Monday, October 20, 2014

Does my book need a prologue?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

You will findor perhaps have already discoveredthat the use of prologues in stories is a surprisingly controversial issue. Some writers are so strong in their anti-prologue beliefs that in my early novel writing days, I once walked away from a class thinking, "I will never be a lazy writer who uses a prologue!"

But that's crazy talk. A prologue is a storytelling tool in your tool box. Can it be used ineffectively? Absolutely. But I don't think that's a reason to throw them out entirely.



Prologues that I typically DON'T like:

The info dump: I frequently hear contest judges talk about how many fantasy submissions start with a prologue where the writer explains the story world and the history of the people. If you're a fantasy writer and you've started your story this way, I would advise that you cut that prologue and paste it into a, "Just for me" document. It's great information to know, but it's not the best way to start a story.

I understand the temptation to write this way. After all, many of the fairy tales we're raised with start with an info dumpy style opening, including a ton of Disney movies. Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Tangled, and Frozen are the ones that immediately pop to mind.

Because you want the readers to "get" your storyworld, it seems like you need to tell them a lot of information. Think about The Hunger Games, though, and the way it drops us right into the story, feeding us bits of information at a time.

Cheater openings: This is when the prologue is actually a scene from the middle or end-ish of the book, but the author has put it up front. While it's certainly attention grabbing, this can also be a signal that your chapter one is snooze-worthy.

For example, the movie Mission Impossible III opens with a scene between Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), the villain (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and Ethan's wife (Michelle Monaghan). The villain is torturing Ethan Hunt by way of torturing his wife, and just as the scene climaxes, we cut away to the "real" beginning of the story.

The opening scene with Ethan Hunt, the villain, and Ethan's wife is actually the climax of the movie. After the flash forward, they take us back to Ethan and Julia's engagement party. Why did they make that choice?My best guess is that they felt an engagement party had too ordinary a vibe for a Mission Impossible movie. They wanted a different tone.

My opinion is that robbing your climax just so you don't have to come up with a bang of a way to start your story is a bit lazy. But I like the movie, and it did very well in the box office, so the cheater opening is forgivable.

In the novel Twilight, Stephenie Meyer did something similar. She robs from the climax (though in a subtle way, seeing as she doesn't simply cut and paste) and opens her story like this, "I'd never given much thought to how I would diethough I'd had reason enough in the last few monthsbut even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this."

That's an excellent opening line, isn't it? It raises so many questions about this character. Much better than the first line of chapter one: "My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down."

For a novel about vampires, the prologue Stephenie Meyer uses is much more effective at setting the tone than the opening of chapter one, which details Bella's farewell to her mother and introduces us to the rainy town of Forks, Washington. Since her prologue is only half a page long, and since it's sold a gazillion copies, again, the cheater opening is forgivable.

Prologues that I DO like:


The prologues that I like tend to fall into one category: An interesting scene that takes places well before the bulk of the story takes place, but that impacts the main character's journey.

A great example of this can be found in Shannon Dittemore's Angel Eyes. The novel follows a teenage girl in a contemporary, modern day setting. The prologue, however, takes place 2,500 years ago in Israel and involves the villain of the story. It's short, it's beautiful, and it's effective. (Thanks to the preview feature on Amazon, you can actually read the prologue and the start of chapter one for free. Though good luck with holding off on reading the rest of Shannon's book!)

The Harry Potter series starts off with a prologue that's rather controversial among writers. You could make an argument that a prologue that follows adults isn't the most effective way to start a middle grade story. It's hard to argue too vehemently, however, against something that's had the wild success of Harry Potter. I like Rowling's prologue for a couple reasons. 

One is that it's entertaining. The Dursleys are just plain funny to read about. Right away, Rowling's prose is bursting with personality. ("Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." Just reading the opening sentence makes me want to reread the whole series.)

Another reason the prologue works is that it shows us some very interesting things that hold our interest. A cat reading a map. A man in an emerald green cape. Owls everywhere. We're intrigued.

But the real reason I feel this prologue is necessary to the story is that I can't figure out where else Rowling could have put this scene. There's important information in there, and it's much better conveyed to us like this than it would be if, say, Dumbledore was telling Harry about it later.

Yet considering the prologue seventeen pages long, confusing if you know nothing about the story world, and focuses on adults, it's not the opening I would have advised for a middle grade story. So, really, what do I know?

As you can see, prologues are not one size fits all, even among wildly successful books. Twilight has one paragraph that alludes to the climax of the book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has seventeen pages that detail life on Privet Drive 10 years before the rest of the story takes place, and Hunger Games doesn't have one at all.

What matters is that you're intentional and thoughtful with the way you open your story.

