Prologue

600 200 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Noun | An introductory section of a play, speech, or other literary work. The term is also sometimes applied to the performer who makes an introductory speech in a play.
Oxford English Dictionary

A prologue is an introductory chapter or section in a novel that comes before the story really starts. It’s often there to give backstory or tease the reader with an exciting scene that doesn’t actually happen until later in the book. Some agents and publishers dislike prologues because they’re gimmicky and can indicate the author didn’t have the confidence to start the story in the right place but if they’re done right they can work well.

Notes from the experts

Cheryl Klein says in The Magic Words (an incredible resource – read it if you haven’t already!) says ‘if you want to use one, know that many people dislike them, and proceed with caution.’
And how about Kidlit queen Mary Kole?

A novel prologue isn’t an automatic rejection for me but they almost always leave me underwhelmed because the beginning after the prologue is usually a failure of imagination. Most likely the writer didn’t know how to start writing a book, so they throw a fake-out on the fire and hope that it’s enough to carry you through to the good stuff that’s buried later. It’s the equivalent of a writer saying, “Well, I really want to send you the first 50 pages because it doesn’t really get going until Chapter Four.” Why hide the goods? Why resort to tricks and manipulation? Why toy with the reader and cover up your own plot insecurities? I’d rather have a well-crafted, gimmick-free, honest-to-goodness beginning to a novel almost every time.

– Mary Kole, Writing Irresistible Kidlit 

Some pros and cons of prologues

Potential pitfalls:

  • False advertising: Your opening tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the book so if you start with a thrilling car chase and get the reader all fired up for a tone that the rest of the book doesn’t deliver on, you might disappoint them. A horror novel I read recently opened with an exciting prologue: it was a flash-forward to a tense scene on a dark, rainy night and a male character was driving manically, constantly checking his rear-view mirror as he fled some horrific situation. I immediately thought yep, this is my kind of story, but as I read on, the tone of the book just didn’t match up to that prologue. It was slow and very dialogue heavy, lacking tension and the dark mood I was expecting. In fact, I still don’t know who that character from the prologue was. The opening scene didn’t seem to relate to anything that came later and it left me feeling confused and cheated.
  • Losing momentum: If you drop the reader straight into a juicy scene full of tension or intrigue and then chapter one is boring and slow-paced, you’ve lost the magic of the prologue and wasted all that hard work you did getting them interested. Mary Kole calls it ‘Prologue Deflation’.
  • Burying us in information: All too often, prologues are just big ol’ infodumps that slow things down before they’ve even started, when all your reader wants to do is jump straight into the story and meet your characters. A dry, detail-heavy prologue full of information that’s SO IMPORTANT your readers just HAVE to hear it before they read on can be a sign you’re starting your story in the wrong place. If this information is so vital, why is it plopped into a prologue instead of getting star treatment in the main narrative? This is common in fantasy fiction, where the author wants to ground the reader in their unique world before the story begins, but it’s not usually necessary. Introduce elements of your world naturally as the story unfolds instead of overloading the reader with a full-on travel guide and they’ll feel much more relaxed taking a stroll through it.

When they can work:

  • Hinting at something critical to come: I did a manuscript critique recently of a middle grade fantasy about a girl who discovers she has a hidden, magical ability she’d never noticed before. It was a lovely, original idea (I wish I could tell you more but it’s not published yet!) but this magic didn’t materialise until about halfway through the novel. Up until that point it had been a straight-up realistic mystery, so the fantasy element felt jarring. Eventually we decided that, rather than restructure the entire novel, the author should include a prologue that hinted at this magic through backstory – a backstory that the main character didn’t know about. Then, I encouraged the author to sprinkle further clues throughout the book leading up to the big revelation, so that even if readers hadn’t seen it coming, they could think back to those clues and say ‘aha! That all makes sense now!’ It felt like it was giving necessary context that we just couldn’t get in the story proper.
  • Giving the reader what they want: R.L. Stine *loves* a good prologue, and they work brilliantly for his audience. The Point Horror, Goosebumps and Fear Street books are fast-paced, plot-driven horror romps that follow a fairly formulaic structure and, let’s face it, give readers exactly what they’re expecting. When a child or teenager picks up one of Stine’s novels, they basically want to be scared almost immediately. They’re not looking for a slow burn. They don’t want subtlety. That’s why Stine’s prologues work so well. They frighten the reader straight away, often with a spooky dream or a flash-forward to some pivotal scary scene later, and it keeps readers reading. It works because Stine’s books are designed to be page turners. He admits to always ending chapters on a cliffhanger so kids won’t be able to put the book down, often reading the whole thing in one sitting. The prologues are usually a page or two at most, although the prologue for I Am Slappy’s Evil Twin is so long it contains its own plot twist before the first chapter even starts! It’s an excellent device that works for Stine, but not all children’s horror works like this. Some readers want the slow burn, the creeping tension and gut-wrenching suspense that builds gradually. They want fully fleshed out characters (Stine confesses characterisation is not a priority for him) with three dimensional, believable lives. Look, I adore the Point Horror books, but their approach doesn’t work for every author, every genre or every reader. Some find Stine’s writing gimmicky, and the prologues are certainly that, but hey, they work for him! If they work for you too, go for it. But just understand their limitations.

Recommended further reading:

Writing a Prologue: Yes or No? 
The Great Debate: To Prologue or Not to Prologue
To Prologue or Not to Prologue

 

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes