The Great Prologue Debate

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Oct 12 2010

How do you feel about prologues? I’ve read arguments for and against them, but I’ve not seen the issue from an agent’s POV. I am leaning towards one for a novel I am starting, but if they are a current no-no in the publishing world, then I don’t want to sabotage myself immediately. You may have addressed this question already, but I couldn’t find prologues listed on the “Labels” section of the blog.

Well, I can tell you from conversations with colleagues that many agents hate them. Frankly, I never had much of an opinion about the prologue until I started talking to other agents about them and reading some of them more carefully.

The truth is that many writers use a prologue as a convenient way to introduce backstory without doing the work it takes to weave it into the book. Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to write a scene than to slowly unravel the information through the main plotline. I think prologues can often be predictable and lazy. Lazy for the reason I already stated; predictable because I see the same prologue over and over. Thriller writers, for example, love a prologue that introduces the killer making a kill. I’ve seen it a million times.

I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast rule for or against prologues. I think you just need to make sure it’s as important to the story as every chapter you’re writing and not something you’re doing because it’s easier than the alternative.


43 responses to “The Great Prologue Debate”

  1. ha ha I get your point my editor just made me turn my prologue into chapter 1 and do away with my backstory and my manuscript looks stronger for it.

  2. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Unfortunately, prologues get a bad and unfair rap.

    They're extremely difficult to write well. I've only read a couple of good ones in the past four years as a book reviewer.

    I think this has led to a lot of people to automatically hate ALL prologues before they actually even read them. That's sad, but in a hurried world that happens to a lot of things.

  3. Avatar MadDabbler says:

    I love a mystery with a short prologue full of foreshadowing, that drops hints like puzzle piecces and then puts it all together during the story.

    Anyone have thoughts on something like this?

  4. I always write a prologue then write the book and try put as much of the backstory from it into the book.
    Then I go back and see how much of it I need. So far I haven't needed to include a prologue to any of my books.

  5. Prologues often seem gratuitous to me. It might make more sense to write the book first, including the woven backstory, and then, if you feel it might entice readers or set a particular "mood" for the book, write the prologue last and see if it is necessary at all.

  6. Avatar Erika Marks says:

    MadDabbler, I will admit to being a fan of that structure too, and maybe that's why I've used prologues in the past and only recently become aware of the debate for and against them–arguments I can absolutely understand both sides of.

    But I think like most things in writing, it's case-by-case. Like you indicate, Project Savior, sometimes a prologue can reveal itself to be superfluous once a novel is finished and then the decision for the writer to use or cut their prologue is already made.

  7. Avatar Cheyanne says:

    I've skipped over every single prologue I've ever seen.. ever.

  8. Avatar Lance Albury says:

    Prologues, semi-colons, italics, dialect, etc.

    It seems some readers like to find things to gripe about. I believe it points more to our lack of maturity as readers. Try reading Uncle Remus.

    Just read. If it's good, it's good; if it's not, it's not.

    There is NOTHING wrong with a prologue done well. It has a legitimate purpose in writing.

  9. I wrote a prologue to my first ms. It helped better inform me, the writer, of the main character's background. It did nothing for the story. I deleted it before I finished the draft, but the information remained as motivation for the decisions the character made.

    The only prologue I can remember of any worth is Pat Rothfuss' offering in THE NAME OF THE WIND.

  10. I just added a prologue to my ms. In my defense, I did it to get rid of the flashbacks and overabundance of backstory in the ms. I added 5 pages and I've so far cut about ten additional from the ms. The story flows better and it's got more punch.

    I think, if used correctly, a prologue is a good tool. If used incorrectly, it detracts from the whole book. Which is why, as Lauren suggests, I write the story first and if I spend too much time with getting backstory out I go back and write it into a short prologue.

  11. I've only used a prologue once and I wrote it after the novel was finished. The prologue is only a single scene which takes place fifteen years earlier than the story. I can't imagine taking it out because of how gripping it is.

