7 Deadly Sins of Prologues–Great Novel Beginnings Part 2

To prologue or not to prologue? That is the question. This is our second installation discussing novel beginnings…get it? Novel beginnings. Okay, I’ll stop. The problem with the prologue is it has kind of gotten a bad rap over the years, especially with agents. They generally hate them. Why? In my opinion, it is because far too many writers don’t use prologues properly and that, in itself, has created its own problem. Because of the steady misuse of prologues, most readers skip them. Thus, the question of whether or not the prologue is even considered the beginning of your novel can become a gray area if the reader just thumbs pages until she sees Chapter One.

Most new writers butcher using the prologue. In fact, in all my years editing novels, I have come across one prologue that worked, and that was three days ago. Seriously. But he was a member of my Warrior Writer Boot Camp and has been coached by me, so I am not even sure it counts.

So without further ado…

The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues

Sin #1 If your prologue is really just a vehicle for massive information dump…

In my Warrior Writer Boot Camp, one of the first tasks each member must do is they must write detailed backgrounds of all characters. I make them get all of that precious backstory out of their system. This is a useful tactic in that first, it can help us see if a) our characters are psychologically consistent, b) can provide us with a feel for the characters’ psychological motivations, which will help later in plotting. I have a little formula: background–> motivations –>goals–>a plan–>a detailed plan, which = plot and c) can help us as writers honestly see what details are salient to the plot. This helps us better fold the key details into the plotting process so that this vital information can be blended expertly into the story real-time.

Many new writers bungle the prologue because they lack a system that allows them to discern key details or keep track of key background details. This makes for clumsy writing, namely a giant “fish head” labeled prologue. What do we do with fish heads? We cut them off and throw them away.   

Sin #2 If your prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.

This point ties into the earlier sin. Do this. Cut off the prologue. Now ask, “Has this integrally affected the story?” If it hasn’t, it’s likely a fish head masquerading as a prologue.

Sin #3 If your prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader…

If readers have a bad tendency to skip past prologues, and the only point of your prologue is to hook the reader, then you have just effectively shot yourself in the foot. You must have a great hook in a prologue, but then you need to also have a hook in Chapter One. If you can merely move the prologue to Chapter One and it not upset the flow of the story, then that is a lot of pressure off your shoulders to be “doubly” interesting.

Sin #4 If your prologue is overly long…

Prologues need to be short and sweet and to the point. Get too long and that is a warning flag that this prologue is being used to cover for sloppy writing.

Sin #5 If your prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story…

Pretty self-explanatory.

Sin #6 If your prologue is über-condensed world-building…

World-building is generally one of those things, like backstory, that can and should be folded into the narrative. Sometimes it might be necessary to do a little world-building, but think “floating words in Star Wars.” The yellow floating words that drift off into space help the reader get grounded in the larger picture before the story begins. But note the floating words are not super-detailed Tolkien world-building. They are simple and, above all, brief.

Sin #7 If your prologue is there solely to “set the mood…”

You have to set the mood in Chapter One anyway, so like the hook, why do it twice?  

The Prologue Virtues

Now that we have discussed the 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues, you might be asking yourself, “So when is it okay to use a prologue?” Glad you asked.

Virtue #1

Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.

Genre will have a lot to do with whether one uses a prologue or not. Thrillers generally employ prologues because what our hero is up against may be an old enemy. In James Rollins’s The Doomsday Key the prologue introduces the “adversary” Sigma will face in the book. Two monks come upon a village where every person has literally starved to death when there is more than an abundance of food. Many centuries pass and the very thing that laid waste to that small village is now once more a threat. But this gives the reader a feel for the fact that this is an old adversary. The prologue also paints a gripping picture of what this “adversary” can do if unleashed once more.

The prologue allows the reader to pass centuries of time without getting a brain cramp. Prologue is set in medieval times. Chapter One is in modern times. Prologue is also pivotal for understanding all that is to follow.

Virtue # 2

Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the backstory relevant to the plot.

The first Harry Potter book is a good example of a book that could have used a prologue, but didn’t (likely because Rowling knew it would likely get skipped). Therese Walsh in her blog Once Before A Time Part 2 said this:

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is told in a close 3rd person POV (Harry’s), but her first chapter is quite different, told when Harry is a baby and switching between omniscient and 3rd person POVs (Mr. Dursley’s and Dumbledore’s). Rowling may have considered setting this information aside as a prologue because of those different voices and the ten-year lag between it and the next scene, but she didn’t do it. The info contained in those first pages is critical, it helps to set the story up and makes it more easily digested for readers. And it’s 17 pages long.

