Let’s Talk About Writing: To Prologue or Not to Prologue

Hello, and welcome to the newest series that will be gracing this blog once a month! If you enjoyed “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep,” you’re going to love this series, because in it we’ll be discussing all of the topics I wasn’t able to squeeze into a month! And I’d like to point out that I’m absolutely open to requests when it comes to the topics of these posts, so feel free to leave a comment or shoot me a tweet or tumblr ask if you have something you’d like me to discuss! Also, if you’re more of an auditory learner, you can hop on over to my YouTube channel and watch the corresponding video to this post here.

I really wasn’t sure what I should talk about today. I had a list a mile long of possible topics, but I really wanted to start this new series off right. Then I got to thinking: We’ve just started a new year, so why not discuss beginnings? Specifically, prologues! And so here we are.

For those of you who don’t know, a prologue acts as an introduction to a novel, usually setting up the events that take place in chapters one and beyond. For example, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin kicks off with a prologue in which three characters, whom we never really see again, face off against these creatures called the “Others” that then act as a looming threat over the rest of the novel. Because we know from the very beginning that the Others are very real and very dangerous, it creates tension for us as readers every time a character disregards them as a myth.

This is an example of a prologue being used effectively. Another example of an effective prologue is at the beginning of Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (and know that I say this begrudgingly). In this instance, the prologue is a flash-forward that immediately sucks the reader into the story by inserting them into a bit of action. Since the novel starts out somewhat slow, this prologue gives the reader a reason to keep reading until the story really gets going. Though, I’d like to note that you really shouldn’t lean too heavily on a prologue to keep your reader interested in your novel. The promise of something exciting happening can only keep them going for so long before they decide it isn’t worth the wait.

So what would make an ineffective prologue? Well, the worst prologues are the ones where the purpose is only to info dump a lot of backstory and world building onto your reader all at once. A prologue should never read like a history textbook, because that’s the one surefire way to get a reader to put your book down and never pick it back up again. Remember, a prologue is basically the first chapter of your novel, even if it isn’t called “chapter one.” It sets the tone of your novel and lets the reader know what to expect out of your writing. So if you drone on and on for four pages about the magic system, no matter how interesting it may be, the reader will just assume that the rest of your novel will read like that, even if it actually doesn’t. So don’t think a prologue is your “get out of jail free” card, where you can have your cake and eat it too by info dumping while still having an action-packed first chapter. It doesn’t work like that.

Also, keep in mind that a lot of people simply skip over prologues. Why? Because they’re animals. But that’s not the point. The point is that you can’t have any incredibly important information in a prologue. If there’s something your reader will absolutely need to know later in the book, you have to put it in the actual meat of your story. I know, it sucks, but there’s really nothing to be done about it. This is why J.K. Rowling’s first chapters in the Harry Potter series always read like prologues: because they basically are. But she was smart, and instead of labeling them as prologues and having people miss pertinent information, she simply bit the bullet and just titled them “Chapter One.”

Prologues can definitely be a useful storytelling tool, but at the end of the day you should probably ask yourself, “Do I really need a prologue?” Sometimes, like in the Game of Thrones example I gave earlier, it can really add an extra layer to the story that absolutely makes having a prologue worth it. Other times, though, it may just slow down the overall flow of your novel and keep you from starting in the action that would really hook a reader. If you think your novel would benefit from a prologue but you aren’t sure, go ahead and write it. Then, if it feels like it drags your story down, you know you should probably get rid of it.

I’d also like to mention that a prologue should never be too long. You shouldn’t be writing a prequel to your novel in your prologue. If you find yourself doing that, write an actual prequel. Prologues should be relatively short, sweet, and to the point, in order to keep your story moving and your reader invested. And, of course, it should always have a purpose, like I mentioned before. It should create tension in some way, either by:

1.) Showing the reader an event that will happen later in the novel, a la Twilight.

2.) Introducing a plot element that looms over the rest of the novel, like in A Game of Thrones.

3.) Providing a better understanding of the protagonist’s background (sort of like the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone, if J.K. Rowling had actually labeled it a prologue).

A prologue can also occur in the point of view of a character that is not the protagonist or regular narrator, in order to give the reader important knowledge that the protagonist or regular narrator would have no way of knowing. This could be in first or third person point of view, and it doesn’t have to match the point of view that the rest of your novel is told in. Plus, a prologue can take place at any point in time, be it in the past, future, or anywhere in between. So long as there’s a purpose for it taking place at that point in time, anything goes!

Prologues can be great tools, or they can seriously hinder your novel. When deciding whether to use one or not, make sure to really consider what is best for your book. And don’t just title your prologue “Chapter One” and think you can get away with it like J.K. Rowling did. No matter what you call it, a prologue is a prologue, and you need to make sure that said prologue belongs in your story.

Hopefully this post gives you a better idea of whether or not you should include a prologue in your work in progress. And let me know if you’re the kind of person who always reads a prologue or always skips a prologue. I’m very curious!

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