Do you use a prologue to tell your story? Why do you feel it works?

58 comments:

  1. I've been debating whether or not to add a prologue in a novel I'm about to start, and this was a big help. Thanks a lot! This blog is a lifesaver.

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    1. I have got to second you, Jonathan: this blog is a lifesaver.

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    2. Jonathan, I'm so glad the timing worked out well! And I'm glad the blog is helpful :)

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    3. Hear hear! Go Teen Writers, the teen authors lifesaver. :)

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  2. Thanks! So helpful! I usually don't read prologues, so I usually don't put them in my books. :-) Heehee, I guess it depends on people - but all the people I know say they tend to skip the prologues. I can see why it can be good, of course, but I prefer to start with the story immediately. :-) Very interesting post, as usual! Thanks!

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    1. Naomi, I also know lots of people who skip prologues. And some readers do it without realizing the writer intends the prologue to be part of the story. As a writer, it's definitely something to keep in mind.

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    2. Yes, of course. I didn't mean to say that I thought prologues weren't something good! I sometimes read prologues and normally they have great potential and make me want to start the story even more. :-)

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  3. I have a prologue but this is making me rethink it... The only reason I have it as a prologue is that there is about a couple weeks gap in between it and the rest of the story. Suggestions anyone?

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    1. Yes, Laurel R, I think that's a rather good reason to have a prologue - unless it's easy to actually put the happenings that happen in the prologue in the beginning of the story - you know, where someone says what happened two weeks ago, or something like that. :)

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    2. Hmm. I think it depends on a couple things:

      1. What's the amount of time covered in the story? Giving a two week gap a prologue makes sense if the rest of the story takes place over the course of a day or week or something. But if the rest of the story covers 6 months or a year? Then maybe not.

      2. Is it a different narrator or tone than the rest of the story? That can be another good reason to choose a prologue.

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  4. I've only written prologues a couple of times, when they seemed to "fit" the book. But I haven't written a prologue in quite a while. I enjoy sprinkling in worldbuilding stuff more, throughout the first few chapters.

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  5. I don't usually write prologues. The few times I have they've been story though, not info dump. Still I prefer not to have him.

    Now though I'm not sure about this one. The prologue kind of sets the tone and mood for the story, but it starts with the inciting incident and then chapter one goes back a few days to catch up. Is that the same as the climax prologue? I guess what I'm asking is it a no no? Chapter one has it's own hook and is fairly exciting, the prologue is just kinda there to set the mood. I've no qualms about cutting it if necessary, but I kinda really like it this time. It's also only a page, and I suppose I could sort of cut and splice into the first two chapters. But it kinda looses the effect it has when it's all together.

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    1. Hmm. It's impossible for me to say for sure without having read it (and even if I had, storytelling is subjective) but my gut says to cut it. I think the inciting incident is too close to the prologue. Just my opinion. And I'm the girl who would've told J.K. Rowling she should change the opening to Harry Potter, so... :)

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  6. I'm glad you posted on this, Stephanie. Prologues have always been something I've had mixed emotions about. I currently have one for my WIP, but I'm not sure if it works. Then story is told from the POV of a high school senior, but the prologue is about the coach that makes a big difference in the girl's life. My goal was to let the reader know there's more at stake than the main character could possibly know in the book (since it's written in 1st person). So, the MC basically moves through the story with her problems, but the reader can make connections between what happens to her and the more complicated and things she doesn't even know are affecting the situation. I guess you'd have to read it to fully understand, but does it at sound like it might be okay?

    Sorry for the long comment!

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    1. Good day, Ashley! I am no expert, just a fellow teen writer, but I thought I might help, if my opinion does any. I think your prologue is interesting! A prologue, at least as I see it, is meant to provide essential background for the story. Having readers understand the depth of the MC's actions/problems/etc. could increase a sense of tension and foreboding in your story, urging readers to keep reading. Sorry for my limited vocabulary. I am no good at explaining. But I do hope this has helped. A great day to you!

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    2. Ashley, it sounds like the prologue provides a different lens that we can view the story through, which is a good reason to have a prologue. Is it also in a different POV or still the main character's?

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    3. Thank you, Hanan. You definitely described what I'm shooting for when you talked about a sense of foreboding.
      Stephanie, the prologue is written in third person from the coach's POV. The story is in first person present. I wasn't sure doing it that way, but it seemed like the best option. The weird part is that there's nothing about my main character in the prologue, but I think knowing the position the coach is in adds to the story even though most of the characters don't become aware of the situation until the end.

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    4. Sounds like it could be a good use of a prologue then, Ashley!