This battle is vital for the reader to be able to understand the following events and thus would have been an excellent example of a good prologue. But, Rowling, despite the fact this chapter would have made a prime prologue still chose to make it Chapter One so the reader would actually read this essential piece of story information.

Food for thought for sure.

Yes, I had Seven Sins and only Two Virtues. So sue me :P. That should be a huge hint that there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one (that and I didn’t want this blog to be 10,000 words long). Prologues, when done properly can be amazing literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one. Make sure you ask yourself honest questions about what purpose these pages are really serving. Are they an essential component of a larger whole? Or are you using Bondo to patch together a weak plot or lazy writing?

But, don’t take my word for it. I actually scoured the Internet for some great blogs regarding prologues to help you guys become stronger in your craft:

Once Before a Time: Prologues Part 1 by Therese Walsh

Once Before a Time Part 2 by Therese Walsh

Agent Nathan Bransford offers his opinion as does literary agent Kristin Nelson

Carol Benedict’s blog Story Elements: Using a Prologue

To Prologue or Not To Prologue by Holly Jennings

If after all of this information, you decide you must have a prologue because all the coolest kids have one, then at least do it properly. Here is a great e-how article.

So if you must write a prologue, then write one that will blow a reader away.

Happy writing!

Make sure you tune into Wednesday’s blog based off my book (recommended by literary agents) We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media. The earlier you start branding the better.

Until next time…

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  1. #1 by Piper Bayard on September 27, 2010 - 4:30 pm

    Hi Kristen. Thanks so much for this post. I was just facing the prologue question, myself. And by the way, I love your new look. Red suits you. Hehe. All the best.

  2. #2 by Alley on September 27, 2010 - 6:11 pm

    Just had a workshop with ACE/ROC editor Jessica Wade, she says NEVER for prologues, and she says it could be a deal maker if the author wants to keep it. Sucks huh?

    • #3 by authorguy on September 28, 2010 - 10:57 am

      Deal maker or deal breaker?

  3. #4 by Raven Corinn Carluk on September 27, 2010 - 7:19 pm

    There really are more reasons not to have a prologue than to have one. I’ve ended up cutting the prologues from my novels, because I decided they weren’t completely relevant to the story. There were just an extra scene to help set up the book. But nothing so crucial you can’t read the rest of the novel without them.

    So now I use those cut scenes as bonus reading on my site. Then people can read it and feel like they’re getting something special. Rather than just skimming past.

    Raven Corinn Carluk – author All Hallows Blood
    Raven.YouAreAnonying.Us

    • #5 by Terrell Mims on September 27, 2010 - 7:21 pm

      Use prologues as fodder for your website. Good idea.

    • #6 by Kristen Lamb on September 27, 2010 - 7:28 pm

      That is an excellent idea. Thanks for sharing. In the 2 Writer Unboxed blogs that I provided at the bottom, Theresa Walsh gives some excellent examples of prologues that worked. But, I do have to say that prologues are misused more often than not.

  4. #7 by Donna Cummings on September 27, 2010 - 9:50 pm

    Wow, today must be prologue day. LOL I also wrote a post on this topic, and I commented on another author’s post on prologues.

    Clearly we are all tapping into the same idea bank. LOL

    I think prologues have been used improperly for so long that agents/editors have just said, “Fine. NOBODY can use them now.” :) But there are instances when they’re necessary, as you’ve demonstrated. Thanks for the great info.

    • #8 by Kristen Lamb on September 27, 2010 - 9:51 pm

      Isn’t it funny how that happens? I never cease to be amazed at how the zetgeist is still alive and well and influencing us to all blog about the same stuff, LOL. Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for taking the time to comment, :D

  5. #9 by e6n1 on September 27, 2010 - 10:02 pm

    I tend to dispense with prologues; they are like that long hard to read scroll of backstory at the beginning of each Star Wars film.

    • #10 by Kristen Lamb on September 27, 2010 - 10:23 pm

      “Dispense” them? Ooh, that sounds dark. Do they suffer? :D

  6. #11 by Heather on September 28, 2010 - 5:42 am

    Thank you Kristen for your thoughts on this topic. I have been reading your blog posts for a few weeks now and have really appreciated your insights.

    In the manuscript that I am currently working on I have chosen to use a prologue. My book is a memoir about my journey through grief to hope and healing after experiencing a stillbirth at 38 weeks. The book is based on journal entries written directly following my son’s birth. However, the prologue’s purpose in my manuscript is to provide the back story on the events that occurred the day that I found out my son died. After the prologue, my book begins with the first journal entry written that first day.

