To prologue or not to prologue, that is the question. Whether tis more engaging in the mind of the reader… Ok, stopping now. I could bastardize Hamlet all day, but that’s not why you’re reading this. You’ve been wondering when to include a prologue in your novel, or if you already have a prologue, you’re wondering if it’s working. I’m no prologue expert, but here are a few things I do know about prologues.
The purpose of a prologue, like any opening, is to intrigue the reader. (For more tips on this, see my “Pull Them In” blog.) The perfect example of an intriguing prologue is the one that opens Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. For those of you who haven’t read The Secret History, it opens with the narrator straightforwardly explaining that when he and his friends dumped their friend Bunny’s body in the ravine, they expected it to be discovered right away, but it snowed that night, so no one found the body for several weeks. It immediately grabs your attention, because it makes you wonder why they killed Bunny and if they’ll get caught. It also makes you wonder who this narrator is that he can describe dumping his friend’s body in such a lackluster way. And once Tartt has planted all these seeds of intrigue in the reader’s mind, chapter one begins several months prior to the scene in the prologue.
So when is your opening a prologue, and when is it just the first chapter?
When to prologue: When you want to introduce something set in a different time/place, or in a different character’s point of view than the primary storyteller.
The Secret History fits within this category, because it describes an event that happened after chapter one. This strategy of opening with an especially action-packed or intriguing event that happens mid-way through the story, and then going back in time in chapter one to show how the character got to this point is probably the most commonly-used prologue I see in published books, because it’s effective. It opens with action that hooks the reader and makes them want to find out how things got this bad. And then the plot often proceeds in a chronological fashion, leading the reader up to the event in the prologue and then going past it.
I’ve also read wonderful books with prologues set in the past, like Tana French’s In the Woods. This prologue paints an idyllic scene from the protagonist’s childhood that has relevance to the present day story. (The detective is investigating a case that’s similar to something that happened to him as a child right after this idyllic scene.) So this is less about hooking the reader with action and more about hooking them through gorgeous imagery.
Likewise, the prologue could be set in the same time period as the rest of the novel, but in a different place. Or it could told from a different point of view than the rest of the book. The idea is that the prologue should feel like a standalone event outside of the rest of the story in one way or another.
When not to prologue: When you want to provide the reader with background information, whether it’s the history of the world your characters inhabit or the characters themselves.
Any sort of background information should be woven in the action of the narrative. I’ll hear writers say, “But it’s important that the reader knows the history upfront.” I disagree. The most important thing is hooking the reader, and a reader won’t be hooked by a history lesson. They’ll be hooked by a connection to your characters and a desire to find out what happens to them. These kinds of openings are typically written in a distant 3rd person POV with no insight into the characters, which makes it impossible to hook the reader.
These kinds of openings also typically fall into the category of telling writing, rather than showing writing, which again doesn’t allow the reader to really get to know your characters. (For more on showing writing, see my blog on “Seeing Is Feeling.”)
Prologue clichés to avoid:
1. A killer stalking someone.
If I had a dollar for every time I saw this opening I’d be too busy napping on my own private island to write this blog. Yes, it fits in the category of showing the prologue from a perspective other than the protagonist (assuming your protagonist is a cop or lawyer who will solve the murder), but it’s been done so many times that it’s cliché. So please don’t do this.
2. An info dump about the sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian world your characters inhabit.
This used to be a common opening for sci-fi novels 40 years ago, and it was widely accepted. But times have changed and these sorts of prologues have become cliché, (in addition to them being a passive way to incorporate background info). Your world-building needs to come from scenes where we see the characters experiencing it, not from a plotsplaining prologue.