    What's the difference if you call it "chapter one – fifteen years earlier" or "prologue"?

  12. Avatar Charli Mac says:

    I get the lazy writing bit, totally. Most of my favorite Best Sellers have prologues. Like blockbusters made into movies best sellers.

    I have one too, it's about a page long. For me it leaves an air of mystery as to what is going to happen later in the book. It's of the hero at a cemetary and you don't know who he is visiting. You just know that he loved "her" very much.

    My old prologue was a six page flashback. Yeah, totally lazy. LOL.

  13. Avatar MadDabbler says:

    Thanks, Erika. I'll leave mine where it is because it works with the story. I appreciate the feedback!

  14. Avatar Cora Zane says:

    I was taught in school that the prologue could be skipped, that it was something in addition to a main story.

    Personally, I like a prologue if it ties in with necessary information that will be later revealed in the main plot line. You sometimes see it used this way in thriller movies. Something important happens such as someone is chased to their death, dies in a car crash, someone vanishes, etc.

    Who and why isn't explained in the prologue scene, but later on you discover that character is tied to the plot in someway that affects the protagonist and creates a burst of forward momentum in the plot. That's my idea of a well executed prologue.

    If it's merely showing a sliver of some past event that has a bearing on a single character's motivation, but does not directly affect the plot, I feel like it works better as a flashback.


  15. I read a lot of science fiction. A prologue can be very useful in those circumstances to set a stage and provide dry detail that would bog down the story.

    It also can keep someone from feeling overwhelmed in a fantasy or SF story where you jump right into it.

    I used to skip prologues, until I read White Dragon (McCaffery) without reading the two books before. I had to go back to read it to understand what was going on, it was so intertwined with the previous books. That's another use for a prologue, especially for series, to set the stage without repeating everything that came before.

    I've grown to like them and haven't skipped one since. I'm also willing to put dry and specific science fiction detail in an appendix, so the hard core fans of that kind of thing can get the specifics without giving every reader a lesson in nuclear fusion.

  16. I've heard 2 rules of thumb when it comes to prologues:

    1. They need to be short, otherwise it's just heavy info-dump. Short and relevant to the story.

    2. Going off #1, they need to be relevant to the story. If you took out the prologue and the story still makes sense, you don't need the prologue.

    I've seen some prologues that work really well, and the examples I'm thinking are all short (3-4 pages max) and there's a time difference so it makes more sense to do a prologue instead of chap 1, 1870s, chap 2 present day kind of thing.

  17. Avatar Anonymous says:

    My POV, we could skip the prologues and add hundreds of pages to cover that part of the story, but don't we have issues with word count too?

    Personally, I love to read them. A lot of the time they throw pieces of info that drastically change the way you read the story. (Such as in 'The Shack'.)

    And I do not have one in my MS. I was able to do without it.

  18. The question I tend to ask: is the prologue necessary both the internal and external arcs?

    I'm not saying it can't ever be used to simply, say, set the mood–if it works it works–but I'd let it sit and scrutinize carefully before going in that direction.

  19. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    LOL…I almost always WRITE a prologue, and my editor almost always has me take it out. The funny thing is, after the book is written and I am doing as my editor instructs me to, I almost always realize that the prologue wasn't necessary. I think when it's an event from many years before that you feel can't be done as back story within the manuscript that a prologue helps, but in most cases, as Jessica says, it's a lazy way of doing back story.

    I've used them in my DemonSlayers series to set up the legend that the stories all sort of work around, but even then I was asked to remove the legend info in my later books and work it into the story. I did that, and it seems to work just fine.

  20. If prologues work so well, why not two or three of them?

  21. Avatar Amy B. says:

    Yeah, I agree with you. Prologues are one of the writer's many tools, and if a writer misuses it, it's not the fault of the tool.