    Have you see prologues used in this way? In your opinion, would this fall in line with virtue #2 “a critical element in the back-story relevant to the plot”? Since my book is organized by my journal entries rather than traditional “chapters,” I feel that if I were to simply make my prologue the start of the book it might seem to have a strange change of flow (if that makes sense). I welcome your feedback or advice.

    • #12 by Kristen Lamb on September 28, 2010 - 12:20 pm

      Actually I recommend reading the 2 Writer Unboxed blogs. She mentions more examples of where you can use prologues and it seems to me like this is a good case. Plain truth is that if a manuscript is really good, an agent isn’t going to toss it in the trash because you have an irrelevant prologue. They will just advise you if it doesn’t work and why. I edit novels for the most part and have only ever worked with one memoir, but it sounds fine to me :).

      I am really glad you follow the blogs and have found them so helpful.

  7. #13 by authorguy on September 28, 2010 - 10:57 am

    I would disagree with your sin #5. I use prologues to give my stories some hint of antiquity, some sense that what is going to happen was a long time in the making, and a certain poetical style helps that. Additionally, they tend to point to the Larger Issue of the book (the one that the hero stumbles upon while trying to resolve the Smaller Issue that he started with), and set a hook for that issue. I do try to keep them short, though, never more than a page, usually half that.

    Your boot camp would never work for me. I’m a pantser (squared), and have no idea what my characters are up to until they tell me.

    Marc Vun Kannon

    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

    • #14 by Kristen Lamb on September 28, 2010 - 12:12 pm

      Well, if you look at the virtues, that is #1. If it is an old problem that will appear for the “new” protag. then it is fine to use a prologue. Rollins does it all the time. And actually my bootcamp works well for pantsers. You do all of the panster stuff in the planning of the novel so you get the benefit of writing to get “to know” the characters without the problems that normally go with pantser writing–plot problems, character inconsistency, massive rewrite/revision. I happen to be a big time pantser, so I created the program to give me more structure, :D. But, not everything works for everyone for sure. Thanks for the comment.

      • #15 by authorguy on September 28, 2010 - 12:35 pm

        You have ‘pantser’ and ‘planning’ in the same sentence. Weird. I can’t plan to write, I can only write, and then edit what I wrote if I don’t like it. When I get to page 2 then I will figure out what goes onto page 3, but without the actual text in front of me I can do almost nothing. If page 4 goes somewhere else I’ll go back to page 3 and change it to support page 4.

        My stories tend to have two issues going at once, one of which ties into the other, like an island is just the top of a mountain that happens to be under the water. The prologues are about the mountain. Not a temporal interruption as your virtue #1 seems to imply, but a ‘your world just got larger’ situation. If I wrote thrillers I might use a prologue to give hints about the vast conspiracy that the hero will discover as he tries to give someone a parking ticket, or some such. Since I write fantasy it’s more of a ‘this is the real structure of reality’ kind of thing.

        • #16 by Kristen Lamb on September 28, 2010 - 12:46 pm

          Well, with my students and even myself, we had to realize that (for us) a true pantser style took too much time and rewrite. When we were working on our first works, it wasn’t a big deal because we had infinite time to make it work. But, when you sign with an agent, suddenly that contract comes with deadlines. We just had to develop a system that was able to produce quality work faster…even though it is grinding against all of us, LOL. Best of luck. Some people are just far more talented than me and can keep and organize all this stuff in their head as they write. I, alas, am not that blessed.

  8. #17 by Alley on September 28, 2010 - 1:07 pm

    well, breaker, sorry, I should type with my glasses on, helps my brain LOL

    • #18 by Kristen Lamb on September 28, 2010 - 1:21 pm

      LOL….didn’t notice. I love how people think writers should spell perfectly. Hey, just because we can write doesn’t mean we don’t use spell check too, LOL.

  9. #19 by David Anaxagoras on October 4, 2010 - 2:41 am

    I disagree that the first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone is essential. I think it’s a good example of an unnecessary prologue even though it’s masquerading as Chapter One. I would have preferred to discover Harry’s true identity along with him, to be engaged in that act of discovery and to feel what Harry felt when the world suddenly opened up into something more wonderful and amazing than anything he had thought possible. As it was, the reader is just left tapping their foot, waiting for the inevitable.

    I get the feeling that prologues show up in books more often than not because the writer is showing off, and that’s always trouble.

    • #20 by Kristen Lamb on October 4, 2010 - 12:59 pm

      Great point. I do have to say that my personal opinion is the same. I always felt like that first chapter just stuck out like a weird sixth toe–which is why, if it was included, it would have made a better prologue because it made for a bizarre first chapter. I believe the overwhelming concensus is that prologues are rarely if ever needed. Might be an evolutionary change in fiction. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Great feedback :D.

