To prologue or not to prologue–for many novelists, that is the question. Some say readers skip them, therefore prologues aren’t worthwhile. Others maintain a prologue is fine as long as it’s short. While many writing coaches advise against using prologues, just as many writers feel prologues are crucial to their stories.
Writing Tip for Today: If you are convinced that your story needs its prologue, consider these things:
What’s Your Purpose?
Readers will assume the prologue occurs sometime before the main story springs to life. Readers will also assume that any prologue provides critical information. By including your prologue, you’re telling readers that the main story may not make sense without this bit of pre-story info. There are at least four types of prologues:
1) The World Builder Some writers use prologue as a sort of flashback, to introduce the story world and the main character as the story begins. Fantasy and sci-fi novels often employ prologues to illustrate some age-old curse, gift or challenge the Main Character must meet. 2)The Frame Mainstream, literary and even romance or women’s fiction sometimes use prologues to frame the story or to show Main Character’s attitude toward the story and/or life in general. 3) Action Scenes Suspense, Action/adventure, thriller and mysteries may contain “action” prologues that let the readers see actions that the Main Character may not witness, such as a murder. 4) Teaser In rare instances, a prologue might pique readers’ interest by foreshadowing a scene and causing the reader to wonder how the character got into (or out of) the predicament.
Does Size Matter?
Yes! Keep a prologue trimmed as much as possible. Don’t allow it to run on past a few pages–no matter how interesting you feel it is. Remember, your reader doesn’t know your story world or your character yet. Descriptions that enrich the “world” or your character should be carefully chosen, so they stand out to the reader. Avoid putting more than two or three characters onstage in a prologue, lest readers become overwhelmed trying to keep all the names and places straight. Distill your prologue to the vital action and dialogue, which strengthens your reader’s understanding of the situation, builds connection and/or sympathy for the character and builds tension. A prologue that is too long risks readers’ attention spans as well as raises the question of why the story didn’t start there. I think the prologue’s ideal length is one or two pages.
What’s the Purpose?
Your reasons for including a prologue must be logical and enhance the story without bogging it down. Even if your Main Character is not introduced yet, the prologue must connect directly to the main story. Prologues must also propel readers forward by building tension. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to end your prologue with TROUBLE. Either something awful happens or is about to happen. Readers want a sense of what is at stake, even if the main character and/or problem is not yet revealed. Whatever you do, keep the tension taut by resisting any temptation to resolve the scene. A good prologue will leave readers hanging–and begging for more. And for those writers who are certain prologues are ALWAYS/NEVER a good idea, remember: There is only writing that works and writing that needs work.
Your Turn: What’s your opinion of prologues?