To Prologue or Not

During a writers’ meeting the topic of prologues came up. One writer wondered if he should use a prologue for his story. I immediately said “No, don’t do it.” Another writer questioned that, which made me stop and think about my response.

I’m always telling others there are no “nevers” in writing, so why shouldn’t he use a prologue? Or, why should he?

At conferences, I’ve heard many editors and agents tell writers not to use a prologue. I’ve also heard readers say they usually skip over a prologue, only to go back to it if they feel they’re missing something in the story that might have been in the prologue. (Sometimes they discover they should have read it, other times, they say, it didn’t help.)

Back in 2015 I blogged about this subject. Prologues: Use Them or Avoid Them  A google search shows several blogs on this subject, indicating it’s a question writers often face.

So, do you need a prologue?

 Usually a prologue (which comes from pro logos “before the words”) is to give information (background of a major event, motivation for the main character, or the description of an unfamiliar setting/world) that a reader needs to know before the story begins.

  • If a reader can skip the prologue and still follow the storyline without any trouble, then NO, a prologue is not needed.
  • If you can work the background information in throughout the story, then No, a prologue is not needed.

IF, however, you feel a prologue is necessary:

Keep it short. You’re asking the reader to pause before getting to the real story, so less is better.
Keep it concise.
Keep it essential.

Think of the question this way: If your story were made into a movie or a play, how would the prologue be handled?

With the first Star Wars movie, the prologue (setup for the story) was written on the screen as the battle progressed behind the words. In many scifi movies, a narrator gives the necessary information as the camera pans over the setting. Or, it might be a short scene—a boy seeing his parents killed in front of a movie theater—which gives motivation for later decisions (becoming Batman) in the movie.

In each of the above examples, the words (written or spoken) and the short scene helped the audience understand the events that followed.

So, yes, a prologue may be necessary, but don’t be surprised if readers skip over it or if a publisher turns it into the first chapter.

I used a type of prologue when I submitted the manuscript for As the Crow Flies. It was simply a box with information written inside.

P.J. Benson,C.P.A.
speaking on
2:00 p.m.
Friday, June 12 

It was on a separate page, prior to Chapter One. The publisher changed the layout to:

Chapter One of As the Crow Flies

Both the publisher and I felt the information in the box was necessary, but the publisher moved it to Chapter One so it wouldn’t be missed.

So should the writer who wondered if he should use a prologue do so? Maybe…or maybe he can describe the worm-hole and new environment his protagonists steps into just as easily as part of the story. That will be his decision.

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24 Responses to To Prologue or Not

  1. Maris Soule says:

    This is a test to see if the comment section works.

  2. This is great!
    I wrote a SHORT prologue in a very early fine book:

    In 1996 I killed my father.
    Dear old Dad was great with a belt. A belt of whiskey.

    And a few more SHORT lines before the story began.

    Me, the newbie , did well with this first book , still so good.
    Reconstructing Charlie

    Thanks, Maris

  3. I personally like using prologues. However, it seems as though editors don’t like them and remove mine. As usual, you offer good advice.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Jacqueline, I’m trying to remember if (other than the example I gave) I used a prologue in any of my romances. I don’t think I did, but if I did, the editor changed it.

  4. Terry Spear says:

    I’ve heard the consensus years ago: no prologue, no prologue, no prologue. But, I was writing a story way back then, and even today, where I keep referring back to some earlier event that had created the whole situation that the characters were faced with today.

    The constant mention was Telling. You couldn’t feel the emotions. Or see the real past that way. It makes it flat.

    A prologue is Showing. You’re right there with the characters–feel their emotions, see the conflict, and want it resolved.

    Then we shoot ahead to the present. And now readers don’t have to be Told what happened. They Saw it for themselves.

    But it has to be completely relevant to what’s happening today. I read one story where the author set up this killing scene and three-fourths into the story, you finally learn it all had to do with the father. By then, it was way too late. I didn’t care. It just seemed extraneous. Unnecessary. We get to see a woman, who you think is the main character, and she’s murdered. End of prologue.

    So the prologue should be really important to the story, not just a wild, conflict-filled beginning to lead you on and then okay, time to begin the real story. If you don’t find yourself constantly referring to that earlier beginning, then it’s probably not necessary.