    I have a particular loathing for what I call the "Twilight prologue." You know, the short paragraph or two about a scene taking place at a climatic moment far into the book which the author uses to try to hook you into a story that has very little tension or action for hundreds of pages. It was in use before Twilight, but I blame its resurgence in my query pile on the series. I hate it because it's such an obvious trick. It's like someone pointing and gasping, "What in the world could that be?!" and then going "Ha, ha, made you look!" when you turn around. When writers fool me, I prefer they do it with more skill and finesse.

  22. Avatar Anonymous says:

    On the other hand, Amy B, Twighlight was in best seller status for a very very long time, so it must work with the readers. And don't we need to do what we gotta do to sell?

  23. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Wow, I got a little carried away with my gh's. *Twilight*. haha

  24. Avatar Bethany says:

    I don't think I have a real opinion about prologues. If they're there, I read them, if they're not, then I don't worry about it. I don't really have them in my stories, (although first draft of one story I did, but then I changed it later into chapter 1), but for me, whatever is there is what I read.

  25. Avatar pooks says:

    Many readers skip prologues and don't read them at all, which is a good reason to call it Chapter One if you really need it.

    As for Twilight, I always assumed that it was an editorial move because they realized it had a slow opening and they needed to give the readers a reason to keep reading.

  26. Avatar Amy B. says:

    Anon 11:39: Well, that's only if the whole of Twilight's appeal lies in its prologue. I don't think it does, and I'm sure many who picked up the book skipped past the prologue and loved the book just the same. As I said, a prologue is a tool and writers need to carefully gauge which tools they should use. I simply feel that because of the success of Twilight, many writers who query me simply copy the Twilight prologue format without actually thinking about whether or not it is right for their story.

  27. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Amy B, anon 11:39 here. It was definitely not the whole appeal of Twilight, but like Pooks said, it let you know there was action to come, and for the readers that don't buy books based on recommendations like I do, I think that is a good promoting tool in some cases.

    I think my biggest deal is to get everyone off the absolutely no prologue kick, like some on here obviously are.

    And MadDabber I totallly agree.

  28. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    I prefer stories without prologues. For me a good story starts with action, in the story now, and continually moves forward, propelling me along with it. As a reader I'm willing to go along for the journey and let things unfold as they should.

    Prologues are about the past. That material can easily be woven into the ongoing story. I think for many of us, the prologue is information we the author need to know but it isn't necessarily as important to the reader.

  29. Like any other tool, prologues can be used well or poorly. There is no answer for ANYTHING in writing that will be right 100% of the time.

    That said, I usually find them superfluous. The effective ones usually relate some event that happened before the start of the main plot, but that is necessary to know in order to fully get the story. However, there are many cases where it's better to just integrate that backstory into the main narrative. Killers killing is a cliché; murder mystery readers already know that sort of thing is going to happen. And if a prologue is used to set mood, perhaps the writer should examine their writing in the first few chapters and figure out how to convey that mood there.

  30. Avatar AE says:

    I don't much like reading prologues in general. Unless it's a literary masterpiece. And even then I have to agree with Jessica, it tends to be a cop-out.

  31. Avatar mdal says:

    I'm not a fan of prologues. I agree they *can* be done well, just like all the techniques that become distracting writing ticks when taken too far or applied poorly. The problem is that most don't know how to do them well…but don't realize it.

  32. One of Elmore Leonard's no-no's.
    If you are in the driver's seat, you can do as you please. If not, best to avoid what some persons will take a skunner at. Can't see that a prologue is ever essential. Mostly it's used to get a lot of back story up front, which is not the smartest thing to do.

  33. Avatar ryan field says:

    I usually read them last.

    If I love a book so much and I start to miss the characters when I'm finished, at least I can go back and read the prologue. I think of prologues as bonuses.

  34. I have no feelings on prologues, except the people who don't read prologues "on principle" make me crazy.

    The thought of anyone skipping my beginning freaks me out. I've only written one prologue so far, which definitely could have been skipped, but if I write another, my readers have to read it.

