Home / Articles / Book Reviews / Books on Writing / Quotations / Links


Book or Novel Prologues - Should They Be Used and Do You Need One?


Whether to have a prologue in your book or not is something that seems to divide opinion.

I'm a big believer in writing the way you want to write, and not how everyone else tells you. I have many a "How To Write" book, and they all seem to say the same kind of thing on prologues, which is "don't use them".

So, why are prologues frowned upon by the (majority of) pros, why do some books still have prologues, what should you consider when deciding whether to have a prologue, and what made me change my mind about not having one?

No Prologue

One of the biggest arguments against having a prologue is a very simple and logical one: it won't get read. I never used to believe this, because ever since I can remember, I've always read books from cover to cover. I've never not read a prologue, or a preface, or an introduction. Then, when I started to speak to people about it, I found out that some of my own friends skip the prologues... and epilogues.

According to the dictionary, a prologue is a separate introductory piece of a literary work (or words to that effect). In novel speak, it's (usually) some information that sets up the novel. It's a little bit of a background. A pre-beginning. This is the reason half the literary world are against them; because if all it does is provide a little bit of backstory, then why isn't it in the main body of the novel? Why isn't your prologue simply "Chapter One", or why isn't that info weaved in or throughout the book? If it doesn't belong in the main body, then why is it there at all?

But Books Still Have Prologues

I don't go out of my way to read books that have prologues, but I reckon I've read more with than without. It would seem the pros are going against their own advice. But then this is why I say "write how you want to", because everyone else obviously does. A whole new article could be written about the perceived rules of writing, and a hundred more to list the works that have broken those rules.

But I digress. Why is the prologue rule so readily broken? Thinking back, a lot of prologues I've read do exactly what I mentioned above: provide a little background info. The most recent one I read was hardly more than a page describing the area where the book is set, before spending a short paragraph leading into chapter one. But, thinking about it, if I hadn't read that page or two it wouldn't effect my enjoyment of the book. The area is described throughout the story anyway, and I didn't really need to know what the prologue told me. Has it added depth? I guess so, but only a little--like I say, nothing I wouldn't miss.

That's only one type of prologue though. Probably the most common are those in thrillers. These range from an action piece that immediately precedes the first chapter, to an action piece that's basically an excerpt from one of the action scenes later in the story. I think the key word here is "action". It seems a little ironic, really, as a thriller is more than likely going to be action packed, or at least thrilling. Why is a prologue needed to assure the reader of this?

In these cases, I guess I'd have to agree with the pros, that it should either be omitted or incorporated into the main body... and yet I still enjoy reading them.

Perhaps prologues, then, are there as nothing more than an easter egg by the author, to say "hey, let me give you a little extra for bothering to read this little bit".

Should I Have A Prologue?

I think in the majority of cases it's really just a case of what you feel like doing, but it can't hurt to ask yourself a few questions.

Why do you want a prologue? If it's to entice your reader, to provide a little mystery straight off so that your reader is more likely to stick with your book, then maybe you should be asking yourself why they wouldn't stick with your book without one. If you want to add a little mystery just for the hell of it, then I guess that's a better reason. If it's to fill in a bit of backstory, are you sure there's no way of mixing it in with the story somehow, or is it even needed at all?

Is the book just as strong without one? In case the reader does skip it. Speaking of which, is there any vital information in the prologue?

Why I Added a Prologue (An Example)

Like every wannabe writer, I do try and take heed of all advice, and though I have nothing against prologues (I actually kinda like them), I went through the majority of the drafts of my manuscript without one, just to follow that rule. So what changed?

Test readers highlighted a problem with the first third of my draft. Basically, while each chapter was good on its own, overall the first third of my manuscript lacked a certain something. There are certain mysteries for the reader throughout the book, but the first of these was hinted at so subtly that the reader didn't have a clue. The meaning of the book was simply too ambiguous for this first portion.

It was a difficult problem to solve. There really wasn't room in the story to be able to explain to the reader what was going on. The book's written in a limited third person perspective, so the reader only knows what the character knows, and of course for the first part of the book the character(s) doesn't know anything.

Enter... the prologue. Mine is almost like a separate (very) short story set in the same universe as the book. As such, I couldn't call it chapter one, because it just wouldn't seem right going from this place and time to that place and time. Fortunately, the prologue does involve characters the reader meets in the main story, and better yet the prologue (by luck) weaved in perfectly with the rest of the story, and would even provide a bigger "Ah!" moment.

So, would my book work without the prologue? Yes. There's nothing in the prologue that isn't covered in the rest of the book, it merely provides a very obvious nod to the reader. Does this mean without the prologue the reader will be lost? I hope not. Because of that feedback, I didn't just add a prologue. I also revised, revised and revised again that first third, making it punchier and move faster, so that even if the reader does miss out on the hints (which I also made stronger), he/she won't have to wait long for the discovery.

I have cheated though. I would prefer it if readers did read the prologue, and for this reason I didn't call it "Prologue". Cheeky.

Final Thoughts

I guess the only really big DON'T with prologues, is don't under any circumstances put anything in it that is essential to the understanding of the story. If your reader does skip every page until the one with the big letters spelling out "Chapter One", he or she will miss that vital detail. I've read posts that begin by stating many readers skip the prologue (as I have here), and then go on to say if you have a prologue it must be integral to the plot or story. It doesn't seem good advice to me... but that's just my opinion.

Basically, just don't rely on the prologue too much. If you gotta have one, have a bit of fun with it. Entice the reader by all means, but don't use it to substitute the vice-like grip your book should have on the reader anyway.

I've written my first novel and have learnt a lot from doing it. I'm now beginning the process of trying to be published. I blog about all this and more at my site, Markaeology.com.

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Mark_David_Evans


key words: prologue,novel prologues,writing,creative writing,prologue needed,book




 Search the Web:

Custom Search
Contact Us
Copyright 2011 ©Linda C Butler
PO Box 92, Chilliwack BC V2P 6H7
All Rights Reserved Internationally
Privacy Policy