Prologues: Use Them or Avoid Them?

Lately I’ve been seeing posts about prologues. Evidently some readers, agents, and editors hate them. Some well-know writers use them. Many readers skip the prologue and go straight to chapter one. New writers are often told to avoid using them, to label their prologues as chapter one. Who’s right?

I’m one who believes there are no rules in writing. Oh, there are traditional ways of doing things. Preferred ways. But I’ve read many books that break tradition and do it well. I would hate to tell a writer not to use a prologue if a prologue works for the story.

The question for me is why have a prologue? Is it necessary or is the writer being lazy?

Some writers, especially new writers, feel they must let the reader know what happened to make a character think/act/feel the way he or she does, so they write a prologue showing whatever happened to create that person. Usually this is simply backstory, an information dump that could be revealed in other ways throughout the story.

Some writers want to hook the reader with a dramatic scene that will occur later in the book, so they put the scene, or part of the scene, in a prologue, and then chapter one will start with something like, Five days earlier or Fifteen years earlier. The idea is the reader will want to read the story until they reach the time when the prologue occurred. This technique is often used when the early chapters of the book are not dramatic, but are necessary to show what builds to the more dramatic scene. Some movies even use this technique. And some readers really hate it. It’s like foretelling.

Because writers have heard that editors and agents won’t look at submissions that have prologues, writers have tried to get around that by labeling the prologue as Chapter One. But, if Chapter Two starts with Five days earlier, have they really avoided a prologue? I guess it gets those people who skip prologues to read the material, but if it’s not essential information, the reader is still going to be disappointed.

The thing is, some prologues do work, and many successful writers do use them. So what makes them work? In my opinion the prologue needs to be something that couldn’t easily be worked into the story at a later time, isn’t used as a teaser to get the reader to read on, and gives the reader important information. I also believe a prologue needs to be short. Three to five pages max.

What do you think?

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26 Responses to Prologues: Use Them or Avoid Them?

  1. Diane Burton says:

    I recently read a book with a prologue that had essential info that I totally missed because I skimmed it. I’m not fond of TV shows that begin with a dramatic scene then after the usual show intro skips to 5 days earlier. It’s a gimmick. Perhaps because it’s so popular on TV, novel writers think it’s okay. I’d rather start at the beginning.

    • Maris Soule says:

      That’s how the majority of readers feel, Diane. However, sometimes there is material the reader needs to know that can’t be related later in dialogue or a flashback. In that case a prologue may be warranted.

  2. I’ll share my opinion… after I go back and make sure I’ve never used a prologue. 🙂

  3. I don’t have strong feelings either way as long as the information in the prologue moves the story along. I tend to think of prologues as more appropriate to plays, an introduction that is more informal and sprawling than the story itself. I’ve never used one, but that could change.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Susan, how do you use them in a play? Plays usually start with actors on stage moving the story forward. In books, I feel as you do. I don’t skip prologues, and as long as they add to the story, I think they’re great.

  4. I think a prologue is like any other part of the story and it should have a specific purpose to fill. But of course, I would feel that way since I’m using them in a series. My prologues are used to show the perspective of 6 different peoples POVs to the same event. Each book starts with the same mission but from a different main characters POV. Because that mission changed each person’s life in a certain way. So the prologue is important because it sets that person off in a different direction. So yes, I believe they do serve a purpose but the writer has to decide what that purpose is and if it’s important enough to use the device. And I haven’t used them in my other books.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Teresa is sounds as though you’re using the prologue as a key part of the story. You’re an example why to use or not use a prologue depends on the story and how it’s used.

  5. Nancy Gideon says:

    I love prologues but don’t always use them. If I do, I use them as a set up, a scene that grounds what happens but is never re-explained or re-traveled later in the book. It’s a hook and I don’t apologize for it. In my latest book, I went without one and BETA readers complained about being lost in Chapter 1. Added prologue-problem solved. Guess it depends on the situation and the writer/reader.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Nancy, the fact that you don’t repeat the info that in the prologue later in the book and not having a prologue leaves your readers wanting one shows it is necessary.

  6. Melissa Keir says:

    I agree with you… if the prologue provides important information, then it’s good… if it is fluff… skip it! 🙂

  7. I’ve used prologues in some of my novels where they seemed the right way to begin. But you’re correct. They aren’t always necessary plus agents and editors consider them old-fashioned and unnecessary.

    • Maris Soule says:

      As you’ve indicated, Jacqueline, prologues can make it more difficult to convince an agent or editor to read the manuscript. If it’s not really needed, why make the submission process more difficult?

  8. Jami Gray says:

    This is such a tough question, because you’re right in there is a time/book for a prologue. I write UF and Paranormal Romantic Suspense. To be honest, in my first UF I considered a prologue, but then realized I could weave that same information throughout the rest of the story–so nixed the prologue. On the fourth book, I did do a prologue that occurred years prior to the actual story, but I did this because the relationship in that scene was vital to the rest of the story. I don’t have prologues in my rom suspense, but I’ve read plenty who do, and most of those contain vital info to mystery in the story. So long answer, short: if the story needs, use it.

  9. As a reader, I usually skip prologues for one of two reasons: either they don’t reveal anything important about the story, or they do. In the former case, they make me impatient. In the latter, I’m uneasy that they’ll take the edge off any surprise that I might have enjoyed discovering later on.

    As a writer, I haven’t used a prologue yet, although I’ve been tempted. Go figure…

  10. ann bennett says:

    In high school, my mom allowed me to read “The Godfather” with the caveat I would be careful not to let my younger sister read it.
    I caught my sister with the book and I absconded it. I said, I hope you didn’t read much. My sister says, Don’t worry. I read the good parts.
    The more I learn about writing the more I agree with there are no real rules. Just make sure there are plenty of good parts. lol

  11. I wrestled with this question for my current work in process because I wanted to give a voice to a character that would not get an in-depth introduction until Chapter Four. My prologue is less than half a page long….it will be interesting to see what happens if my submission is accepted and an editor goes to work on it.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Pat, obviously you feel it’s important to have that information up front. It will be interesting to see if an editor leaves it or asks you to drop it.

  12. Carole Price says:

    Prologues are annoying only because I’m eager to get into the story. That’s why I sometimes skim them. I also read all that other info first, i.e., about the author, other books she/he’s written, dedication, etc. I can see where prologues would be useful in a series, although I don’t use them.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I would think, Carole, that a well written prologue would draw you into the story, but I just started reading a book with a prologue that almost made me decide not to read the book. Maybe the information is important, but it bored me. It’s chapter one that’s drawn me into the story. I’ll see later on if I think that prologue was important or not.

  13. Sandy Parks says:

    I prefer prologues to be important information to the story and reveal something about the character(s), however, on one book my agents really wanted to see a dramatic piece from the middle of the book put in front as a teaser. Not my choice, but it was so short, I don’t think it really bothered anyone. So, I guess the moral might be, whatever you use, keep it brief.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Interesting, Sandy, that it was your agents who wanted the prologue. And I agree, if a prologue is short, I think people will read it. Make it long, and it will be skipped unless it’s absolutely fascinating.