The use and misuse of prologues

It seems vaguely appropriate to talk about prologues in the first month of the year.

If you’re a fantasy reader, odds are you’ve read a prologue. They’re a standard part of the architecture in epic fantasy, and also crop up in other types. But they aren’t as common as they used to be, because it seems that a lot of people just skip over them automatically, or refuse on principle to read any book that has one.

Probably because a lot of them suck.

“Epic fantasy prologue” is far too often code for “boring infodump.” Is it any wonder that readers start flinching away from them? But I don’t think it’s fair to make a blanket rule of ignoring all prologues — much less all books with prologues — because they can be used effectively. To illustrate, let’s look at the prologue to a widely-known book that could have very easily gone the infodump route: The Eye of the World, the first book of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

The infodump version would have told you that however many thousands of years ago, ambitious magic-users accidentally cracked open the prison of the Dark One, and there was a war, and all the male magic-users went crazy and destroyed half of the world, and then Lews Therin Telamon killed himself, Dragon Reborn, etc, etc, snore.

Jordan had the sense not to do that. Instead, he gives you this: Lews Therin wandering, insane and lost, through his wrecked house, calling for his wife. His enemy showing up and trying to talk to him, but it’s no fun hurting a guy who’s crazy, so he forces Lews Therin to be temporarily sane. Lews Therin realizing the body he just stepped over belongs to his wife. Horror. Rage. Suicide.

End scene.

That’s a scene. That’s characters, conflict, tension — uh-oh, what do you want to bet that body on the floor is . . . . That’s infinitely more interesting than something out of a badly-written history book.

Writers infodump in their prologues because they don’t know how to integrate that information into the body of their narrative, or they’re afraid readers won’t pick up on it there. (Or the info’s irrelevant, but they can’t let go of it.) That’s one way to go wrong. The other is when the prologue is indistinguishable from the rest of the book, and you wonder why it isn’t just labeled “Chapter One.” I’ve heard writers talk before about turning a prologue into Chapter One, or Chapter One into a prologue, and I usually think they must have labeled it wrong into the first place. Because in my mind, those are two very different beasts.

A prologue should be set off from the rest of the narrative somehow. It takes place some time beforehand, or maybe you’re trying the delicate trick of giving us the end of the book first. Maybe it has a different pov character. It shows something important to the main narrative, something you could give to us later on, but it will be more interesting if we see it happen.

It shows. We see. Because for the love of little fishies, give me an actual scene, give me compelling characters and their conflicts just like you would in the rest of the book, or don’t give me a prologue in the first place.

That’s how I feel about them, anyway. But it seems like people have pretty polarized opinions about prologues, so I figured I’d consult the SF Novelists hive mind, both writers and readers. Have you committed prologue? Do you read them or avoid them? What kind do you like? What kind have you written?

(Yeah, I’ve got a dog in this fight. Midnight Never Come opens with a prologue, and that will probably be true of all the books in that set. So my curiosity has a purpose.)

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  1. 1. Pedro Pinheiro

    Just like you said, the prologues that I love the most are the ones that jolt us into the story, kicking and screaming in incomprehension. The unavailability of information when the story starts makes some books very hard to read, but so more enjoyable when the pieces start slotting into their places. As an example, it took me a “leap of [literary] faith” when I started reading Iain M. Banks Culture series. I’m glad I took the plunge! :-)

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    My gut feeling for prologues is pretty much the same as yours. Generally the info can be much more gracefully introduced in the rest of the book. Even if the scene is as dramatic as the one you cite, it often turns out to be irrelevant.

    But every once in a while there’s a good one, which makes you whisper wow! and read on. Which is why we have prologues in the first place.

  3. 3. Karen Wester Newton

    I figure a prologue is a contract with the reader: here’s an interesting situation/problem/conflict. The rest of this book is going to resolve this situation/problem/conflict, even though it has a different voice, possibly a different tone, it will finish what the prologue started. To live up to the contract, the prologue has to indeed be interesting and the book does need to tell us what happens. I see a prologue as an appetizer– different from the entree but not conflicting. It should make you hungry for more, not overstuffed already.

  4. 4. Anna the Piper

    I like me a prologue perfectly well if it has some ultimate bearing on the story and is also interesting to read. I’m right there with you on it being a conflict-filled scene, perhaps set earlier than the main action.

    And yeah, I’ve committed acts of prologue in works I’ll be trying to send out for submission, myself. *^_^*;;

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Sam — I actually don’t mind if the information contained in a scene-style prologue comes out later in the story. Sometimes the characters all know about what happened there, so we avoid the perils of “As you know, Bob.” Sometimes they don’t know, but it’s way more interesting for me to watch the events happen and then get a brief note that the characters have been told about it, rather than the far-less-engaging approach of exposition through telling. The prologue approach gives more depth and richness.