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  7. I've been thinking about this! But I know that I personally kinda hate it to read something that I read again halfway the book. I'd rather use a motto in the beginning than a prologue. You can do it both, though ;-)

    Great post!

    arendedewit.blogspot.com

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    1. What do you mean by a motto, Arende?

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    2. I thought you call it the same in English, but whatever ;-) It's a quote or a poem or something like that in the beginning of the book. For example: I read a book that had a piece of Shakespeare as a 'motto'. Don't you have something like that? What's the 'official' English name?

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  8. Stephanie is SO ON POINT! Love this. I get asked this question A LOT. I'm going to just send writers here when they ask now.

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  9. OH! And thanks for the mention. For the record, the Angel Eyes prologue went through three very different incarnations. First, it was a glimpse into Marco's world and then it was a glimpse into Jake's world before Stratus and finally, I landed on the prologue as it is. By far, the best (and most necessary) bit of info to start with.

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    1. It's a gorgeous prologue. It was the first example that came to mind of a prologue done well :)

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    2. It was a gorgeous prologue! I loved it. Gave me shivers. ;)

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  10. Thank you so much for this post, Mrs. Morrill! This is so insightful. I am glad to find that my prologue is not one of your "DON'T likes"! Perhaps, however, it is not entirely a "DO like." It sort of hint-hints at the theme, but it is meant mostly to explain why the two races of Man in my story are... NOT on friendly terms, to say the least. I daresay this article has really gotten me thinking as to what I might add in or leave out of my prologue. Thank you yet again!

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    1. I'm so glad it was thought provoking, Hanan!

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  11. I do have a prologue to my fantasy story. I felt it needed one, but needed to avoid any info dump as that is indeed overly done in fantasy. I focus my prologue on my villain and you get a little glimpse to this character and the event that takes place a couple of weeks before the opening of the story. It involves another main character that gets re-introduced a few chapters later when he meets the female main character. What I really tried to establish with is, is to get the readers intruged about these two mysterious characters and get them wondering how they will connect to the life of the female main character.

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    1. It sounds very intentional and well thought out, Arlette. Nice job!

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    2. You just gave me an amazing idea! Focusing my prologue on my villain! OOoooh!

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    3. I loved to focus a little on the villain upforehand. Good luck Sarah!

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  12. I have never used a prologue before (though I always read them) I do write epilogues. Now that I think about it, a prologue might be good for my fantasy.

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    1. I love epilogues. Hmm. Perhaps I should do a post on those too!

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    2. Yes, please do a post on epilogues!!!! I love epilogues... I ALWAYS add those. :-)

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  13. Oooh, the 'look inside' portion of Angel Eyes was so beautiful... Now I want to read the rest of the book. Usually I'm rather hesitant about angel stories, since I know some of them twist the concept in a way I'm not religiously comfortable with, but this one looks great!

    In the midst of plotting my new novel, I've been waffling between including a prologue with backstory and weaving said backstory in through flashbacks. One on hand, having a glimpse of how bad my MC had it before might a) enhance the "Consequence" - of not achieving her goal - that involves returning to those circumstances and b)get her some automatic reader sympathy (like how in Harry Potter you're on his side right off the bat because the Dursleys are so awful to him), which is probably good given the low place from which I'll launch her character arch in Chapter 1...

    On the other, flashbacks would slowly unveil how she got to be the way she is until the reader -- ideally -- see her potentially annoying character in a whole new sympathetic way (Such a thing was done beautifully in "A Long Long Sleep" by Anna Sheehan), and the backstory occurs over a longer period of time, making shoving it all into one prologue difficult. I'm thinking maybe I'll put references to this stuff in Chapter 1 so there's at least hints...?

    Gah. When I first admired this plot bunny (turned project) in the window of my mental pet store, I hadn't begun to realize how much there was to the caring and feeding of it!

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    1. Mental pet store - ha! You could always try both ways and see what beta readers think? I don't know that there's a right or wrong answer.

      And Shannon is also usually very hesitant about angel stories for that same reason. I think you might get along very well :)

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  14. I have a prologue that tells how my character came to be the daughter of a Lord and Lady (they are not her true parents) but it does not give away who/what her true parents are. It introduces characters and some of the stranger creatures in her world. (in a story way and not a boring info dump).... and I personally like reading prologues... especially if they happened before the main body of the story.

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    1. Agreed. I think that's when they're most effective!