  10. #21 by P.I. Barrington on October 7, 2010 - 4:50 am

    Thanks for clearing this up! My prologue exists specifically to give background experiences that affect the protagonist & her responses/actions in the current time. Both are in 3rd POV. Hope that makes sense!
    Patti

  11. #22 by ArtistWriterEditor on December 20, 2010 - 8:50 pm

    I feel like my Prologue is essential, but now that I hear that it will likely get overlooked I’m afraid to use it. My Prologue is there because there is a time gap of about five years between it and my Chapter 1. Maybe I should try to work it out of the story.

  12. #23 by lanceschaubert on April 8, 2011 - 7:52 pm

    interesting. I had not thought of those virtues in that manner. good word.

  13. #24 by Keira Lea on April 18, 2011 - 11:29 pm

    You make a great point about doing the work twice. I did this last night with a prologue. I couldn’t figure out why it was so hard for me to gain momentum with the first chapter. After reading this blog entry, I realized I left all my energy in the prologue.

    One example of an effective, powerful prologue is in Melissa Marr’s WICKED LOVELY. I didn’t realize how perfect it was until later in the book, when it practically punched me in the face. Loved it!

  14. #25 by Donna Newton on April 19, 2011 - 11:52 am

    Uh-oh. I never ever write prologues. I hate them with a vengence….and yet last week I sent you my first even one……hmmmm, wishing I hadn’t now.

  15. #26 by Jody Moller on June 3, 2011 - 10:52 am

    I actually have a query about sin #5. You mention the use of another voice. Well ‘voice’ is the reason I included a prologue in my novel (and an epilogue for that matter) my novel is written in the first person, therefore the only time I include information from a different perspective is in those two (very short less than a page) passages. Would this be considered wrong?

    • #27 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 3, 2011 - 1:03 pm

      Are they necessary? Why would we the readers care about a third party perspective from a POV of someone we never know? I don’t see how it adds anything, and, in fairness, you could be guilty of treating the reader like she is too dense to “get” what your story has to say. So in order to better control the opinion, there is this extranneous opinion from a third party just to make sure we “get/got” what your story is about.

      • #28 by Jody Moller on June 3, 2011 - 11:42 pm

        The prologue is not a rehash of a scene from the novel shown from a different POV. It is a scene that my protagonist is not involved in and therefore I have no way of incorporating into the novel other than in the prologue. Also it is set before the start of the novel. For me it was a method of introducing ‘the bad guys’ who don’t show up until quite late in the book.

        • #29 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 4, 2011 - 1:43 am

          Hmmm….the problem is that the antagonist must be introduced at least by proxy in act one. This is the issue with prologues. Often they signal a major problem in the narrative structure. I HIGHLY recommend Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. It’s an wasy fun read that will help your plotting skills. Always helps to polish our craft and you might be able to spot if you have any structure issues. Best of luck! :D

  16. #30 by Adam Collings on December 6, 2011 - 10:43 pm

    Interesting. I’m shocked to learn that readers skip prologues. That is probably the biggest reason not to use one.

    I’ve always thought of a prologue like the ‘teaser’ on a TV show before the opening credits roll.

    One time I remember seeing prologues done in a fascinating way (which worked in my opinion) was in The Zion Chronicles by Bodie & Brock Thoene. These books were set in the 1930s, but each started with a prologue set in present day. Sometimes it would be a flash-forward to one of the characters when they were older. Sometimes it was linked in some way to the original story by an important plot element such as a violin. Technically these violated Sin #2, but I found them entertaining anyway.

    • #31 by P.I. Barrington (@PIBarrington) on December 7, 2011 - 9:28 pm

      I just discussed this on an upcoming interview. Most authors overdo the length and information in both prologues and epilogues. I keep mine under or at a page and a half at the the longest and it SHOULD be a teaser that piques a reader’s interest. The same with an epilogue. It should tie up any loose, unexplained or forgotten plots, action, etc. and can set up a second, third, twenty-seventh books in a series. The trick is knowing how to manipulate both of them.

      • #32 by Marc Vun Kannon on December 8, 2011 - 6:29 am

        I completely agree, although I keep mine under a page.

  17. #33 by Author Kristen Lamb on January 4, 2012 - 9:54 am

    Prologues will generally be genre-specific. In thrillers and mysteries, they are not uncommon to see and are often from the POV of the perpetrator. Aside from that genre, though, they generally are just shifted to chapter one. Remember that when you are reading a published book, you are seeing the final product of a work that has been edited. Most new writers don’t know how to properly use the prologue and more times than not it is a fumble. Either the writer doesn’t need it, or they need to start the story earlier.