    In Forbidden Love, the vampire and the vampire hunter are star-crossed lovers. They are cursed by her family so that whenever they cross paths, no matter the century, her family eliminates her. And the hero must find a way to connect with her again, hoping before it’s too late that she will remember her love for him as he loves her, be turned, and break the cycle. No matter how many times I referred to their earlier love, it was flat, emotionless, all Telling. I finally gave in and wrote a prologue, knowing I’d be doomed. Instead of Telling about the way it had been between them in the past now in the present, when he is trying so hard to convince her they have a past–and she sees snippets of it in her thoughts when she meets him–the man on her terminal list–it wasn’t enough. So I wrote her escaping her family, him coming to rescue her, making love to her, getting ready to turn her, and her family finding them. And killing her. You don’t know what happens after that. Until the present. And at that point, you so want them to know each other again, to stop the curse. If you keep finding you have to explain a past, sometimes the best way to do it is to Show it in a prologue.

    If it’s not essential to the story, I don’t add one. Great blog, Maris! Great points!

  5. Diana Lloyd says:

    I’m not a prologue fan. 99% of the time they are completely unnecessary. To me, prologues are almost a lazy way of telling the reader information that the author couldn’t figure out how to work into the book in a more organic, logical manner. It is like giving your novel two beginnings, a false one and the real one.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Diana, from what I’ve heard, you’re not alone in your opinion of prologues. Which means, a writer needs to be sure that prologue is necessary since it may turn off a lot of potential readers.

  6. I’ve never used a prologue in any of my novels, but I don’t mind reading them. Some writers seem to have very strong feelings about them but I don’t. If they work, fine. If one isn’t necessary, don’t use it. They are common in drama but no one makes an issue of it. Prologues are just part of telling a story.

  7. Melissa Keir says:

    I think you have the best advice… if you don’t need it… don’t use it… Some of my stories have it and other’s don’t. It all depends on the mood I’m in!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Melissa, I’m sure it’s more than the mood you’re in at the time. Some stories do need it, and you probably, subconsciously, realize that.

  8. Cindy Nord says:

    Another fabulous post, Maris! Prologues are used for three reasons:
    #1) To efficiently outline a backstory (For me? I suggest weaving it through the novel in bits ‘n pieces);
    #2) To provide the story question right up front (Again, with me, I say if the question is answered upfront, then why turn the pages?); #3) To introduce the main character’s viewpoint (Again, me here – I’d go straight into Ch 1). But, I write historical romance, so don’t really see a need the need for a ‘set-up’…unlike, say, a sci-fi, or suspense.

    Oookay…that’s my thoughts this morning. **lifting coffee cuppa toward ‘puter screen** Cheers to YOU, Maris! As always, I so enjoy reading your blog posts — Keep ’em comin’…Woohoo!

    ~ Cindy

  9. great post Maris!
    I have prologues and/or epilogues in a couple of my books…but only if the info there isn’t enough to make a complete chapter OR to wrap up a story…I love them but not all the time.
    Just my $.02 🙂

    Good luck and God’s blessings

    • Maris Soule says:

      Pamela, I used an epilogue once. I just couldn’t say good-bye to the couple without bringing the reader to the wedding. I think epilogues are easier to get away with. You already have the reader’s attention (at least I assume so if they’ve made it to the end of the book), so chances are they aren’t going to skip the epilogue.

  10. Diana Stout says:

    I love prologues when they are short (1-2 book pages), concise, all action, and told from a POV different from the protagonist (usually it’s the antagonist) who should be starting the story.

    What I like about them, is that I’m being a hint of the (usual) evil to come, because we’re seeing an event that occurs before the book does.

    So, essentially, the prologue serves as a hook. I totally agree with the point made in your blog that if you can remove the prologue and it doesn’t change anything, then don’t use it. For me, it’s a rare prologue that isn’t needed, and I ALWAYS read the prologues. Often I’m buying a book based on the prologue.

  11. If it’s going cause issues later in the book, such as the dreaded “flashback” so beloved of new/inexperienced writers, or “as you know, Bob” dialogue (“as you know, Bob, our mother was killed in a car wreck when we weren’t yet in our teens,” etc.) then it’s much better to include a prologue and let readers see those events as they occur. I’m squeamish about hard and fast “rules” of writing. What works for one story, or even for most stories, doesn’t necessarily work for all of them.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I agree, Sheri. It has to be an individual decision made by the author dependent on the needs of the story. The criteria has to be what you mentioned. If it works better as a prologue, then do it as a prologue.

  12. Mona Risk says:

    I agree with you Maris. Short prologue, no more than a page, when absolutely necessary to give a pre-story information the hero and heroine are not aware of.