The prologue is that first page (or few pages) at the opening of a story which gives readers background information, establishes character and setting, and/or gives readers a quick glimpse into the central conflict of the story, sometimes in an attempt to grasp the reader’s attention enough to motivate further reading. There does not seem to be any real rules about what a prologue may or may not contain, or whether or not a prologue should be used at all, therefore, whether or not a book should or should not open with a prologue is a subjective topic. While I’ve known people who feel that prologues are no more than a lazy way to introduce information, I’ve also known people who will only read a book if it has a good prologue; so there really is no right or wrong answer.

I’ve never used a prologue in any of my stories, mainly because it never seemed called for. That being said, I personally am a fan of the prologue, but it has never been a subject to me that seemed to require any of my attention, until just recently when a good friend of mine asked me to critique the opening chapter of the book she’s currently working on.

As I started reading this chapter, I noted that as soon as I’d just begun to get involved with the present situation in the story, I was thrust backward in time, where the events that lead to the present were revealed. While there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this, it felt too soon to me; I wasn’t ready to flash back yet. I finished the chapter and considered ways that my friend might more smoothly incorporate the information into the story, but found no reasonable opportunity for it. Then I read the chapter again, skipping the background information, and was stunned by how much smoother the ride was. Finally, I read the flash back, separate from the rest of the chapter, and it struck me that it would make an excellent prologue. The problem is, my friend hates prologues.

I was very cautious as I approached her with the idea of beginning her story with a prologue. At first, she was adamantly against it, but now, as far as I know, she is considering it.

It’s been said by many that a “good” writer can work background information into a story without resorting to a prologue. It’s also been said that the best way to judge a good book is by its prologue. I am sure there are literary agents out there who scoff at prologues and shove manuscripts straight into the slush-pile just because the story begins with a prologue. I am equally as sure that there are those agents who will not represent a book without one. The point is, using a prologue or not using a prologue is the author’s choice and should be a decision based on his or her own judgment.

To me, it’s a simple matter of the author’s style; some use prologues, some do not. But there are no rules for or against it, and in a business that is over-saturated by an endless and ever-changing list of do’s and do not’s, we sometimes have to keep in mind that writing, at its core, is still a form of art… and that art, for all it’s marketing rules and its potential levels of salability in the retail world, is still subjective.

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Comments
  1. Kim Justesen says:

    Well, thank you for not revealing me as the “friend who hates prologues” but I’ll give myself up here. I have to say, as resistant as I have been to using one, I agree with your assesment of chapter 1 – that flashback does make a good prologue, and it makes more sense for the story that way.

    My number one rule for writing (other than “butt in chair”) has always been, “Whatever you do, it has to serve the story.” If a prologue serves to enhance the story, then do it, but I’ve read far too many books and manuscripts wher the prologue serves the author instead. The only real answer to the question “To prologue or not to prologue,” is to say “Does it serve the story?” If the answer is yes – do it. Otherwise, work the information in another way.

  2. Linda Bennett says:

    Very informative. I enjoy reading your blog, even though I will never write a book.

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