Monday, May 09, 2011

My Inevitable Prologue Post

I had a mini-rant on Twitter today about my deep hatred for prologues. My feelings are of no surprise to people who regularly follow me. I recently compared them to bad pilot episodes and agreed (jokingly!) with Brent from Naughty Book Kitties that they were "abominations." Still, I received a lot of responses asking why I hated them so much and what would happen if a story made no sense without one and seriously why am I such a hater. Clearly I have strong feelings on the subject of prologues, so I decided to finally turn them into a blog post.

Chapter One
Prologues are generally used for the following reasons:

1. Foreshadowing events that won't be known until later in the novel.
2. Introducing a character who will be very important, but who we won't meet until Chapter 7.
3. Giving back-story (a la Star Wars) that might take a reader out of the narrative if it's presented later.
4. Offering the main character's reflective voice before diving into the story that leads him or her to that point.
5. Using the past as a means to set up the present or give a detail about the main character.

The necessity of prologues are greatly exaggerated. For each of the above intentions, there is an argument against them. Remember I speak only for myself on this blog, and not for all agents, or even my own agency. If you are 100% convinced that your prologue is necessary, then good for you for having confidence. Send it to every agent in the book. But, consider the following rebuttals before sending it to me:

Numbers 1 and 2.
I've mentioned before (Things to Avoid) that I thought 99% of prologues can turn into the first chapter. I'm revising this previous thought, however, because sometimes prologues take place in another world/time/setting. In these cases, prologues cannot be used as the first chapter because it would be out of place, so instead just delete them. Forcing a reader to immediately swallow very important information, before they know it is important, won't intrigue them as much as it could confuse them. A prologue used in this way isn't confusing by itself, but when paired with an often radically different first chapter, the shift can be jarring. It forces the reader to begin the novel twice, and you don't want them to spend what should be the second chapter thinking about what it was that they just read.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for foreshadowing. That said, using an entire section of your novel to accomplish it isn't as exciting for the reader as other forms of foreshadowing. Revealing seemingly unrelated details within a chapter in a clever, precise way will make readers intrigued. Savvy readers will want to know how and why these details will influence the story.

The same is true for introducing a character who doesn't show up "officially" until much later in the novel. By that time, the reader has forgotten everything they were supposed to retain from the prologue because the novel itself has taken such a consistent turn elsewhere. By the time your foreshadowed characters return, the most the reader might say "Oh yeah, him." The ends do not justify the means for a pay-off this insignificant. Instead, drop hints throughout the narrative that a very important character is about to be introduced. It will make meeting him that much more exciting.

Number 3.
Now, I love me some Star Wars and actually think all of the back-story about the wars make sense before the movie begins. This is an instance of a prologue working, but is it absolutely necessary? Not really. We get a sense that there is a war going on just from watching the movie. Obi-Wan and Yoda help us out along the way for anything involving Luke's father. Everything else is just fluff that we can take or leave, none of which really influence the plot. Plus, if you're worried too much back-story will take a reader out of your narrative, then you are more likely having a "showing vs. telling" problem rather than a plot problem, which, lucky for you, is fixable.

Numbers 4 and 5.
These two are tricky for me because sometimes it is nice to have a reflective voice or know a character's past/lineage before meeting them. In these cases, just make them your first chapter. A reflective voice sustains throughout a novel regardless of prologue, and if you use your past correctly, it will be popping up again in the present fairly quickly.

I understand why writers add prologues. They are a good starting off point and help you get your thoughts together. They can answer the questions "What story am I going to tell?" and even "Where will this story end?" That's all well and good, writers, but what ends up happening in these cases is that your prologue can read like an outline.

When you're ready to query, go back and read your prologue. The writing might be top notch, but ask yourself if everything the prologue was meant to accomplish isn't answered in a more thoughtful, organic way throughout the narrative. If it is, then delete your prologue. And if it's not, then reconsider your prologue's connection to the narrative as a whole. You see why I'm so against them. They're self-indulgent and rarely enrich the story in a meaningful way. Even in the rare instance where the prologue actually works, I'd still rather see it tossed aside and begin the real story right away.

