Prologues in Novels: Not All Created Equal

I’ve seen a lot of back and forth, up and down about prologues in novels: Are they the kiss of death with agents and editors? Or are they the most useful writing trick since the dialogue tag?

My answer would be yes. Or no. Depending on what kind of prologue it is and what it’s meant to accomplish.

Prologues are not created equal. Some kinds of prologues enrich a story so much they could even be considered essential. Other kinds are mere cheap tricks that need to be abandoned in favor of good, solid writing.

The Bad Prologue

Here are a couple of examples of the egregrious, dispensable prologue and their possible alternatives:

  • A scene is lifted from the middle of the story—usually a shocking or suspenseful scene—and plunked down at the beginning as a prologue. The reader is then taken back in time in chapter 1 and has to read large chunks of material before he can find out what happens after the prologue.

The cure: Make your first chapter intriguing enough that the reader wants to read on, even without having the book’s greatest moment of suspense dangled in front of him like a carrot.

  • The prologue is nothing more than backstory, generally told rather than shown.

The cure: Weave what backstory is really necessary (usually not much) throughout the initial chapters, using dialogue, narration, and perhaps a judicious amount of flashback. (Flashback consists of fully realized scenes, not straight narration.)

The Good Prologue

Useful, enriching prologues, on the other hand, are usually distinct from the body of the story in one or more of several ways: time, character, setting, point of view, even tone and style. They can also function as framing devices for a story within a story.

  • Time: C. S. Lakin, in her fairy tale, The Wolf of Tebron, uses a prologue to show crucial events that take place a generation before the main story begins. (This differs from the bad backstory prologue in that it is written as a fully realized series of scenes, not as “telling.”)
  • Characters: In certain kinds of murder mysteries, it is considered legitimate to include a prologue that depicts the actual crime, focusing on the criminal and the victim. The focus of the narrative then shifts to the detective(s) for the rest of the book. TV mysteries (such as Inspector Lewis, my current favorite) often follow this format for the first murder. (This is not usually done in cozies or in classic British detective fiction; there one generally gets to know and loathe the victim before he or she is bumped off.)
  • Setting: My own prologue to The Vestibule of Heaven is narrated from, well, the vestibule of heaven, whereas the story proper takes place on earth. This prologue also serves to give the reader some essential information about the first-person narrator that could not be conveyed as effectively within a normal story scene.
  • Point of View: In several of the Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling uses a prologue written from another character’s point of view to let the reader in on events of which Harry cannot be a witness.
  • Framing Device: The prologue of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi purports to be written by a third party who has discovered Pi’s story and brought it to the world.

Prologues like these accomplish a genuine purpose in a way that is ultimately more elegant than any other possible solution.

That, to me, is the acid test: Is your prologue an elegant solution or a cheesy shortcut? If the latter (she says, cracking her editorial whip), get back to work and come up with the most elegant solution for your particular story.

What are some examples of prologues you either love or love to hate?

This entry was posted in Writing.

8 comments on “Prologues in Novels: Not All Created Equal

  1. What do you think about the prologue in Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours”? He has Virginia Woolf committing suicide, which doesn’t happen until much later in the book. And then he flashes back. Seems like exactly what you describe above as a “bad prologue,” and yet he won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Seems like a good literary device to me. (Can you tell I”m also defending this format because I used it on the novel I just completed? It was suggested to me by the MFA faculty at a writing workshop a couple of years ago.)

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      I haven’t read “The Hours,” so I can’t say for sure. It does seem the effect would be mitigated by the fact that the reader (presumably) already knows Virginia Woolf committed suicide. It’s entirely possible I spoke too hastily and broadly, and that this type of prologue also can be used to good effect. It’s just that I’ve seen it used badly so often. (I myself was once advised by an agent to add such a prologue to my first novel. I wrote it, liked it, but then moved it to where it occurred chronologically in the story.) I’d be very interested to see what you do with it in your book.

  2. Thanks for mentioning The Wolf of Tebron. I actually love what is called “frame structure,” which is when a scene from the end of the movie or novel is the prologue. Inception does this, and it makes you wonder about the scene so that when you get to it, you have the aha moment. I suppose I understand why some might not like that. In my new novel in my fantasy series, my prologue is the scene that is the climax of the book. I did that deliberately to make the reader curious about all the plot elements that have to come to a head. I also use an ending scene as prologue in Intended for Harm, and at least one page is verbatim. I would suggest, though, that if writers do that, they don’t use word-for-word and be repetitive. Frame scenes are great when the prologue is either leaving out a lot of things that get filled in when the scene plays out in chronological order or is told from a different character’s POV, which can work great.

    Most novels really don’t need a prologue, but they can be powerful and effective if used in a clever way that doesn’t come across as explanation or narrative. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this–very needed topic!

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      Yeah, I actually think I spoke too hastily on that first point. As I replied to Susan, I’ve just seen it done badly so many times, but there are certainly lots of cases where it is done well.

  3. Ron Yates says:

    I have written a prologue that introduces my main character (a 98-year-old man living in an old soldiers home) through the eyes of his great-grandson.However,the novel is told by the main character (the old man) from the time he is a boy until he passes away. The prologue allows me to explain that the narrative by the main character is based on a collection of private journals the old man wrote and kept during his life. The great-grandson, who is writing the prologue, is the person who actually finds the journals and puts them in a form that allows the old man to tell his story in his own words.

    Here’s my dilemma: the prologue is quite long (more than 30 pages)–and I am aware these devices should be short. However, the way in which the great-grandson comes by the journals and how he is able to piece together his great-grandfather’s incredible life story is quite involved and provides a lot of background info on the old man.

    After agonizing over this, I finally eft the prologue alone and began the novel with the great-grandfather’s first person narrative and am already at more than 250 pages. However, I know that long prologue is there and it haunts me. Should I take it out? If I do, how do I tell the story of finding the journals, etc? If I don’t, how do I reorganize it so that it becomes a more seamless part of the novel? It is driving me crazy! I would be grateful for any thoughts you might have. Ron Yates

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      This seems to me like a great example of the kind of prologue that justifies its own existence. However, 30 pages does seem rather long. Would it be possible either to condense it (once the book is finished and you have a good idea of what is really essential and what isn’t) or, perhaps, break it up and use bits to introduce subsequent sections of the novel? For instance, if you have a section of the book for each journal, you could logically put a bit of the prologue material at the head of each section–assuming that makes sense with the way the journals were compiled into a book. That would also help it feel more cohesive. Hope this helps!

      • Ron Yates says:

        Thanks for such a quick reply. I wasn’t expecting that. I have actually thought about breaking it up into segments and then using them to introduce the four main parts of the narrative (I have broken the book into Parts 1-4 with an epilogue. Each part contains several chapters). Your suggestion tells me I may be on the right track there. I guess my biggest problem (and I created it!) is that fact that the book begins with the great-grandson explaining in the prologue how he met his great-grandfather, finds the journals, etc. Then, Chapter one begins with the old man telling his story in first person. So there are two story tellers–and that in itself is a sticky problem. I am pulling my hair out over this (and I don’t have much left). I do appreciate your response, however. It has helped validate the idea to break the prologue into smaller segments. Thank you!

  4. […] From Crime With The Classics, by Katherine Bolger Hyde, PROLOGUES IN NOVELS: NOT ALL CREATED EQUAL […]

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