I’ve become aware recently that there is an ongoing debate in the writing community as to the merits (or lack thereof) of using a prologue. Many writers seem to be of the opinion that if a scene warrants being included at the start of a book, then there is no reason for that scene to be anything other than Chapter One. I greatly respect this, but don’t wholly agree with it.
Now, I am very much willing to concede that prologues can be overused, to the point of absurdity at times. But I firmly hold to the opinion that a well placed and well written prologue can enhance a book overall.
That’s not to say that I don’t have my own list of pet peeves when it comes to prologues. I do.
A Scene taken from later in the book and placed at the start.
Supposedly, this is meant to tease what is to come. Well, I’m sorry to break this to you, but that to me is not a prologue. It’s a spoiler, and frankly one that can be avoided. It is all very well wanting to whet your reader’s appetite, but by revealing a crucial scene too soon, you run the risk of that scene losing its impact later on. It also stands to reason that the beginning of your book should be strong enough on its own to keep the reader reading. If you don’t have that sort of confidence in your opening chapter, the answer is to redraft that, not to borrow from later in the story.
So, some books (and this is mainly a Fantasy trope) centre around the main character being the fulfilment of a prophecy, or being the only person/entity that can put an end to some long-standing feud. And that’s great. What maybe isn’t so great is a whopping big info-dump at the start of the book in an attempt to clarify or even justify everything that is about to go down. Most of the time, this will come across as clunky and clumsy. There are many elegant and subtle ways that this information can (and should) be incorporated into the main body of the book.
Incidentally, this is something I will be coming back to next week in discussion of Pre-Book Timelines.
Introduction to the Main Character
This is the type of prologue that really stands out as not needing to be there as it really should just be included as Chapter One. These are the prologues that I feel have the least impact as they tend to leave me wondering what the point was for their inclusion as prologue, given that they are in fact the rightful start of the story.
So what should go into a prologue?
To me, the point of a prologue should be to show that the story has wider scope than just what the main character sees or understands. It is an opportunity to tease (actually tease, not spoil a later scene) at other things that may have an impact on the story.
In this respect, the prologue becomes more like a cold-open to an episode of TV (the scene that plays before the opening titles that hints at what the episode will be about). Whatever happens, it should be something that is vital to the overall story (even if the relevance is not made clear until later in the book).
It should be something that would be missed if it wasn’t included. In all honesty, this is true of any aspect of the finished book. The difference, here, being it is arguably easier to axe a prologue than any other scene in a book, if it is deemed unnecessary to the plot.
Here are a few things that I enjoy both writing and reading in a prologue:
Meeting a Secondary Character
This may be someone whom the main character will meet a little further into the story, but whose actions prior to the main character’s involvement is worth mentioning at the start of the book. One such prologue that I have written involves meeting a woman who is then not seen for some time in the main book, but whose actions directly affect the main character; to the extent that he greatly misunderstands her to begin with when he finally meets her, but the reader is invited to question his assumptions of her as they have previously seen her in action.
Presenting the event that triggers the rest of the story
Think of your good old-fashioned murder mysteries. How many times does the murder take place as a prologue to the book starting? The murder is committed and the story then begins with the main character examining the crime scene and piecing together what happened. This sort of trope can be applied to more than just murder mysteries. If the main character does not have a hand in setting the chain of events in motion in the story, who’s to say that the trigger can’t be told as a prologue?
An important event from many years before
Similar to the point above, if the triggering event is something that happened years before the main story begins, then by all means tell it as a prologue. But be warned, this does skirt quite close to the realms of legend or prophecy. One way to prevent this from seeming trite is to tell it “as it happens” so to speak, rather than relying on the proverbial ‘Hollywood voiceover’ version that inevitably starts “Once upon a time…” or “Many years ago…”
Even Disney knew to break its own mould on that one – just watch the opening to Hercules.
Whatever happens, and however you choose to use a prologue (or not), make absolutely sure that it is both necessary and relevant. When all is said and done, nothing turns a reader away faster than a scene that is irrelevant. If that scene happens to be the opener to the entire book, well that certainly isn’t going to do you any favours at all.