Does this mean I won't accept submissions that have prologues? Of course not. I feel disappointment when I see them, but I would never begrudge someone a request just for having one. I will warn, however, that I skip them completely every single time, and I am never, ever confused when I keep reading. (If I am, there is usually a larger issue involved.)

Epilogues are also self-indulgent and generally useless, but I have slightly less venom for them than I do for prologues. My main reason for immediately putting an X through an epilogue is that epilogues tend to tie a neat bow around a novel, rendering the final chapter useless. Why bother coming up with a great ending line and powerful resolution if you are only going to undo it all with an epilogue?

Sometimes writers use epilogues to foreshadow the next book in a series. To me, this does your novel a disservice because all books should be able to stand alone, even if they are connected. More so, a brilliant cliffhanger ending will make readers want to buy your next book way more than a teasing epilogue would. If I had my way, my red pen would also extend to the ghastly ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. After hearing that Ms. Rowling wrote it because she felt these characters deserved a future, my opinion of epilogues being self-indulgent was cemented.

You do not need them, writers, and I will almost always tell you to delete them. Other agents might not mind epilogues as much. Personally, I enjoy when things aren't completely tied up at the end of a novel. I don't always need to know that the main character will live happily ever after, even if their story ends less optimistically. (Note: This does not mean plot can remain unresolved. I'm referring to emotional resolution or certain aspects left open to interpretation.) So, no, I do not like epilogues either. But, at least they're not prologues.


  1. I like when prologues are optional to the story - sort of a deleted scene effect. You can read the book fine without it, but if you go and read it afterward, something in the book gets a special spotlight.

    Just like those scenes in movies that don't make the final cut, there's nothing really wrong with it, but it might not fit as part of the main body of the story.

    I read a really great epilogue once (but for the life of me, I can't remember what series). While the book was in the MC's POV, the epilogue was a bridge leading to the next book written in the antagonist's POV, like a teaser for what was coming. I thought it was an interesting dynamic.

  2. AMEN. I once wrote a prologue that turned out to be completely unnecessary, and with a few rare exceptions (usually epic fantasy), I never feel like I needed the information in a prologue. Ditto goes for epilogues. Thanks for so clearly detailing your reasons why they're unnecessary.

  3. Wow. You really don't like Prologues. :) I think they can be challenging to read at times, but I love reading books that are challenging. Personally, I would hate to see Prologues disappear from novels. So many great authors have used Prologues: Umberto Eco, Don DeLillo, Audrey Niffenegger, Jonathan Franzen, George R. R. Martin, to name just a few.

  4. I actually completely agree with you on every single point. That said, one of my favorite fantasy story scenes of all time is the prologue to the first book of the Wheel of Time series. I know that it in a purely utilitarian sense, it is useless. On the other hand, I love it, and whenever I think of the series, that scene jumps to my mind immediately and colors (in a good way) every other book, story, and scene in the series. For me, at least.

  5. Sarah, I totally agree! I NEVER read prologues, ever. Abominations galore. Thank you for voicing this - now I dont feel so all alone. :)

  6. @Nathan - I agree that, especially in fantasy, prologues can be beautifully written. My only beef is that they still don't serve a purpose, so why not move that beautiful writing to a place where it can have a better impact?

  7. I actually hate epilogues and don't mind prologues. But your thoughts about them are very well elucidated and give me some things to chew on. Definitely going to be sharing this post with writer-friends. :)

  8. PS: I usually hate epilogues, like in Harry Potter and Hunger Games (2 series that I otherwise ADORE), b/c they leave nothing to the imagination; they are like cotton candy for the readers who want things tied up in a perfect happy bow; they almost never add anything to the story or its themes.

  9. I'm with you on prologues. Loathe them. So it was kind of a surprise that my new WIP started with one... Don't know how that happened. Didn't mean it to, but it just needed it. And I'm the one in the critique groups telling everyone to cut their prologues! Red faced now, to be sure!

  10. Every time I see a prologue on a novel my heart sinks. So yeah, I agree.

    But: "The necessity of prologues are greatly exaggerated." [sic]

    Ouch. How about, "Prologues are rarely needed." The knife, untwisted, will now withdraw.

