The Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, via Mikko Luntiala

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, via Mikko Luntiala

To prologue or not to prologue? That is the question. 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.

So without further ado…

The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues

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

This is one of the reasons I recommend writing detailed backgrounds of all main characters before we begin (especially when we are new writers). Get all of that precious backstory out of your 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 our prologue is to hook the reader, then we have just effectively shot ourselves in the foot. We must have a great hook in a prologue, but then we need to also have a hook in Chapter One. If we 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 our 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 or really should have just been Chapter One.

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…”

We 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.

Prologues are used a lot in thrillers and mysteries to see the crime or event that sets off the story. Readers of these genres have been trained to read prologues and generally won’t skip. The serial killer dumping his latest victim is important to the story. It’s a genre thing. Yet, still? Keep it brief. Reveal too much and readers won’t want to turn pages to learn more.

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?

But, don’t take my word for it. Over the ages, I’ve collected great blogs regarding prologues to help you guys become stronger in your craft. These are older posts, but timeless:

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.

What are some of the questions, concerns, troubles you guys have had with prologues? Which ones worked? Which ones bombed? What are your solutions or suggestions?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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  1. #1 by Ruth Hartman Berge on August 26, 2013 - 12:12 pm

    As a non-fiction writer just dipping my toe into fiction waters, I will be eternally grateful that I’ve been following your blog. I’ve written a prologue to my first fiction novel and am now thinking I probably need to tighten it up a bit. Thanks for another timely post!!

  2. #2 by Elke Feuer on August 26, 2013 - 12:14 pm

    You must’ve been reading my mind, Kristen! I was just looking at my prologue and deciding whether to change it to Chapter 1. My story is a thriller/mystery and the prologue sets the story in motion with the POV of the villain, so looks like I’m safe.

    Thanks for the timely tip!

    BTW. Loving your book so far. :-)

  3. #3 by katbiggie on August 26, 2013 - 12:18 pm

    So, no prologue it is! I actually never even considered having one. By the way, per your advice, I ordered the book Hooked, and I am really learning a bunch. He doesn’t like prologues either! ;-)

  4. #4 by adstarrling on August 26, 2013 - 12:28 pm

    Thanks for this! I do use prologues and they fall under Virtue #1 :) The one for Book 1 was uber short, Book 2’s was a tad longer but has been praised for providing a chilling portrait of the main character when she was a child, and Book 3’s is…complicated. I’m going to see what my editors say about Book 3’s prologue; it helps deliver background history critical to the plot and understanding the main characters, but is told in two time sequences, 15th century and 18th century!

  5. #5 by Shea Ford on August 26, 2013 - 12:42 pm

    Huh. I never knew there were people who didn’t read the prologue. I’m of the type that even though I’ve seen the Star Wars movies a million times, you will annoy me if you talk while I’m trying to read the prologue.

    I haven’t yet felt the need to write a prologue, but I do want to quote a line from Harry Potter actually in my current MS before Chapter 1, once I have permission. The aim is to set up the overall theme of the story. Any dos or don’ts on that?

  6. #6 by Wendy Jones on August 26, 2013 - 12:52 pm

    This is great advice thank you. I have used a very short prologue in my first book which thankfully falls under Virtue 1. So as a new writer I am somewhat relieved. I am a reader who actually reads prologues so was unaware that that people do not read them. My second book does not start with a prologue and I will bear this in mind for future books

  7. #7 by Margaret Taylor on August 26, 2013 - 12:58 pm

    Informative as always Ms. Kristen! Love it.

    Fortunately, *if* I use a Prologue, it’s generally less than a full page. My book coming out tomorrow has one (about 1/2 a page long b/c I had to show our stalwart Heroine was dreaming about one of the main characters long before she meets the *other* main character. Yes, they are twins…*wicked grin*)

    In another WIP – a Paranormal/Dimensional travel – I have one that, again is less than a full page to show the other dimension and one of the main characters. In chapter one, we meet the other two MC’s in *this* dimension as they get together and try to figure out how to get back to their real dimension…I know that sounds confusing, but it’s not once you get into the story, trust me!

