Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Where to begin...

It’s happened to us all. You settle into bed, crack the spine on a new book, flip to the beginning and -- what’s this? -- the author wants you to read a few pages before the story even starts. Enter the prologue. A prologue is designed to give the reader information that is, at least least in the author’s opinion, essential for understanding the main story. It could be a scene that illustrates a powerful backstory, but happens long before the rest of the book starts; or a part of the story told in a different point of view from the rest of the book. Or, the prologue can just be a teaser to hook the reader with the promise of more exciting things to come.

So, is the prologue another tool in the writer’s chest that, if used properly, can add new dimension to your novel? Or is it just another item on the Long List of Things Writers Should Avoid at All Costs Even Though a Lot of Popular Writers Do It And No One Seems to Mind?

The experts, of course, are mixed. According to this Writer’s Digest article, agents hate prologues because they see it as a lazy way to insert backstory; a more skilled writer would find a way to weave it into the rest of the narrative. But if that’s the case, why do so many wildly successful books have prologues? Peruse the NYT bestseller list and I’d bet you’d find that over half the novels have prologues.

There are times when prologues work well. Say you have a story about a rogue virus that takes over the world. Before you get to your protagonist’s little story, you want to show firsthand what it’s like for someone to get the virus and suffer horribly. And since the entire story is told in the hero’s point of view (and he doesn’t get the virus), you tell it in first person, in a prologue.

As a reader, I’m not a fan of prologues. It’s a big commitment to start a book, and it takes some time to get into the story. A prologue essentially forces you to start the book twice, and often it feels like just one more barrier to getting lost in a story. But as I’m re-writing my own manuscript, lately I’ve found myself leaning toward including a prologue. I have a backstory scene that makes for a dramatic start to my novel, but it happens out of sequence with the rest of the narrative, and it wouldn’t be as powerful if I weaved it in through flashback. But I need to be honest with myself. Am I putting the scene into prologue because it’s the only way it makes sense, or am I doing it because my real first chapter isn’t exciting enough?

The problem is, these days, not even established writers can get away with Dickensian introductions and long chunks of backstory. Today’s readers want to get in media res right away, or they’re gonna drop you as fast as they can type in their Facebook password. Agents know this, so they look for a first chapter (or prologue) that snares you like a treble hook. As a consequence, the first chapter – or more likely the first page or the first sentence – is all the agent’s going to read before making his decision. So I need to make it count. Which brings me back to my dilemma: do I include a prologue that starts with a bang, but risks turning off the agent and readers for the sole reason it exists, or do I start slower but weave everything into the main story?

How about you, LB readers? Think about the books you’ve enjoyed... prologue or no prologue?


  1. I don't mind a prologue. I think the prologue in Water for Elephants was really good and made me more excited to read the book.

  2. Water for Elephants is a great example of a prologue that’s a teaser (it gives a snippet of the climactic scene to hook the reader), but it works; it doesn’t seem gimmicky. The really interesting thing about that prologue is if you compare it to the actual scene later in the book, it gives two different accounts of who killed the bad guy.

  3. If it feels right I say go for it... YOur gut has done a good job so far, don't be the guy that sits there and says well I think I should have... But... Well, next time.


  4. I never read prologues.


  5. I am not a fan of prologues. I often skim or skip them altogether.

  6. Not a fan of the prologue. I tend to lump it with the dedication and skip right past.


  7. Yo Crawford, what are your thoughts on epilogues? Will your book have one?

  8. I don't think my book will have an epilogue, but you never know. As a reader, I'm usually annoyed when I think I've finished a book and then see that there's an epilogue. And often it seems the author could have instead called it the last chapter and just started with something like "years later..."