    Karen — yeah, that’s about my feeling. It can be a subtle level of situation/problem/conflict, but ultimately, there should be some reason that scene deserves to be the first thing I see when I open the book. If it isn’t a central piece of the story, or at least that first pebble that started the avalanche, then I object to giving it so much prominence.

  6. 6. JJ

    Prologues should be used sparingly and to good effect…like flashbacks. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think a prologue written as a scene (as opposed to the portentous “In the days of old, a prophecy arose that blah blah blah”) works best (brilliant writers can break this all over the place, of course). I still generally skip prologues but that’s more of an ingrained habit than anything else.

    My friend’s novel includes a prologue (she’s a literary fiction writer, not sf/f) because the central event of the novel is a character’s death, but the actual content of the novel is about how that death affects everyone else. I find her prologue completely acceptable in this case. :)

  7. 7. Kelly McCullough

    I’m with you on this, mostly. There’s another kind of prologue that you don’t mention here–the second, third, nth book, summary of what has come before. Or…you tuned in late here’s what you need to know to read this book without going back to previous books.

    I haven’t done one of these myself, preferring to bring that stuff in within the main story, but I appreciate them as a reader. They save me effort and stress if I haven’t read the previous books, or haven’t read them recently. And I can just skip over them if I’m read up. In fact, they’re designed to be skipped over in such cases.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Kelly — True, though I actually don’t think of it as a prologue per se. I kind of wish people used that device more often, honestly. Give me an up-front, undisguised synopsis that I can just skip over (“Previously, on Epic Fantasy X . . . .”) instead of a really plodding first few chapters or a narrative that requires me to re-read the entire series every time a new installment comes out.

    Mind you, that’s still my second choice, my first being gracefully integrated in-story reminders. But if an author can’t manage grace, then cut through with a synopsis.

  9. 9. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I did a prologue for Path of Honor. Didn’t want to. I wanted that information integrated, but it couldn’t be without giving a rather difficult and clunky flashback. So I wrote it as a scene and made it as short as possible and as active as possible. Did it work? I’ve not heard any complaints, but I’m not sure I would have, especially if people just passed over it. Shrug. So six of one, half-dozen of the other.

    I read them always. But I know other people hate them with a passion. I hate long ones, and those that require me to remember a whole lot.

    Di

  10. 10. Marie Brennan

    I hate long ones, and those that require me to remember a whole lot.

    A long prologue kind of violates the principle of “teaser” — though in later books of the Wheel of Time Jordan tended to use them as a means of re-establishing where all the characters were. (I think prologues in an ongoing series can be used differently, as Kelly pointed out.) And if it requires you to remember a whole lot, it’s probably behaving more like a history text than a novel.

  11. 11. Maggie Stiefvater

    Great article, Marie, and I agree. I don’t think there is ever a reason a novelist should break the rule “show, don’t tell.” If there is information that you just can’t manage to get into the mouths or thoughts of your characters, it probably doesn’t need to be said.

    My editor asked me to do a prologue for my novel, LAMENT, because it was far hookier to open from a POV other than my MC.

  12. 12. cyn

    i have a prologue in my first novel.
    it’s not an info dump. it’s a situation that
    took place two decades ago which adds
    depth to my hero’s story. one doesn’t
    have to read it to enjoy the rest of the tale.

    i’ve always seen the prologue as a
    “perk”. i do tend to read them.
    thanks for a great post and discussion!

  13. 13. SMD

    It depends for me. I’ll read a prologue if I’m reading a work for a publisher, but I’ll make note that it is a prologue and address the story as if I hadn’t read it. If I’m reading something for my own enjoyment or I’m reading the work of a friend for critique I am very harsh on prologues. I won’t read them during fun reading time, and if the story can’t survive without it then the writer isn’t doing his/her job, in my opinion. I hate prologues. They serve almost no purpose other than to provide information that the author thinks the reader needs, but the reader doesn’t actually need. You don’t have to tell me something that happened in the past or behind the scenes…your characters can figure that stuff out on their own, as they should anyway, and it’s sort of annoying to know what’s going on and have to read about the characters figuring it out…I also hate when prologues are used to introduce characters that aren’t an integral part of the book itself…a friend of mind did that and it really was like reading a pointless section of the book because none of what happened there showed up in the parts I read. He later told me that it all gets answer in the last book, but I still question why he needed the prologue in the first place.