    Generally, I don’t use them. I prefer to interlace my backstory into the main story as I go and as it’s needed. I do have another WIP though (which is way down the list of releases to come) where I broke that rule somewhat, but only by half a page because I needed to set the tone for the post-apocalyptic world to come in Chapter One and it couldn’t be done by the MC’s due to the fact that most of the history had been lost over the ages. Again, it’s short – my longest really at right around a page and a half but like you said, sometimes it has to be done. *nods*

  8. #8 by grfrazier on August 26, 2013 - 1:00 pm

    I tend to agree that the prologue isn’t needed, even if it does contain important world-building or back story that will become evident later in the story. It bogs down the start of the story. If the prologue material is that important, there are ways to work it into the main story without bogging things down.

  9. #9 by Suzanne Lucero (@S_Lucero) on August 26, 2013 - 1:05 pm

    I was going to use a prolog in my book. I thought it was necessary to explain how my MC first began to control her dreams, and the prolog also introduced her dream journal, which is a major object in the story. Like any new “parent” I scrubbed the prologue until is shone, made sure there were no extraneous plot points that didn’t need to be there (my MCs two best friends were cut), and gave it a lovely voice.

    Then, two years later, I tossed it.

    You’ve got to kill your little darlings, right? For the sake of the story, sometimes they have to die.

  10. #10 by gettingsomethenovel on August 26, 2013 - 1:21 pm

    Hmmmn. My first novel had a prologue that probably broke a couple of these rules. Next time, I’ll probably just start with chapter 1!

  11. #11 by awax1217 on August 26, 2013 - 2:10 pm

    A lot of good information that I will try to digest later. Boy, writing has a lot of ins and outs.

  12. #12 by Jodi on August 26, 2013 - 2:17 pm

    I’ve read my fair share of great and not so great prologues and for that reason my first scene that really should be called a prologue because it’s a different character at a different time, is being called chapter one regardless of what it really is. (Holy run on sentence Batman!) I can’t have anyone decide to skip it because it’s hugely vital to the plot!

    I think I’m going to bookmark this post so I can send it to people I critique who think info dump prologues are cool…

    Could you do a post about epilogues?

  13. #13 by Gabrielle Garbin on August 26, 2013 - 2:26 pm

    Reblogged this on The Write Way and commented:
    Excellent advice as always.

  14. #14 by Gabrielle Garbin on August 26, 2013 - 2:37 pm

    I scrapped a prologue on an older project after reading this because you were dead on. Conversely, I wrote one for my current novel because it solves the problem I had with a timeline issue. I also like your formula for developing characters prior to starting the novel. It’s one of those suggestions that makes perfect sense, and I don’t know why i don’t think of this myself. As a writer with a day job in the family, there’s a sense of urgency once I decide to start writing. I think about writing far too long before starting the process, and then become overwhelmed with the time involved in the process itself. Thank you so much Kristen from the time and energy you put into helping us become better writers. Your blog has sold me on your advice, and I will be reading every writing book you publish.

  15. #15 by Gabrielle Garbin on August 26, 2013 - 2:38 pm

    And a family… I really have to stop using Siri dictation software!

  16. #16 by Heather on August 26, 2013 - 2:39 pm

    Ah, this is a good question. In my rework of my ms, I put a 3 line prologue in. Its the style of other content in the rest of the story, but it sets up the first chapter’s events because it’s from the villain. I think it will work whether or not it gets skipped, but it definitely lends itself more towards identifying something is amiss before my mc even gets there. I’ll have to see if people respond well to it.

  17. #17 by annerallen on August 26, 2013 - 2:43 pm

    One of the best pieces on prologues ever, Kristen! Agents hate them because they’re misused, but sometimes they CAN be just what the book needs.

  18. #18 by Amira K. on August 26, 2013 - 3:41 pm

    I wrote a prologue to my book that I have been told is well-done, gripping, hooking, and relevant to the rest of the plot by multiple readers. This is thrilling news for me! But when I pitched this idea to an agent and she asked what the role of the prologue was, when I tried to explain I was unilaterally cut off and told that, if I wanted to sell it to her, I had to cut the prologue. Alas, I decided to keep the prologue and cut the agent, so I can certainly see why they are so controversial.

  19. #19 by Carrie-Anne on August 26, 2013 - 3:42 pm

    The kind of prologues I dislike are ones where it’s just part of a later chapter. Why have literally the same material twice in the same book? Why do we need this little sneak peek so far in advance? By the time that passage rolls around, the reader has probably forgotten it anyway. The first time I encountered such a prologue, I assumed it was just describing the events that happened before the first chapter. Then I got to the part where that prologue now appeared as part of a chapter, and was confused as to why it was even used!

