A Bit Previous

Posted on April 23, 2009


Open question: is a prologue ever a good idea?

Why do writers insist on putting them in? And do readers even read them or do they skip on to the actual story?

For me, on the rare occasions that I have time to read books, when I encounter a prologue it’s like a barrier. I’m more likely than not to skim through it picking up whatever the salient points of character or setting it contains so I can move on and get immersed in the actual story. Is that bad of me? Am I missing out on something vital? Usually, I don’t think so.

I see the prologue most in use in SF & Fantasy where there is often a lot of invented world background that would otherwise have to be heavily exposited, slowing down the beginning of the story, so the prologue is introduced to set the scene if you like. Fair enough, but too often that’s all it does, and to my mind – unless your invented world is radically different – it’s not reason enough.

Neither is dramatising stuff that happened 1 year, 10 years 1000 years before the story starts. If it’s not part of the story, don’t dramatise it. There are other ways of referring to past events. Use them.

Sometimes you even feel that they’ve been put in there because a prologue adds some sort of epic quality, a pre-opening credits, gravel-voiced, “In the mists of time, there was a land of…” sorta thing. But come on, does anyone really want that any more? Even from a THE Fantasy book?

Admission:  At this point I think it’s fair to say that I don’t have a happy personal relationship with the prologue. When I wrote the novel I wrote, I included a prologue that set the scene both descriptively and thematically,  introduced most of the main characters in the midst of the actions that kicked off their individual stories, and even hinted at “other elements” that were working behind the scenes.  All of which sounds ideal for a prologue, you’d think. Except, because of the “thematically” part, it was artistically vital that none of the characters be named. They were all just little cogs, spinning around in their own depersonalised part of the machinery of their society. Yeah, see, artistically sweet, but in terms of reader engagement, so wrong. In the next revision I could have reworked it so that the characters were identified, but it just wasn’t worth it. And in the end, the book was much better off without it. And it got me thinking about why I thought it was a good idea to put it in there in the first place, and in fact, whether it could even be a lazy habit of copying some genre template or other.

I have read a couple of  “good” prologues recently. The first was of the “one year earlier” type, but to be honest, since it featured main characters that also featured in the novel, there was no reason for it not to have been called Chapter 1. The other was a “hundreds of years earlier” type prologue and took place in the middle of a desperate space battle. High octane excitement from the word go. The only problem was that when the story proper began it got bogged down in scene-setting and background exposition and took ages to get back up to the energy level of the openening (which thankfully it did, eventually). It felt as if the prologue had been thrown in as an attention grabber to compensate for the otherwise slow burn beginning to the book. Which it did, but in a way you wished they hadn’t bothered. If a book starts slow, there’s no hiding it (and it might be another problem you need to fix). All sticking on a high-kicking prologue is going to do is make it more obvious.

So, am I missing the point? Is there more to the humble prologue than I’m giving it credit for?

I’m open to persuasion.

Posted in: Writing