Last time, I posed six questions to test whether you should use a prolog in your novel and covered the first three. In this post, I’ll finish those up and give you some tips on how to write a good prolog when one is warranted.
(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?
Many new writers believe that unless they explain their world, their readers won’t understand it. Trust your readers and show them through your characters’ eyes instead of simply spewing out information.
[Scott’s note: My second novel, The Piaras Legacy, began with a prologue. Originally, it was a total information dump. I simply wrote out, almost word-for-word, the backstory I had written down when I was creating the history of my new world. At the suggestion of my publisher, I shortened it significantly and changed it to a classroom setting, where one of my main characters was teaching history to some students. Better, but the whole thing could have been avoided by giving the reader the same information in small doses as the story rolled along. Since the war in question took place centuries before the book began, it would not make a good chapter one. But if it was introduced bit by bit in dialogue, I could have avoided the prologue altogether.]
Scott and I both spend a lot of time creating and developing the background and characters for our novels. The temptation is strong to lay it all out there in the beginning. Instead, take your readers on a journey of discovery.
(5) Will the relation between the events and characters in the prolog to those in the main part of the story be reasonably clear after reading the prolog and the first chapter?
If not, why is the prolog there? After reading the prolog, the reader should be intrigued enough to want more, and he will expect some sort of tie in. New writers (and even some seasoned ones) leave the prolog dangling for a good portion of the novel before they connect it to the main story. By the time the connection appears, the reader may have forgotten about the prolog’s events. Don’t make this mistake.
(6) Does the prolog pose a significant story question to the reader?
A good prolog will pose one or more story questions and foreshadow events to come, as should any opening. Some novice writers will end it with a statement such as: “little did she know…” This is generally bad writing technique because it’s a cheap shot at pulling in the reader. Good writing won’t pull this stunt.
So, assuming you do require a prolog, how do you write a good one?
Last time, I pointed you to the prolog and opening of the first chapter of my first novel. You might want to read it now if you didn’t then.
As I also said last time, I did not have to use a prolog in my novel. Regardless of what I called it, I did my best to make it a compelling opening.
Let’s look at six recommendations for using and crafting a good prolog.
ONE: A good prolog should make a good short story on its own, save for the fact that it doesn’t end there. It should have character, setting, and conflict.
Let’s examine the prolog of The DaVinci Code. Dan Brown’s novel begins with a prolog. It’s less than three pages long (all of Brown’s chapters are short as well), yet those three pages are filled with tension and action. What’s interesting is that the prolog events happen in the same time frame as the opening of the novel. Why did he use a prolog, then? Well, the main character in the prolog is dying, and he must accomplish something before he dies. We never see him again in the novel. As any good prolog should, this one sets up the story to follow. Looking at our six criteria for a prolog, we can see that this one fits Questions #3, #5, and #6. You don’t have to answer all six of the questions with a yes to justify a prolog. However, if you can’t answer yes to at least one of 1-4, you probably can’t justify using a prolog.
Could Brown have done without a prolog? Definitely. But his use of one works very well. Note that many times a novel with a prolog also has an epilog. The best use of a prolog/epilog combination occurs when the two balance each other. That is, the two will share some parallel, or perhaps the epilog will answer one final question set up in the prolog and not yet answered. It may also foreshadow another story or another novel to come. In general, if you have a prolog, you should consider a balancing epilog.
TWO: Use a prolog only when no other option will meet the demands of your novel.
THREE: A prolog should always contain a STORY and never be used as filler. It must be vital to the main story line.
While there are novels whose stories do not flow linearly, only a skilled novelist should attempt a nonlinear story line. In such a novel, a prolog might well serve to orient the reader.
FOUR: If you feel that you need a prolog to explain what happened in your story’s past before the present makes sense, then you might be starting your novel in the wrong place. Perhaps flashbacks would be a better alternative to a prolog–just don’t abuse them. We’ll talk about the proper use of flashbacks in a future blog.
FIVE: Is your prolog interesting enough to be the first thing your reader sees? I hear some of you new writers out there saying, “Of course it’s interesting.” I suggest you let a critical reader review it and tell you if it’s interesting enough. Also let that reader look at your first chapter to see if the two flow well together.
SIX: Never use a prolog for the sole purpose of introducing a character. If you think the opening of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark serves only to introduce the character of Indiana Jones, you’re wrong.
Find some novels that have prologs and weigh those prologs against the criteria given here. You may well find some of those novels have a weak prolog or shouldn’t have used one at all.
If you want an example of a prolog that probably should have been written differently or called something else (such as Introductory Material), read the prolog of Lord of the Rings. As a contrast, sci-fi lovers will note that Frank Herbert’s Dune does not have a prolog (even though the movie did). The story starts right in, and the author gradually unfolds the world of Dune for the reader.
I hope this has helped. Please post a comment if it has and feel free to ask us questions.