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Prologues tend to get a bad rap on the internet, and sometimes for good reason. They're often used by as an excuse to start a novel with an info-dump. However, it seems to me that people often criticize prologues, but rarely explain when they are useful. Many published books have prologues that add to the story.

So, what are the criteria for a good prologue? What clues might indicate a bad prologue, or one that should be cut completely? (If you can, cite an example that illustrates your answer.)

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Do you have a link to some of those bad raps? Oh, you don't mean "rap" as in "hip-hop", right? ;-) No, seriously, links appreciated. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 23 '10 at 11:13
    
@jae - I haven't really kept any links to specific things that made me think about this, but here are a few decent ones from Google: 1, 2, 3, 4. –  sjohnston Jan 3 '11 at 22:15
    
Imagine if Star Wars started with Episode I instead of IV. –  Jethro Larson Feb 4 '11 at 18:58
    
Star Wars Episode IV is a great mention, since it has one of the most famous prologues ever. –  dmm Jan 28 at 20:11
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5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I think that a properly used prologue can be an incredibly powerful tool. The Wheel of Time series begins with a prologue for every book - some of them are great, some you pretty much just have to plow through as fast as possible to get to the main story (they're info-dumps). However, I think that the best prologue I've ever read is for The Eye of the World (first book in the series). I can still remember picking the book up in a bookstore, never really having read much in the way of fantasy, and just being amazed. Sometimes, I still pick up the book just to read the prologue. Here's what I think it did well:

  • It sets the tone for the entire series, showing the main protagonist and antagonist (though thousands of years in the past from the date of the series itself) engaged in one of their many 'eternal' conflicts.
  • It is movement oriented. Not necessarily action (per se), but it takes place in the midst of great strife, both (kind of) action but especially emotional. In other words, it hooks. I found it entirely impossible not to care about the character Lews Therin and what happened to him and his family.
  • It shows something about the world itself with its use of the author's own particular magic "system" - which is different and strange and intriguing.
  • It foreshadows the story to come.
  • It's faster paced than the first chapter of the book, which is a great first chapter following a prologue, but would have been a rather slow first chapter without the prologue.

That last point is one I've heard a lot. If you have a first chapter that you just absolutely cannot change, but you know it doesn't move quite fast enough to thrust the reader into the story and hook him, then one might consider a prologue (even a short one) to help accomplish this task - so long as the prologue actually has something to do with the story and isn't just there as a hook.

There are also a lot of authors who have prologues, but without entitling them as such. I think it has to do with the stigma many have against prologues, the idea being that if a reader picks up a book in the store and reads "Prologue" he's just going to put it down, assuming it's going to be an info-dump before getting into the real story. That's a valid concern, so one way some authors have gotten around this is by starting in Chapter 1, but Chapter 1 is really the "Prologue" - just without saying so.

While I love the Prologue to Eye of the World, Jordan also has some terrible ones that run on for 50+ pages and are nothing more than a collection of scenes intended to dump information on you before you get into the book. It's almost always necessary information, but I can't help but wonder if there isn't a better way of getting it to the reader. On the whole, Jordan is one of my favorite authors of all time, so I hate to be critical of him in this regard, but if you want some examples of truly stunning and truly awful prologues, I highly recommend The Wheel of Time series. Also, the books are a great read.

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Don't be shy. I love the Wheel of Time but Jordan could have seriously pared it down quite a bit without it suffering much. Some of his prologues are simply too much filler. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 23 '10 at 5:28
    
+1 for an excellent description of a positive way to use prologues (and a way to get around the stigma). –  justkt Dec 23 '10 at 12:54
    
+1 for your points about the interaction between prologue and first chapter. –  sjohnston Dec 23 '10 at 15:29
    
Not "every" wheel of time book has a prologue, though... the shadow rising has no prologue :D –  iajrz Mar 21 '11 at 3:46
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I would use a prologue when:

  • trying to bring up to speed readers who haven't read previous books in a series, while staying out of the way of the real beginning of the book for those who have been following the series all along

  • offering context that would be of most interest on second and subsequent readings, but not important to the sort of surface enjoyment taken from a first/only read

Other than that, I avoid them. I hate to see prologue used as an info-dump, i.e. exposition that doesn't "have to" be good because it's not "really" part of the book.

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I'm a big fan of the "Juxta-prologue" taking a scene that is going to provide contrast to or comment upon the main body of the story in some way. It's not an excuse to add your world-building notes to boost the word count and if I ever came across one that's a recap of previous titles I'd just skip it because I always read series in order.

The two times I've used a prologue I was trying to show some kind of key moment that for whatever reason didn't fit in the main body. In one case the protagonist was a refugee from a grandfather paradox. He had killed his own father (it was complicated) to prevent the father doing something horrendously evil. He expected to disappear in a puff of paradox but, instead, the universe just rolled on, like it didn't care. This was a key character note but had nothing to do with the story itself.

The other time I introduced the means by which an antagonist gained power to do something evil. The entire rest of the book took place around Nottingham in the UK. This one scene took place on the isle of Haiti so it was a kind of break in the unity of setting. Also there were structural reasons why the book had a prologue and and epilogue.

Whether any of this is valid would be up to a reader to decide.

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Prologues are all about "laying pipe:" explaining the back story and how the novel's world works.

However, if you read agents' blogs, you can see that agents are very anti-prologue these days, so I always advise writers to get right into the story and reveal back story and rules of the world slowly, over time.

Of course this is easier said than done. Science fiction and fantasy in particular require world-building because the settings and their rules tend to be unfamiliar to readers. One way to ease into back story, though, is to reveal the unfamiliar world as the protagonist discovers it. This technique works when the world is new to the character, such as in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, where Alice discovers the fantasy world after she falls through the rabbit hole/goes through the mirror. As she explores, she describes everything she sees and everything that happens, so we learn at the same time she does.

When the characters already live in the fantasy world, the key is to get readers to care about them as quickly as possible (see screenwriting guru Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! books, in which he advises that your protagonist do something kind or sympathetic ASAP so we see his goodness or vulnerability and bond with him/root for him; this technique gets us hooked). Then you reveal the world and the back story. Once we care, we'll be more forgiving of a few digressions--as long as they're relevant to what's going on at the time and aren't too info-dumpy.

A useful trick to get readers to stick with you while you reveal back story and/or the rules of the world is to get your narrator or the viewpoint character to muse about what's going on. You can sneak explanation into the musing. For example, "Of course Brunhilde wasn't allowed in the castle. The only commoners who had ever set foot inside were members of the Ningning family, and for good reason. During the wars between the barons and King Whoop-de-doo, the Ningning family was responsible for hiding and protecting the king's son and heir, Prince OMG, and his descendants, including the present king, Bling II, weren't about to forget their kindness. Only one problem: Brunhilde wasn't a Ningning."

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Never write a prologue unless:

  1. Your agent/editor insists on it
  2. Your genre demands it, such as Epic Fantasy

Develop the story as completely as possible before even thinking about writing a prologue, because its purpose is to explain things the reader must know that are otherwise unknowable by reading the story.

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