  11. I always turn past the prologue and start at the beginning of Chapter One. :)

  12. Did a prologue kill your parents or something? I don't recall meeting one I really hated in a published novel.

    Point taken, though. Deciding where to begin and end can be tough, but it's so important.

  13. Great post and crystal clear! No one will dare submit a prologue to you and as to the epilogue...Well, tremble,oh, poor writer soul!

    This said, I tend to agree with you. Prologues are inevitably repetitive of something later in the book, and epilogues have a 19th century flavour about them, and, at best, they are like fairy tale endings..."they had many children and lived happily ever after". Not needed at all. One should always leave space for the imagination...

  14. The first few times I watched Star Wars, I was too young to read so the prologue was just some pretty words on the screen. Rewatching the movies when I was older, I realized there were a lot of intricacies in the plot I had missed, but it actually didn't matter because I still got the gist of what was going on without understanding the prologue. Considering that's one of the most famous prologues in the world, I think that's telling! Thanks for a great post.

  15. Actually, I beg to differ with Nathan re: the Wheel of Time prologue. I admit it's beautiful, but truthfully it's a hurdle for anyone starting the series. Now, I happen to be a HUGE WOT fan (cut my wedding cake with a Heron Mark sword), but I used to recommend people skip that prologue altogether.

  16. My pet peeve is prologues that contain part of the plot from later on in the book. Makes me crazy because 99 times out of 100, you can see it coming. Why would I keep reading??

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  18. I kind of liked the Harry Potter epilogue, but I admit it felt a little silly and almost beneath Rowling. I liked the glimpse into the future, but I agree it took a little bit away from the raw awesomeness of HP7 and everything that happened.

    Writing a prologue helped me focus on my WIP, helping me to find the right place to start. Then I deleted the prologue since it was no longer necessary. So, it might be a good excericse if you're in an editing slump with the first pages (as I was).

  19. A lesser writer would have stuck Jonathan Strange in a prologue to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Thank God that didn't happen. I mean, the title does all the work there.

  20. My feeling about any device is basically: when it works, it works, and when it doesn't, it doesn't.

    Native American literature, for example, is often nonlinear and has other conventions that stretch a mainstream reader. If, as part of that approach, a prologue felt right to a Native writer or someone writing about/from that tradition, then my inclination would be to respect it as a matter of cultural voice/authenticity.

    More globally, when working with my MFA students, my big question for a prologue is whether it's absolutely necessary for both the interior and exterior arcs. In either case, let's discuss and brainstorm alternatives, just in case we find one that works better.

  21. But what would Star Wars be without the rolling prologue?!?!!?!?! The music, the big yellow text! Classic!


    I've read prologues, forgotten them, and then halfway through the book remembered it's there and wonder when it'll have any relevance.

    However, I've also read prologues that make such awesome hooks, I haven't been able to put the book down. I'm a big fan of foreshadowing, although I also think there are more subtle ways to do it.

  22. Question: I've seen scenes pulled from the middle (or near the end) of a book and put at the front. Sometimes it's labelled a prologue. Sometimes it's not labelled anything.

    What do you think about pulling a scene from mid-book to set a tone.

    (eg. Twilight.)

  23. This post is causing in me that worst of writer feelings: doubt.

    I have a story where I begin the chapter with a flash forward of a later scene. I've done this "end at the beginning" approach because I think it works for the purposes of querying. Were the book published, the blurb on the back would also give a reader some idea about the big events. But on page one, the characters don't know what's in store.

    It seems, to me, that a flash-forward is more helpful when we don't have an omniscient narrator, OR a back cover blurb.

    But darn. Now I have this horrible feeling I'll be lumped in with the people who write weird unrelated prologues in other dimensions. :-(

  24. @Cynthia - My MFA program was big on "finding where the real story begins," maybe that's where I get it. I was in non-fiction, but I'm sure the fiction people were told the same thing about prologues.

    @Claire - I like when books start in the middle sometimes. I'm a fan of most things as long as they work :)

  25. I literally won't buy a book that starts with 'prologue'.

    This is probably being too blunt, but I think epilogues and prologues are a mark of a lazy writer.

