Writing Prologues: Do They Work?

OK, here we are in Prologueland. Some writers defend their prologues by citing famous examples. A lot of the examples are from fantasy or sci-fi genres, but in fact any novel can have one. Agents and editors often gripe about prologues, and for good reason. If you’re dithering about a prologue, examine a few of these examples and ask, “What does the reader find out in the prologue?” and “Why did the author use a prologue?”
Writing Tip for Today: What else do you need to know about prologues?

  • Prologues are meant to serve up a bit of information, motivation or other key element that came before the novel’s beginning. Sounds like back story, huh? Use as a prologue if you believe there is no other way to set the stage.
  • Prologues (and epilogues) should enrich the story, not simply provide the writer a convenient place to dump all the research or cool facts about the world the reader will enter.
  • Prologues should be short. As short as possible. Anything beyond a page and the reader wonders when the real story will start.
  • Prologues in italics are hard on the eyes. The reader understands that the italics set apart the prologue from the rest, but it’s hard to read, so keep it brief.
  • Prologues should pass the “Why?” test. Sometimes a different POV character narrates the prologue, or there is a long time span between prologue and story. Make sure there’s a reason for your prologue.
  • Overall, the prologue should be employed only when the info or motivation of the character can’t be placed into regular back story in the body of the novel, or when the reader must know something before the story begins.
  • Be prepared. Readers are known to skip the prologue to get into the action.

Coming Soon! I’ll be guest posting in The Bookshelf Muse’s Setting Thesaurus this Thursday. I hope you’ll visit–especially if there’s a trailer in your setting!

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

5 comments on “Writing Prologues: Do They Work?

  1. Long flashbacks (and sometimes even short ones)slow or kill the forward momentum. The best way to intro crucial back story is to put your character into a meaningful scene (not just sitting around wool gathering) and embroider it with beats (sentences or phrases)of the need-to-know back story.

  2. I must be the only person to actually love prologues. I know Karen Traviss keeps them to under 5 pages while Matt Stover has them around 10 pages. I’ve never heard of any of their fans griping or complaining or skipping them.

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