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  15. Great post! I have noticed a lot of controversy on the prologue topic, and I think I've gotten a lot of the "all prologues are evil kill them with fire" programmed into my head. Because of that, I didn't even consider putting a prologue into my first novel.
    With my second story, I originally had a prologue. I cut it during edits, because I realized that I was trying to tell another story in just a few pages--a story that only intersected the actual novel in one point. It would be better to save it and write another novel as a prequel of sorts.
    With my current WIP, I do have a prologue, and I'm planning to keep it. It's the first of several flashbacks in the novel, and kind of sets up the story world for the book, without being info-dumpy. I like it, and it passed the sister test, so I think it stays. :)

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    1. How interesting, Catsi! And I love that your books go through a sister test :)

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  16. I don't use prologues in most of my stories, at least not in the first draft. But I think I might use them in my faerie tale remakes, both for a touch of background and for added interest.

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    1. Yes, they can definitely help create intrigue.

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  17. I've definitely heard this about prologues, though actually I haven't had much need to consider them up until recently. I tend to go for more of the "automatic epilogue" thing, which is probably bad, but I'm not sure...so yeah, a post on epilogue do's and don't's would be nice. :)

    However, with the story I'm attempting to plot for NaNo, I'm actually waffling back and forth about the prologue thing. Basically the premise of the story is a singer who injures her vocal cords and has to spend months with first total silence, then as little speaking as possible. The reason I was considering a prologue is because I don't really want to start the story with her injuring her vocal cords or something, I kind of want to jump right into the conflict, you know? So I wasn't sure if I should have a prologue scene for that or just refer back to it later on in the story. Any input here? :)

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    1. A prologue could certainly work for a story like that. For whatever reason, my writer's brain imagined the prologue being a scene that shows us why singing matters so deeply to her. Was it the one thing she did that actually made her mother proud? Or maybe on her grandmother's death bed, she sang her a hymn and her grandmother had a resurgence and lived another decade? Causing your main character to rise to some sort of local legend?

      None of these may fit what you want to do with the story, but I think a prologue for a story like that should draw us deeper into the main character's motivation.

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    2. That is a really great idea...getting that motivation set up right away to make us care about the character's journey. Thanks so much! I didn't know my character's motivation myself, but now I have a starting place. :)

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  18. Great post!
    I did use a prologue in my story, but I debated long and hard about it, rewriting about two billion times before I came up with something I liked. It's now a scene a few weeks before the actual beginning of the story, and I decided to go with it because it explained some important information about the MC and his world that I didn't think would work anywhere else.


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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    1. Sounds like you're being very intentional, Alexa!

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  19. I love this article. Everywhere online people are saying don't use a prologue, but I have a lot that I like that can be perfect when used correctly and for the right story. Thank you so much!

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  20. I read a really good prologue that was a journal entry from one of the characters talking about how he was dying. It didn't give any details it was really just more a hook.

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  21. I keep going back and forth on whether or not to have a prologue for mine. The prologue is a betrayal/murder scene that leaves the reader guessing what the intentions of the murderer were. Later in the book we find out the victim's soul was trapped in a book. However, more than a thousand years have passed between the murder and when the victim's soul is first "freed", so there's a huge time jump between the prologue and the first chapter. What's nice about the prologue is that when the protagonist finds the book and meets the ghost for the first time we have dramatic irony, and a build of of anticipatory excitement for the reader since they know what's coming. However, not putting the prologue in, and instead having it as a flashback later on allows the reader to step into the protagonist's shoes and feel the curiosity and intrigue he feels when strange things begin happening. I can't tell which route I like better for the effect, but I've always liked throwing the reader into the action first off as opposed to them following this kid around for awhile before things get interesting. Thoughts?

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    1. From what you said, I think that using the flashback later might be better. Unless you feel like things really don't get interesting for a while. In that case, though, you'd still want to make the in-between area a bit more intriguing, regardless of whether or not you keep the prologue.


      Alexa S. Winters
      thessalexa.blogspot.com

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  22. I love reading prologues, but don't usually write them. The book I'm working on now will probably have a prologue set several hundred years before the book starts.

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  23. I have written out a prologue for my book, but I may or may not cut it in editing. My prologue would be more of the information dump sort, but since the book is narrated by one of my main characters, I think it makes sense with his personality that it would be there...not so much because it's necessary, but because it's something he would write and include. I think it helps tell the reader who this person is they'll be dealing with. I still am not sure if it will stay, though. :)

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  24. I'm a bit stuck. My first scene is a dream but I don't want it to be a prologue. Should it be???

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    1. I don't think so. If it is a relatively short dream, you could have her wake up and start her routine in the same chapter.

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  25. I am making a graphic novel, and i have a prologue, but i am wondering if it should instead be an intro to part one of the story. Its pretty long, i have storyboarded it and it reaches to at least 20 pages. I was wondering if that is way too many pages for a prologue in a graphic novel, since its just explaining some things that happen that are important and why the story happens.

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