    But I’m rambling…I’m just not a fan of prologues…

  14. 14. Marie Brennan

    He later told me that it all gets answer in the last book

    For me, that’s way too late of a payoff.

    it’s sort of annoying to know what’s going on and have to read about the characters figuring it out

    That’s kind of what I was trying to address upstream in the comments: my preference is to see the interesting scene, and then get a brief acknowledgement of it later (NOT a complete rehash) when the characters learn it, so I get the fun of the showing without the boredom of going through it twice. The one exception is if you get a different perspective on that event later on. Sure, you could just tell me about it later, but some things, I think, can be more interesting when shown as full-fledged scenes, instead of boiled down to their basic components in the later narrative.

    If that makes sense.

  15. 15. Alma Alexander

    My own (writerly) experiences – I did a prologue for the book that became the Changer of Days duology – and that means that now, since the thing has been split into two books, I have a prologue for #1 and #2 just launches straight into the story after what was an unintentional cliffhanger ending for #1 (uninentaional because it was meant to be the end of a CHAPTER, not the end of the first book…) The prologue in question, the one that now sits uneasily and asymmetrically at the beginning of ONE book but not the other, was a scene which takes place before the book’s story starts to unfold, and it sets up one of the critical premises of the book without going into detail. But knowing of the events in the prologue is definitely a bedrock for the rest of teh story – and this belonged in the prologue because it WASN’T part of the story, it was outside of it, the foundation of it. It worked as it stood. I still wish they would have published these two books as ONE volume, as I originally intended. It would have worked better then.

    In “Secrets of Jin Shei”, I didn’t have a prologue at first, at all. I wrote practically the whole book without it. And then something seemed to become… necessary. This prologue is not a separate scene that took place otherwhen and otherwhere from the rest of the book – it’s an introspection, something that both serves as a basic introduction to the foreign concept of jin shei and links ever so delicately to the end of the book – because at this beginning (which is a quote from my main protagonist’s journal, and obviously fairly late in life) and at the conclusion of the story the protagonist in question has obviously lived a long and interesting life and is reflecting back upon it. It works, as bookends.

    I would not do a prologue just *because*, and I do think (wearing my readerly hat) that infodumpish prologues are positively dangerous, enough to make me want to stop reading the book before ever I got to the story…

  16. 16. Elf M. Sternberg

    I have one book with a prologue. I’m rather proud of the prologue, because it’s a scene that does the 10/100/1000 word thing rather well, is written in a different voice from the rest of the novel, and is a complete piece of misdirection. It takes the view of one of the protagonists, who’s convinced that the Great Evil is out to get her– only for her to learn much later and to her great disappointment that she’s not a primary actor in the great crisis. (Oh, but in book two, she is, and then she isn’t, and then…)

  17. 17. Phil

    I’ve been wrestling with the idea of keeping my prologue ever since I read Elmore Leonard’s gentle injunction that they be integrated into the body of the novel.

    The reason I wrote it was because it sounded themes that I hope will resonate throughout the rest of the novel. If my book were a piece of music, then I see the prologue as a chance to open with the first motif, which then recurs more subtly throughout, each instance of which is enriched (I hope) by that first occurrence.

    Thank you for writing this post, Marie. My prologue seems to match your requirements, and as such I find myself greatly reassured. It’s short (700 words), is told in the first person POV by the character for whom the protagonist searches for throughout the novel, and recounts a terrifying experience he had when he was young.

    I’m going to keep it, and hope for the best!

  18. 18. Marie Brennan

    Of course, the thing to bear in mind is, no matter how good and justified your prologue, if it ends up in the hands of an agent or editor or prospective book-buyer who simply does not like them, you may put them off before they get to the rest of the narrative.

    It’s a risk you take, as with many other artistic choices involved in writing a novel. (Some people hate first person, for example. Not much you can do about that.)

  19. 19. James Alan Gardner

    It’s also a cliché to go the other way: the prologue that kills someone bloodily just to start things off with a bang. (A poor meaningless peasant is chased by something nasty in the forest. Now THAT’s what makes me want to skip to Chapter 1.)

    The point is that a prologue should be essential, not just tacked on for exposition, melodrama, or anything else. Ideally, it should also be short. I can stand a page or two of almost anything, but I lose patience quickly if I think I’m just getting froth.

  20. 20. Marie Brennan

    That too. Prologues that try too hard to be “hooky” (killing a character off or whatever) usually end up feeling like so much of a gimmick that they fail.

  21. 21. Sam

    Most memorable prologue for me (ok, it’s called a prelude in the book) is easily Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia Spring. Somewhat stretching the definition, it certainly stands on its own merits, but the shock when 113 pages later you reach the end of it and “the real story” starts is a bit of a surprise.

    It did however set the scene for the tone of the trilogy.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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