The pleasures and perils of prologues

Here are some tips on how to use one skillfully—and when not to use one at all
By Bharti Kirchner | Published: May 7, 2012


You’ve just finished writing the brilliant first chapter of a futuristic novel. It’s all there, an alternate universe with its own set of objects, methods and conventions. You rush to your critique group, hoping to hear praise and encouragement. A fellow writer browses your pages, frowns, and sets them down.

“It’s too full of exposition,” he says. “It doesn’t work for me.”

“But … but,” you stammer. “My story is set in 3014. Don’t I have to explain how people brush their teeth then?”

Your critic looks away. You sit in bewilderment, biting your fingernails and asking yourself: What do I do now?

Well, you can use a prologue or consider another suggestion offered below.

• What’s a prologue? A prologue is a preliminary act, a teaser, if you will, used to usher a reader into the story, generally happening in a different time period and place. It sets the stage for the main actions to take place. It tantalizes.

“For me, prologues work like ‘set pieces’ in drama,” says Kim Barnes, award-winning author of the novel A Country Called Home. “I think of them as self-contained pieces, more highly stylized than the body of the book.”

Jennie Shortridge, bestselling author of When She Flew, also favors prologues. “I like to read prologues because I know the author is whispering a secret to me,” she says. “It becomes a puzzle piece in the story that will unfold in Chapter 1.”

• Some uses and misuses. In a science-fiction or fantasy novel, a prologue can provide readers with a basic understanding of the setting and culture of an alternate universe before the story begins. Don’t spell out too much; just say enough to whet the reader’s appetite.

For a historical novel, opinions vary as to prologues. “With a first-person narrator, there is often a prologue telling how the narrator came to write this account of his or her life,” says Margaret Donsbach, who reviews historical novels for her website www.historicalnovels.info. “These often call attention to the artificiality of the first-person narrator device, actually undermining the feeling of authenticity readers enjoy in a historical novel.”

Often in a thriller, a prologue depicts a crime-in-progress or a crime being plotted, or it hints at a misdeed to take place, with only the reader privy to the knowledge. The protagonist who will solve the crime will appear in the next chapter. Meantime, the author has built suspense in the reader’s mind.

Not everyone, however, is enamored of this particular method. “[It] can minimize the amount of sleuthing the reader will have to do (thereby automatically decreasing the suspense and tension that is so pivotal in keeping the mystery reader’s attention engaged), since a large part of mystery plot involves the reader discovering these very clues with the amateur sleuth protagonist,” writes agent Amberly Finarelli of Andrea Hurst & Associates in a blog at the agency’s website. (You can read her full blog post at andreahurst.com/blog/a-word-about-prologues-in-mysteries.)

A prologue can also foreshadow an event—a war, a natural calamity, a setback in a character’s life. It can flash back to an event that will be of significance later in the story.

“In Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe,” Shortridge says, “I open with a pivotal scene from the protagonist’s early childhood that illustrates, in two pages, her relationship to the world by showing an early trauma she experiences.” Here is an excerpt:

“I didn’t do it,” Mira wailed as her mother carried her to the bathroom. The razor lay in the bottom of the sink, next to two tiny droplets of blood.

“Well, then, who did it, young lady?” her mother said, angry now, but even the flush of anger seemed to exhaust her.

“The other Mira,” the girl cried, “Mirabella,” picturing another four-year-old in a blue dress instead of brown, shiny black hair crackling with excitement. That Mira had taken her leave, a sly look upon her face.

In Chapter 1, Mira reappears at the age of 45, suffering from a midlife crisis.

Note that a prologue establishes the mood—be it chatty, humorous or gloomy —and allows the reader to sample the story’s flavor. “Is there a sense of celebration or lament?” Barnes asks. “Is the book going to have a theme of tragedy or redemption? What I look to do is to select a scene that contains and resonates with the major thematic threads, motifs and images that will follow—to create a microcosm of the world of the story. I am also looking to create a major moment of tension that the reader will want to see resolved as the book progresses. Finally, my prologues function as a kind of metaphor for the story as a whole.”