  20. #20 by shad0wrav3n2014 on August 26, 2013 - 3:44 pm

    I am glad i read this. I will now edit my current work. I was planning on a re-release of some of my older work in the future. Now with this new information, I will be sure to meld my prologues into my chapters. Thank you oh-so much!

  21. #21 by rod on August 26, 2013 - 3:54 pm

    I agree with all of this.

  22. #22 by Alison Doherty on August 26, 2013 - 4:27 pm

    Happy to see this post because as a reader I usually skip prologues too … I just want to get to the story.

  23. #23 by Poodlepal on August 26, 2013 - 6:10 pm

    Beverly Lewis does a prologue and an epilogue in 1st person (main Amish woman) but the main part of the book is in 3rd person, multiple viewpoints. I’m not sure if I like it, but I’m a prologue skipper and don’t usually include them in a book I’m trying to write.

  24. #24 by Dyane on August 26, 2013 - 6:37 pm

    Good stuff here. :) A prologue with the right purpose can be essential, otherwise I just skim and get to the main story.

  25. #25 by Dyane on August 26, 2013 - 6:37 pm

    Reblogged this on Dropped Pebbles and commented:
    I think prologues get a bad rap. Here are some really great examples of when they should and should not be used.

  26. #26 by Steve on August 26, 2013 - 7:03 pm

    Thank you for a very timely post; as I was asking myself if I wanted to still use the prologue I had written before making a major change to the novel I am writing.

  27. #27 by amber on August 26, 2013 - 7:53 pm

    Reblogged this on Bookbilly.

  28. #28 by patrickseanleePatrick Sean Lee on August 26, 2013 - 8:04 pm

    Thank you Kristen.
    I was advised by a very highly rated bookdoc back in 2007 to cut the prologue from my second novel. I didn’t listen to her because I felt she was wrong, as wise as highly respected as she was. She gave no reasons to me, and I didn’t ask. The prologue is still in the book; a single page in length, and it speaks directly to a chapter three quarters of the way through the novel. Agents or publishers liking it or not–it doesn’t matter. I will leave it in. It’s my book, my writing after all.

    My favorite Prologue beginning. Gorgeous writing.

    Mark Helprin: In “Sunlight and in Shadow”.
    “If you were a spirit, and could fly and alight as you wished, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then you might rise to enter a window high above the park, in the New York of almost a lifetime ago, early in November of 1947.”

    First, the paragraph-length sentence is 53 words in length, definitely a no-no by writing professors’ standards.
    Secondly, it says nothing about the first chapter, or the second, or the third. Not until the end will we recall the entire prologue and its significance to the story.

    It sets the mood. It’s Helprin at his lyrical best, and it definitely urges the reader onward to the next paragraph, and the next, and the next, until at its conclusion you MUST read on and discover what the angel really saw.

    Handled by a master, prologues are exquisite.

  29. #29 by Stacey Haggard Brewer on August 26, 2013 - 8:36 pm

    Thanks for the great info. I and a partner are using a prologue in a WIP, but it’s about 150 words and meets the criteria you set out. I generally stay away from them, but this story seemed to call for one.

  30. #30 by Gaz on August 26, 2013 - 8:40 pm

    As an avid reader, could I ask writers not to write a prologue in the third persion followed by a story in the first person? Please? It’s amateurish and jarring. Even well established writers have started doing it, for some reason I can’t understand. It certianly doesn’t make the story more readable or believable. When I get to a point in a book where the POV changes that way, I don’t just stop reading, I throw the book in the trash so no-one else has to suffer the same disappointment I have. So please stop it, it’s costing me a fortune.

  31. #31 by ontyrepassages on August 26, 2013 - 9:10 pm

    I always read the prologue, but I wouldn’t use one these days because I recognize, like Rowling, that they’re out of vogue and subject to being skipped. I read them, good or bad, because they were a part of the writer’s vision and I want to experience the story as they conceived it. Of course, in the end I might believe they made a mistake, but that’s their risk. When they work they can heighten tension, especially in a mystery, as you noted.

    Someday I want to start a book with “Prologue, Part 1″ and see how many people lose consciousness.

  32. #32 by Charlotte Firbank-King on August 27, 2013 - 1:10 am

    Kirsten, I agree with most of what you say about prologues. One analogy I didn’t agree with :-) Fish heads make great stock and we all know stock is the basis for a great dish.
    I think one can often do a prologue, but don’t call it a prologue. This works well in YA novels. call the prologue “The Beginning” or give a date/century as the title, or some such ploy.
    Thank you for a great blog

    • #33 by Author Kristen Lamb on August 27, 2013 - 6:44 am

      LOL. My Scandinavian family would heartily agree with you. They looooove fish heads in soup.

