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 find—or perhaps have already discovered—that 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 die—though I'd had reason enough in the last few months—but 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?