context as authors plunge readers into the present-moment main story and move the action forward.

The exciting-event preview

Often a result of the writing advice to start en medias res, this type of prologue opens right in the middle of fervid action that may or may not directly relate to where the main story starts. I call this the “Stick with me—I promise it’s going to get good!” prologue—when an author knows his first chapter may not have a strong hook and tries to make up for it by slapping something more exciting in front of it.

This can often take the form of a dramatization of some story event later referred to in the main story, something that happened in a character’s past, or even a “sneak peek” at a high-stakes scene from later in the book that the author randomly sticks at the beginning like a “coming soon” film trailer.

The bait-and-switch

In this type of prologue faux pas, readers are drawn into the story laid out in the prologue, only to start the “real” story in chapter one that seems to bear no direct connection to it. This can feel like an annoying piece of misdirection that may leave readers disconnected from the main story as they busily try to connect the dots, or simply feeling unmoored, uncertain of what the story is actually about.

The preamble/stage setter/dramatis personae

Like the description of settings or list of characters at the beginning of a play, this type of prologue mostly concerns itself with establishing something: a setting, a tone or mood, a world, a key event, a character or characters. Used unskillfully, this can result in a dry, static story opening that lacks a hook or forward momentum, and may have readers bored and putting the book down before they even get started.

The rabbit hole

The reader turns the first page of the prologue…and then another…and another…and another…and before too long they’re paging ahead to see when the story actually begins. The endless prologue risks losing reader engagement, or taking them so far down a path that may not reflect the story they thought they were reading from the description or synopsis that they give up, frustrated.

Prologues that successfully break “the rules”

What can make prologues so maddening is that many of these techniques can actually work very well, used proficiently and according to genre expectations:

  • The Star Wars and Romeo and Juliet openings cited above, for instance, are actually backstory dumps—but they follow prologue best practices for creating a strong hook: they’re brief, essential, and set up pivotal story stakes and conflict.
  • Mysteries, suspense, and thriller stories often use a seeming “bait-and-switch” opening scene—for instance, a character who meets an untimely demise—to set up the central plot, like the hunt for a serial killer.
  • Tolkien commits rampant scene setting, backstory dumping, and rabbit-holing in his Lord of the Rings prologues (he has four!) that establish the Hobbits, their pipe smoking (!!), the Shire, and the Ring, respectively—and in damned lengthy fashion.

Using a prologue effectively and well means being aware of what makes them work—and what makes them fail. It’s understanding how to make them essential, intrinsic, and give them a powerful hook and forward momentum; as well as how to meet current reader, genre, and market expectations.

A prologue can open the door to your story and entice the reader in, or throw up a barrier that delays or prevents their engagement. If you learn to use them deliberately and effectively, there’s no need to fear this potentially powerful tool for your stories.

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