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The Use of Prologues in Your Writing

A few weeks ago I did a post on Trilogies and Series that elicited a number of great comments, and when I say great I mean they gave me ideas for new blog posts (something I ALWAYS need).

One reader made this comment:

I’ve read an author (maybe David Eddings?) who had prologues at the start of his books so new readers could get up to speed (or for those of us that had forgotten). Is that accepted these days? It makes sense to me and would seem a perfect example of when to use a prologue.

While I think that would be acceptable, prologues can be especially tricky for authors and I think that’s the reason so many agents (and editors) will warn against them. In this case, I would say a prologue gives an author an easy out. If you’re using it to catch the reader up on information she’ll need to enjoy the book, be wary that it doesn’t become an information dump.

A prologue, like any opening to a book, needs to catch the reader’s attention and suck her into the story. An information dump isn’t going to do this. My suggestion would be to learn to weave that information and those bits into the story and throughout the story first. If you’re struggling with one massive piece, maybe play with a prologue, but don’t ever decide that a prologue is the best place to introduce readers to the entire backstory of your series or trilogy.

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5 comments

  1. For me, prologues should never be a “catch-up” story element. You don’t want to give any reader an incentive to not bother with the earlier bits of the story. Anything detailed in a few pages of prologue is going to be on the level of general remembering someone who has read the previous books will pick up quickly with brief mentions in the current story anyway. So, don’t do that, would be my non-expert advice. What they can do, I think, is provide a story element that adds something important, whether for character or conflict or whatever that would be otherwise difficult to present in the narrative of the story as its structured. As an example, in a story I wrote, a past event is detailed that represents a major emotional development for the main character. In present day as the story unfolds, one is presented with the m.c. in a far different state of affairs. The goal being to make the reader question, “How the hell did this person get from there to here?” And that question is one of the major elements of the story. Now, whether that works or not remains to be seen, but the point is, the prologue should be relevant to the coming story and not something that can be effectively written within that narrative, because otherwise one should do just that.

  2. I’ve never done one, but each I’ve ever read was essential information needed to enjoy the book. (Guess I’ve been lucky.)

    Question. Years ago I started a story, (I’ll get back to one day) and I wanted each book to start with a made up legend. Its about 3 paragraphs and I envisioned an almost Star Wars type thing. “In a galaxy far, far away…”

    Would this fall under prologue? Be accepted (so long as it was good) or having such at the start if each book, more a distraction? The legend does plays a large part of each book.

    Thanks again for another great blog post!
    Happy Tuesday!
    🙂

  3. Good topic for me right now. I’m working on a new book, and the heroine is a supporting character from another novel. She takes the story further (of course the novel will be perfectly enjoyabale as a stand alone too, since I kinda resent series), but still, Girl met Boy in another book. I like my main characters meeting in their own novel, and on the very first page at that – second at the LATEST. But I’m struggling a bit now, since their first meeting happens a good while before the actual plot of this book (in this novel destiny brings them back together; no, they aren’t exes, it’s a case of unrequited love on her part until this book). I think a short prologue of 3 pages max would be the perfect fix, but do you guys think this would turn agents and publishers off? I’d be grateful for your guys’ ideas.

  4. I think juggling the balance between revealing enough for new readers and not too much to bore old readers is a very difficult skill. I know I get frustrated if an author whose series I am familiar with goes on too much about the backstory for new readers. But at the same time I get frustrated if I am not familiar with the series and the author seems to assume I will have read all their earlier works. Fine line and I do admire those who nail it well!

    Ana: I think in your case you wouldn’t want to use a prologue because you will lose the tension/conflict for the heroine. In your case I would drip bits of their initial meeting into the story to reveal more about who the characters are and why they are acting as they are. If the heroine has unrequited love she might remember moments from earlier tenderly, while the hero might be flippant. I think this is a very different situation to a series where the characters carry-on (for example, David Eddings – mentioned in the example listed by Jessica above – wrote fantasy with the characters continuing on a quest over multiple books). Yours is a new story where the heroine just happens to have appeared in a previous book.

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