Prologues

Many wonderful books have prologues. But that doesn’t mean yours should. My thoughts on why prologues are usually a bad idea.

Prologues and Where Not to Start Your Story

You wouldn’t think a prologue would be much of an issue, but I’m here to tell you it is. And, after long consideration and a lot of experience with my own writing and reading other people’s MSS, I have come to the conclusion that prologues are generally a bad idea. Before you start complaining, yes, I am aware that many, many novels have prologues, but that doesn’t mean yours should.

Check out the November 2002 issue of Romance Writers Report and read the article about RWA’s 2002 Market Research Study. One of the panelists had this to say: I read the first page and if the first page isn’t grand.... [shakes head dismissively].

Prologues are often deliberately confusing and vague. The writer knows she can’t be straightforward because otherwise, the other 300 pages aren’t necessary. In which case, you don’t need a prologue.

Forget about prologues in novels that got published. Protesting that others successfully publish with them won’t help you understand why they’re usually a bad thing, and you have to understand why that’s so in order to figure out if your story really does need a prologue.

A prologue should be a last resort, used only when there’s absolutely no other effective way to convey the information. Note, I did not say easier way, I said effective way. Writing is hard work.

Why Prologues are Usually A Bad Thing

Prologues are, by their very nature, backstory. It’s stuff that happened before your story actually starts. By using a prologue, chances are extremely high that you’re only eliminating suspense and tension from the main story.

Prologues are difficult to write in a way that doesn’t confuse, annoy or bore the reader. Again and again I’ve read MSS that have a prologue, including MSS that were, in all other respects, extremely well written. I have yet to see an unpublished MS that contained a necessary prologue.

Lord Ruin had a prologue for quite some time. I really, really liked my prologue. But, the truth is, it didn’t add anything to my main story, all it did was undercut the tension and interest when my hero and heroine were actually together for the first time. So, at long last, I saved the best phrases for other places in the novel and, sigh, deleted it. At one point The Spare also had a prologue. Same problem. I deleted it, too. I am prologue addicted, but at least now I know I have a problem.

Because prologues are often backstory they tend to be written in passive voice and/or "had" forms of verbs. "He had been going...." Yuck. Just say no. No one will get past the first page.

Prologues are often deliberately confusing and vague. The writer knows she can’t be straightforward because otherwise, the other 300 pages aren’t necessary. In which case, you don’t need a prologue.

Writers hope to create suspense and interest by writing a prologue about the person who turns out to be the villain but without identifying that person by name or gender. Sorry, but in my opinion, that’s a cheap parlor trick and your reader knows it. You’re better off doing the hard work of creating suspense and tension with your hero and heroine.

Your assignment

If you have a prologue, temporarily remove it. Wait a bit and then re-read your MS or else resubmit your WIP to your critique group.

Extra Credit

For having one and actually deleting it.

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