The length of a prologue depends on the nature of the story, but it’s best to keep it trim. One to five pages should suffice. “I don’t mind prologues if they fit the story, and I do like them fairly short,” says agent Andrea Hurst, president of Andrea Hurst & Associates.

RESOURCES

• For more guidance on writing a prologue, go to: http://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Prologue-for-Your-Novel.

• Read the historical novel Dark Angels, by Karleen Koen, for an example of a short prologue (1½ pages in length, labeled “Author’s Note”).

• Although agent Nathan Bransford is besieged with prologues in the submissions he receives, he is not entirely against them. See his discussion of what makes a good prologue at: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/03/prologues.html.

• How is a prologue different from the first chapter? A prologue generally happens outside the main plot line. Although it can contain a scene, it doesn’t necessarily have to feature the primary character. You can use a point of view different from that of the main character or seek the aid of an omniscient narrator. The latter can become an effective tool in opening a story.

“A prologue often feels omniscient because of the tone—that sense of the narrator looking back on a scene from her life that has become hyper-vivid in her memory and is, therefore, more highly dramatized in the writing,” Barnes says. “When I write prologues, they are most often set in present tense, and the language is either complex and lyrical or simple and straightforward.”

Here is an example from Barnes’ novel A Country Called Home.

Prologue: 1977

First, the river.

Mountain wash of snowmelt through granite, past fir, larch, red cedar, and pine. The canyon where the water widens, runs deeper, eddies in against rimrock, gullets the bank’s soft pallet.

And then the car, sun-bit to ruddy red, following the highway that parallels the river, matching it curve for curve.

Here is how Barnes opens the first chapter of the same novel:

The druggist waited, whistling, looking out the window, nodding to each person who passed along the Main Street of Fife. It was early, the bank not yet open. The warming September wind wafted through the door seams.

• How do you make a transition from the prologue to the opening chapter? A prologue raises questions and is often imbued with conflict, none of which will be immediately resolved. “I think that bridging is the most challenging aspect of writing a prologue,” Barnes says. “How did you adjust the tension once you’re building the story scene by scene? It’s not very often that readers can tolerate the intensity of presentation and emotion found in some prologues for the next 300 pages. The transition is the most difficult, and I often polish and tweak the few pages of a prologue more than I do any other set of pages in the book.”

• Should you use a prologue or not? “The most common mistake I see when writers try to use prologues is that they’re simply writing Chapter 1 and calling it a prologue,” Shortridge says. “If the text actually begins the story in place and time, if it is followed by the same story it begins, then it’s not a prologue and shouldn’t be treated as such.

“I think some early writers feel that prologues have a certain cachet, a sense of sophistication, when in fact they are simply a tool we get to use to introduce disparate elements into the beginning of a story. Not all stories should have prologues, and in fact, probably very few of them are served well by them.”

• Alternatives to prologues. Although a prologue has benefits, some readers skip them, deeming them optional, and plunge straightaway into the first chapter. Some industry professionals, too, frown upon prologues.

“Basically editors and most agents hate prologues,” says agent Andrea Brown, president of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc. “They are sorely overused and seem like a cheap device. Much better for authors to be creative—come up with ways around them and start the novel with a great first chapter.”

What are your options then? Well, you can incorporate a past incident that was highlighted in the prologue into the main story line. You can dole out the data presented in the prologue a little at a time throughout the book without overburdening any single passage. “A skilled historical novelist won’t need to lay out a solid chunk of history [in a prologue] because the necessary historical details will be woven seamlessly through the story,” Donsbach says. This suggestion can work with any genre.

In the final analysis, use a prologue if it can enhance your narrative. When in doubt, leave it out.

A four-time novelist and frequent contributor to The Writer, Bharti Kirchner reads prologues; she doesn’t skip them.