  33. #34 by everwalker on August 27, 2013 - 3:29 am

    Reblogged this on everwalker.

  34. #35 by Benison O'Reilly (@BenisonAnne) on August 27, 2013 - 4:57 am

    Interesting. I have a prologue which is essential to the plot but occurs 6 years before the main action. I think I’ll follow JK Rowling’s lead and just call it Chapter 1.

  35. #36 by Maryann Miller (@maryannwrites) on August 27, 2013 - 10:33 am

    Appreciate the tips on prologues. Since I use them in my Seasons Mystery Series, I was worried that I had to go to confession. LOL I am quoting you in a blog piece that will be on The Blood Red Pencil tomorrow. I thought your tips were worth sharing. Thanks.

  36. #37 by Tymber Dalton on August 27, 2013 - 1:01 pm

    I agree with this wholeheartedly, except… LOL

    I never skip prologues. What I HAVE discovered, however, in the era of the Kindle, is that a lot of people don’t realize Kindles usually start the reader at Chapter One, regardless of whether or not there is an author’s note or prologue or whatever in the beginning. A little informal polling on my Facebook pages and in a couple of groups show that there are a a number of people who do realize this and page back to the cover to read all the front matter, but there are also a lot of people who had no clue that they might be missing stuff in front of Chapter One.

    It doesn’t seem to be as prevalent an issue for Nooks, or for some books bought from outside the Kindle store and sideloaded, and sometimes not an issue for the apps with some files, but for Kindle books bought from the Kindle store and read on a Kindle device, it’s a very common issue.

    Food for thought. I don’t know if there’s a way to code the ebook files to “force” the file to open at the cover or not.

  37. #38 by justmoo33 on August 27, 2013 - 1:11 pm

    I can’t decide if mine comes under sin #3 or virtue #1 :)

  38. #39 by Tracy Bermeo on August 27, 2013 - 2:32 pm

    Yay WanaCon! Can’t wait. Oh, good info on prologues too.

  39. #40 by Katie Cross on August 27, 2013 - 2:39 pm

    I wrote a prologue once, and even I didn’t like it …

  40. #41 by VeronicaThePajamaThief on August 27, 2013 - 8:51 pm

    Dang! I think I committed at least three sins in the prologue for my memoir, but here’s the thing. I added the prologue because it will tie in with the closing scene… and I really want that closing scene!

  41. #42 by VeronicaThePajamaThief on August 27, 2013 - 8:51 pm

    BTW…. I don’t skip prologues. :)

  42. #43 by VeronicaThePajamaThief on August 27, 2013 - 8:57 pm

    Reblogged this on Veronica The Pajama Thief and commented:
    Well, I already knew I was a sinner… :p

    Seriously though… this is a great essay by Kristen.

  43. #44 by donnajeanmcdunn on August 27, 2013 - 9:28 pm

    This just reaffirmed my belief that I hate prologues. I was a reader many years before I was a writer and I never read them. Unless the book sounded so good I couldn’t pass it up and it had a prologue, I wouldn’t get it. Those that I did buy, oh, I would try to read it, but usually within the first few paragraphs I would stop and go directly to the first chapter. I would never write one.

  44. #45 by Ken Hughes on September 3, 2013 - 10:59 am

    I’ve been enjoying this and the links, and I think most of everyone’s advice comes down to one thing:

    A good prologue is there because it shows one or two key elements of the story, things that are best contrasted with the rest that are to come. It can’t be built with none of those key points (it can’t be just for mood), but it also can’t have too many points (that’s what ought to be Chapter One, or worked into there and beyond) or run long. That and it has to be compelling in its own right.

    But if it doesn’t have that kind of focus on the right thing, it’s just a distraction from making the main flow of the story work.

  45. #46 by Kathy Steinemann on September 8, 2013 - 8:36 am

    I always read prologues. Why? If the author includes one, there must be a reason.

    I believe prologues are often important for books that are part of a series. However, the writing should be concise and compelling.

  46. #47 by Lori King Books on September 9, 2013 - 12:01 pm

    Reblogged this on Lori King Books and commented:
    I loved this article! They really delve into some of the drawbacks of a prologue, and some of the reasons it can make the story better!

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