A prolog is one telling sign of a new writer. Seasoned writers use prologs, too, but most of them will know the when a prolog is needed and how to write a good one. So why should a prolog be a sign of a newbie? For one, prologs are rarely necessary. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to read and critique a lot of first novels. Some authors insert a prolog as if it’s expected or required. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In this article we’ll examine the rationale of prologs, when you can–or should–use one, and how to write a good one.
Some agents have openly said that when they see a prolog their first inclination is to reject the manuscript. At the risk of incurring the wrath of romance writers, that genre is where I’ve most often seen prologs used inappropriately. This surprises me because nowhere have I seen in any guidelines or advice on writing romances that prologs are necessary to the genre, so I’m at a loss to explain it.
Consider this: The prolog is the first thing your reader sees. It’s your opening. As such, it should represent some of your best writing. An unprejudiced reader will simply read it under the assumption that the author knows what he’s doing and that it’s truly worth reading. On the opposite end is the prejudiced reader who has read too many boring prologs that have little apparent immediate connection to the main story. He may conclude that this one is no different. A subset of these readers are those who have come to hate prologs and may summarily skip yours. If they do, they might miss important information, so you don’t want to risk them skipping over that.
In between these two extremes are two other groups. The first assumes that since it’s a Prolog, it’s an introduction to the story and possibly contains some useful and interesting information. He’ll read it. The other group will also read it, but will have low expectations. They’ll assume it’s ancillary material that the author had to spew out before getting into the real story, explanatory material the author felt the reader needs to know before he can fully understand the story. If this is why you wrote a prolog, then you haven’t done your job as a writer. You’re telling instead of showing, and the writing is likely going to be less engaging because of that. Worse, if your potential reader is sampling your work, you risk losing a sale if the writing doesn’t grab his attention right away. (We’ll talk about how to craft compelling openings in another blog.)
While you can’t easily change a reader’s preconceptions, you can strive to write the best damn prolog you’re capable of and make sure it grabs the reader from the first line. I think we can assume that all but the most pessimistic of readers will at least read the first few lines. If your prolog begins with the promise of a long explanation or description, you’re pretty much telling the reader he can skip it unless he wants to punish himself.
So when should you use a prolog and how do you write a good one? First, ask yourself these five questions.
(1) Is there a significant time separation between the prolog events and the main events of the story? If the story spans a few days or weeks, do the prolog events happen at least months or years before? Or if the story spans decades, do the prolog events happen centuries before?
(2) Is the setting of the prolog significantly different–historical setting, country, or planet–from that of the main story, at least initially?
(3) Are the characters in the prolog different from those in the main story (and possibly are never seen in the main story)?
(4) Is the information in the prolog vital to the immediate understanding of the story? In other words, is a reader likely to be lost or confused if he skips the prolog?
(5) Will the relation between the events or characters in the prolog to those in the main part of the story be reasonably clear after reading the prolog and the first chapter?
(6) Does the prolog pose a significant story question to the reader?
Unless you can answer “yes” to at least one of these questions, then you should NOT be using a prolog.
[QUESTIONS 1 & 2] One of the purposes of a prolog is to show some background event that, while related in some way to the main part of the story, took place sometime in the past history of the main story. Or perhaps events occurred on another planet. A prolog is used in these cases so the reader isn’t led to believe that events occurred in close proximity of time or space.
Some examples will elucidate this.
–In the classic Superman story, a prolog might show his home planet exploding and his parents sending their child away in a spaceship.
–In Harry Potter, a prolog (instead of in chapter 1 as Rowling chose to do) might show the family Harry will grow up in and show baby Harry being delivered to them.
–In the movie Stargate, a sort of prolog shows the discovery of the star gate decades earlier in Egypt.
For all three, the prolog events are separate from the main story, yet they are relevant and necessary to a full understanding of the main story. The first Star Wars movie, has the equivalent of a short prolog in the familiar scrolling text: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” (However, this really wasn’t necessary because the viewer can figure it out since Earth is never mentioned.)
[Question 3] Sometimes the writer needs to kick start the narrative with an event that, while germane to the main story, is really a separate piece. In this case, some or all the characters in the prolog may never be seen again in the story. They may all die. One of my author friends chose to open her thriller with two teenagers dying for unknown reasons. Obviously, the kids never are seen again and are only mentioned peripherally in the main story. This short prolog sets the tone of the novel and poses a story question (thus also answering Question 6 in the affirmative). The author seriously questioned using a prolog as opposed to making the scene part of the first chapter. The last draft I saw still had the prolog, and I agree with the reasons for it.
I’ll stop there. Next week, I’ll finish examining the questions and give some tips on how to write a compelling prolog. In the meantime, if you’d like an example of what I’m talking about in a prolog, you can read the prolog and opening of the first chapter of my first novel More Than Magick by clicking on the link to my website below. Once there click on the NOVELS tab and under More Than Magick-excerpt.
I’ll be the first to admit that I did not have to use a prolog in that novel. Events do flow linearly, and the time setting of the prolog is not significantly separate from chapter 1. Its events take place four years before the main story, and chapter 1, itself takes place two years later and two years before the main story. But the combination of the timeframe and the setting provided sufficient justification for the use of a prolog. The novel also has an epilog to balance the prolog.
Until next time…