    • #34 by Snowman on January 4, 2012 - 10:05 am

      Many thanks for your speedy reply! Yes, I see your point. I generally only read thrillers, I devour them, in fact! This is why I see so many Prologues . . .

  18. #35 by Amanda on January 12, 2012 - 1:40 pm

    I was going to use a prologue for vital information that my protagonist couldn’t possibly know. I think what j.k. Rowling does by making it chapter 1 instead is a clever way to circumvent a reader’s & editor’s instinct to skip it. I recently found a great book that employed a prologue Kresley Cole’s “Dreams of a Dark Warrior” that is 43 pages long, and it is clear that you would be missing a ton of information if you skipped it. It also employs an epilogue that is only a page or so that because of the prologue wraps the book up really nicely.
    To be fair this is not her first novel. So perhaps prologues are only okay when you readers already trust you to deliver them a great story & thus they won’t skip anything.

  19. #36 by KAM on January 20, 2012 - 7:37 pm

    Hello. I’d just like to say that this is a very nice article you’ve written, and i did find it to be helpful, so thank you! However, i did find it a bit more depressing for me than helpful, making me feel a little lost now. See, I’m working on a novel now, which is really a dream of mine to get published, maybe my first, and i’ll probably never stop working on that.
    I just started working on a prologue today, which i thought would be good to write for the story to give a little bit of background info, but also to captivate the reader enough to read the rest of the story, and becuase i thought the first chapter moved a little slow because it’s like the introduction to the protagonist’s current life and i thought this would turn people off of the story. to me, it sounds like i just committed one of the sins.
    I don’t know what to do now! i don’t know if i have a story good enough, or interesting enough. I don’t know if it’s going to make editors want to rip it up when they read it, or if any editors or publishers will even get past the first page of it, or if everyone will just laugh in my face. i’m only 15 years old. i know that all i want to do is write. i don’t know if i’ll get anywhere with it, but i know i’ll sure as hell try my hardest.
    i don’t know if you’d ever consider doing anything like this…it seems highly unlikely…but could you ever maybe sample a bit of my writing? not a lot, i’d just like you to read the prologue to the story aforementioned and really tell me what you think of it. (See, i can never trust my family and friends when they read—are they just telling me it’s good writing because they love me and don’t want to hurt my feelings? 0.o) It would be AMAZING if you would do something like that for me. please message me back, or privately email me.

    • #37 by Author Kristen Lamb on January 20, 2012 - 9:04 pm

      You are entered in the contest. Breathe, LOL. Get Story Engineering by Larry Brooks and that will help A LOT.

      • #38 by KAM on January 20, 2012 - 9:22 pm

        *inhale* *exhale* Goosfraba.
        haha, ok. i’ll see if I can check out that book. thanks.

  20. #39 by Yvonne Hertzberger on September 11, 2012 - 6:04 pm

    I agonized over whether to use a prologue for the second book in my Fantasy trilogy. In the end I included it, though I’m still not certain that was the right decision. It was short and provided the link between the two books, introducing the main character, for those who had not read the first. It doesn’t hurt but in insight I think it would have worked as well without it.

  21. #40 by Jacob Nassim on February 17, 2013 - 8:46 pm

    Hi Kristen,
    I have a question.
    Recently I decided to add a prologue to my novel. Is it a good or bad prologue when the main purpose is to give a Western person’s prospective into a novel written from a Central Asian’s point of view? It’s something like a preface in ‘Lolita’ where the main purpose (I think) is to give a point of view of somebody who isn’t “insane” like H.H.
    Is a 4 page prologue too long?

    • #41 by Author Kristen Lamb on February 17, 2013 - 8:50 pm

      No idea. Just keep it short and see if cutting it really takes anything away. Often we feel the need to coach readers when they’re smart.

  22. #42 by wagnerel on May 21, 2014 - 1:04 am

    Nice piece on prologues. I’m bookmarking this so I can recommend it to people who have questions about prologues on writing sites. This was just quoted in your article, so it’s a minor thing, but I’d argue that HP was actually written entirely in omni, as there were places where the narrator shared things that were not inside Harry’s perception and showed him from without throughout the novel. But chapter 1 definitely read like a prologue. Past prologue abuse by authors has taught many readers to skip them, so some authors now simply number their prologue as chapter 1.

    Prologues are one of those things that nearly every beginning fantasy writer assumes they need to include, and most commonly they consist of “in the beginning” world building and mythology details that could be worked into the narrative of their novel.

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