    If a story is written well, all the *important* information in the prologue should naturally come out within the story... not in an info-dump at the beginning.

    As for the epilogue, in my experience, if I have properly bonded with the character, I want to imagine for myself what happens after "the end" and an epilogue ruins that for me (Hunger Games is an excellent example). Occasionally, an epilogue can make me hate a book I really enjoyed reading (I can think of two off the top of my head). I think the only time an epilogue works is if I haven't particularly bonded with a character, and then I don't really care what happens in the end, I just want to finish the book. Then the epilogue is just a kind of, "oh, that's nice" experience before I close the cover and immediately forget the book and the characters -> so again, not a selling point for that author.

  26. Certain genres (such as thrillers or suspense) often use prologues to establish the bad guy, their motivations, etc. Which of your categories would that approach fall into? Are those prologues any more legitimate?

    If the rest of the book is in the MC's POV, then it wouldn't make sense to just call the prologue chapter one (which could set up a reader expectation of a shifting 3rd POV rather than a solid single MC POV). The story probably *could* make sense without the bad guy POV prologue, but it *would* be missing something, as that type of prologue gives the reader insight into the dangers awaiting the MC. How do you suggest handling these types of prologues?

  27. @Jami - My advice on prologues is always to delete them, so I'm afraid that's how I'd handle your question. I'm not exactly the best person to ask this type of advice.

  28. I've never liked prologues or epilogues, and have always felt compelled to skip them. Thanks for this thoughtful post on the reasons why they're generally unnecessary and irritating :)

  29. Funny to read Sarah - You know I have a story comprised up of only prologues and epilogues without any chapters ironically enough in this case it is called: How To Be A Critic. Though I in most cases will agree with you, you must not forget that a prologue in the hands of an apt writer can become a piece of art, Lermontov springs to mind right now:

    I learnt not long ago that Pechorin had died upon returning from Persia. The news afforded me great delight; since it gave me the right to publish these notes; and gave me the opportunity to put my own name on someone else’s work. God grant that my readers will not punish me for this innocent forgery!

    As for epilogues if done with some shrewdness it can bring another dimension to what you have just read as in Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar. But for most parts you’re right, usually it’s an ego trip that became too tempting to resist.

  30. I can see what you mean on most of these, and in the case of explanations 1, 2 & 4, I agree completely.

    With number 3 & 5, I agree that these are reasons people use prologues, and I even agree with some of your reasons against them, but I also LIKE when a prologue is used in these instances. Sometimes, authors write a first chapter that actually is a prologue- it just isn't labelled as such (JK Rowling: books 1, 4, 6 & 7). Still, the voice of that chapter, the setting, the time period, something just doesn't mesh with the main story, and the reader, in essence, "starts the story twice" anyway, regardless of what we are calling it.

    I can see why many agents would consider prologues to be sloppy writing, since they often serve as a "OK, this is what I'm going to talk about today" jumping-off point. And if that's how they function, they should absolutely be deleted or worked into the story in other places. It feels like this is one of those writing rules that you should know about, but be willing to break if you know (KNOW!) 100% that your prologue is totally necessary.

    As for epilogues, I totally agree with you. So often they're big, fat, gratuitous outlines of what happened to everybody for the rest of their lives. But, again, I think they can be used well. Harry Potter (again, I know, but it's an example I am reasonably sure everybody can understand) uses an epilogue well. The story was wrapped up nicely, but there was a "where do we go from here, is this really the end?" feeling. Then the epilogue was brief and focused only on those characters that we needed to focus on.

    I appreciate you sending me this post- it's definitely worth thinking about :)

  31. Yay! Someone who agrees with my feelings about Deathly Hallows, lol. After I read the epilogue, I immediately re-read the previous chapter so I could imagine the book ended where it should've. ;)

  32. If the Star Wars title crawl is a prologue, then so wouldn't the entire movie be? The last paragraph is about Leia's spaceship that is about to come on screen. So there is no time jump from that last sentence to the action. This means we're still in the timeline described in the crawl. Hence, the prologue ends with the medal ceremony and the actual story is about the movie being written and directed by George Lucas.