    I really like prologues in thrillers that make me sympathetic to the killer. It was a thing, for awhile.

  35. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Don DeLillo, Underworld. 50-some page prologue. Best part of the book. Skip it and you miss out on a whole lot through the rest of the story. The label is not the thing.

  36. Avatar Sheila Cull says:

    "easier than the alternative," great point Jessica.

  37. Avatar Victoria says:

    First, I cannot imagine skipping reading any part of a book, especially the beginning! I assume if a prologue is there, it's there for a reason, and I've never yet read one that didn't somehow provide a necessary bit of backstory, or introduction.

    I happen to like prologues in mysteries, because they often, in pithy brevity, present the 'crime', or an insight into the murderer's soul, or some neat emotional or atmospheric beginning.

    My thoughts are, a prologue should be used for a bit that would not be enough for a full chapter, and yet is so distinct that it doesn't work as a scene within a chapter.

  38. Avatar Ajay Pandey says:

    Sometimes, story needs the background. For example, if a thriller is written where every plots and sub plots are covered in three days, then there are some backgrounds, which happened earlier. And that is meant to be told in a prologue. In that case, the prologue is not only a good beginning, but a complusory start for a good novel. So, it cannot be discarded by an author and should be rejected by publisher or agents. The only rider should be that it has to supplments the story.

  39. Avatar B. A. Binns says:

    I'm not an agent, I'm no expert, but I have judged a lot of writing contest entires in the last three years. Many of them have prologues. Most would have been better without them. Good and necessary prologues – I think I've seen two. Prologues as backstory dumps – the vast majority. There is a third area, really good prologues. Prologues so good they are there own stories. So darn good that when I reach chapter one I'm disappointed because I had invested in the people and situation of the prologue only to have it yanked away from me. It was difficult to make myself emotionally invest in the new situation, and probably wouldn't have done so if I didn't feel an obligation to read the whole thing.

    I've ripped out my two manuscripts that began with prologues. And I will do major soul-searching before I ever try to use one again. It's a cure that can be worse than the problem it's meant to solve.

  40. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I don't write in this genre, but I would have thought that a murderer making a kill (your example) is chapter one rather than a prologue.

    I think this anti-prologue stance by agents is laziness itself.

    Of course, the ultimate example is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone. Wonder how many prologue-hating agents turned that one down.

  41. Avatar L.C. Gant says:

    I think prologues are a lot like writing in 2nd person: tough to do well and amazingly easy to screw up.

    I often write prologues and epilogues in my rough draft as a way of helping me flesh out the story. It's always good to know what happened to my characters before Page One.

    I have yet to keep them in the final version, however. Just because I know the info doesn't mean my readers need to.

  42. Avatar philip says:

    "A prologue must stand as its very own story, only it ends with an unanswered question. The main story answers this question."

  43. Avatar Anonymous says:

    As this discussion has only mentioned prologues (and not epilogues) I have to conclude that there is some semantic confusion going on; that many people are talking about 'introductions.' Yes? How come no mention of epilogues? The two go hand-in-hand. How can you have an epilogue and not have a prologue. Like any good art, it's a question of balance. Do those readers who skip the prologues skip the epilogues as well? Jeez. That's scary, man … scary!

    Does anyone watch the Tour de France? You know, Lance Armstrong? The bike race? That has a prologue, and it counts, and if riders don't participate in this prologue, well, they'd be illegible for the rest of the race. And that would be a pity, hey. It's the greatest race in the world.

    The point about the Tour de France prologue is this: it's shorter than the other stages, or chapters, or whatever you want to call them. It's a bookend, if you like. That's why the epilogue as well. Tremendously useful. They can facilitate a jump in time, a different narrative voice, lots of things. Invariably they're critical to the story. And yet people skip over them? Jeez! Skip my prologue and you'll be struggling. Skip my epilogue and you'll be lost. You won't know what's going on. Nice when it all falls into place on the last page, don't you think?