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Why You Need to Rethink Your Prologue

Over the years I’ve had a lot of authors ask my opinion on prologues. My response has always been that if the prologue doesn’t move the story forward you have no need for it, but the problem with prologues is actually much bigger than that.

When agents and editors talk to unpublished writers and give their opinions about prologues it’s important to remember that much of the advice they’re giving is based on submissions we receive. Sure, prologues appear in published books all the time, because they’ve been done well. When we tell authors to avoid prologues at all costs it’s because in 99% of the submissions we receive the prologue is a detriment to the author and the writing. Most importantly though, it sounds exactly the same as every other prologue in our inbox.

In my submission piles, thrillers are by far the biggest prologue offenders, because almost every single one of them is a variation of the same story. It’s a killer and a victim. The killer is either killing or we see the victim’s POV, she (usually a she) is trapped somewhere listening and waiting for the killer. Put your own spin on that, but if you have any slight variation of that prologue, dump it. Write the book and make it sing without that prologue and then go back to see if it’s still a necessary piece of the story. Because if every book starts out that way, your book isn’t different.

I recently read a prologue that every author should read (it’s actually an incredible book as well). The Dry is a debut mystery by Jane Harper and it’s incredible. I couldn’t put this book down. I was also blown away by the prologue. It was the inspiration for this post and gave me that ah-ha moment of what prologues should be and do. They should set the atmosphere and give you insight to (in this case) the gruesomeness of what’s ahead and/or what’s behind. In this case the author could easily have written the perspective of the killer. She could have taken the easy way out like so many do, but she didn’t and I don’t know that I’ll ever get that prologue out of my mind.

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5 comments

  1. A very interesting subject for me, especially at the moment. My debut novel originally didn’t have a prologue, but my editor felt it needed one (!!) She said the genetic engineering dimension of the book needed hinting at in the beginning, and she wanted to have that foreshadowed in the prologue. I was surprised, as you might imagine, but I did it (I loved doing it), and my editor seems satisfied – she’s got her teeth deep in it right now.

  2. I’m surprised to hear thrillers are the biggest offender! (obviously I don’t read many…). As a fantasy writer, I’d always assumed we were the worst – epic backstory and history and world-building the reader just *has* to know before meeting the protagonist.

    I find a lot of WIP fantasy prologues sound overly similar, as well. A city or monarch is threatened, or there are monsters, or a baby is smuggled away.

  3. I don’t have prologues in my writing because a) they aren’t usually found in a cozy and b) I’ve heard the mantra “don’t use prologues” enough to be wary.

    But as “The Dry” is in my TBR pile (on my bedside table which is the next-to-be-read of my TBR piles – I have a scary number of unread books), I’ve just now moved it to #1 spot to be read next. Looking forward to reading and will try to focus on the purpose of the prologue and not get sucked into the story.

    Thanks for the recommendation of what is a ‘good’ prologue, Jessica, because I’ve always wondered.

  4. My historical novel, “The Naturalists” Vol. 1, starts with first person chapter. The entire book switches to third-person voice until the last chapter, which returns first-person voice. The same holds in Volume 2. The final Volume (in outline) will be entirely first-person delivery. I am interested in your thought(s) Do you consider this example as a prologue?

  5. I was avoiding a prologue but when I finished my latest thriller, I realized there was something missing–a scene that happened before the story started, that sets up the bad guys. I put it in, and I think it works, but now I’m rethinking it again. This job is not for the faint of heart!

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