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…unless you are my mother’s Scandinavian family and then they make soup *shivers*.

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. Take my First Five Pages class (below) and I can give you some expert perspective of whether to keep or ditch or if you want to keep your prologue, then how can you make it WORK?

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!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

For those who need help building a platform (HINT: Start as EARY as possible) here’s my newest social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

Announcements:

If you feel you might have the vapors after reading all of this, no worries, I offer classes to HELP.

July 19th is my First Five Pages Class  and use WANA15 for $15 off. If you can’t make the time, no worries, all classes are RECORDED and come with notes for reference. Upgrade to the GOLD level and I will look at your first five pages and give DETAILED analysis. This is NOT simple line-edit. This is a detailed, how to start your story in the right place and in a way that HOOKS analysis.

Also my Antagonist Class is coming up on July 26th and it will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). Again, use WANA15 for $15 off. The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

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  1. #1 by Daphne (daphodill) on July 14, 2014 - 7:53 am

    Reblogged this on My Passion's Pen.

  2. #3 by saundrafox on July 14, 2014 - 8:06 am

    Thanks for this Kristen. Great read once again!

  3. #4 by willmacmillanjones on July 14, 2014 - 8:12 am

    Reblogged this on willmacmillanjones and commented:
    Some thoughts on Prologues. As a Frankie Howard fan, I love them.

  4. #5 by willmacmillanjones on July 14, 2014 - 8:15 am

    I’ll be a dissenting voice, then. I think your sin #3 should be a Cardinal Virtue, not a sin. So you have to hook a reader twice? Well, get on with it! I often use a prologue (although I’ll sometimes call it Chapter One), but it should never be more than 1000 words, anyway. And preferably much less….

    • #6 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 14, 2014 - 12:49 pm

      Some new writers believe they HOOK with the prologue then fail to do that in Chapter One. Problem is, prologues are often skipped, so we miss hooking. If y’all want to hook twice? Enjoy. Just why make life harder? And they key phrase here is “used SOLELY to hook the reader.” ;)

  5. #7 by Lanette Kauten on July 14, 2014 - 8:23 am

    My most recent literary novel is set in a framing device, which is technically not a prologue but shares similarities. I’ve labeled them as chapters rather than prologue and epilogue, and they’re set twenty years after the main story. I’ve played around with the idea of dropping the first chapter because of the whole dreaded prologue thing and keep the last chapter to tie up the plot. Doing that could work, but there’s an emotional element at the beginning of the novel that’s missing by doing it that way. Plus, there’s an unnamed character behind the scenes that’s mentioned in the main novel who is physically present in the framing chapters. By dropping the first framing chapter, I would lessen the impact of that character. So after much deliberation, I kept it, hoping too many agents won’t reject based on the initial framing chapter.

  6. #8 by jillksayre on July 14, 2014 - 8:24 am

    This has been a very controversial discussion amongst my critique group, whether to prologue or not. Your article offers so much information and I will be sure to share it with them. And we will definitely discuss it again. Thanks, Kristen!

  7. #9 by gaggi97 on July 14, 2014 - 8:29 am

    Interesting information, so if a prologue holds a scene that’s critical to the plot, but takes place a few years prior, should it be turned into chapter 1?

  8. #11 by sarahpotterwrites on July 14, 2014 - 8:30 am

    I’ve just given a novel four stars on Goodreads and Amazon rather than five stars because I hated the prologue, the last page of which was blatant exposition. The guilty author here was J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith in her first crime novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling”.

  9. #12 by robinkirk on July 14, 2014 - 8:32 am

    I understand the cautions, but I think there is another kind of prologue that works (and is a favorite): the one that is somewhat mysterious, but contains clues that are only fully understood after the reader is finished.. My WIP has a prologue that is chronologically the end of the book (a letter one character writes to another). It has a few juicy details that I hope intrigue the reader and also clue them into the fact that this is a very different world. The City of Ember, a very worthy book that hasn’t received it’s due (IMHO) has one, though its called “The Instructions.” You only really get the meaning once you are most of the way through the book. In film, the images in the opening credits of “To Kill a Mockingbird” serve this purpose — intriguing and, by the end of the film, seen in a fresh light and heart breaking… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wwf96OEaYBg

  10. #13 by Kylie Betzner on July 14, 2014 - 8:47 am

    Great article! I myself have been questioning whether or not my novel should have a prologue. The information in my prologue is crucial to the story and my concern is readers will skip it. It sets up the main theme and conflict in the story, but is too short to be a chapter. I wanted chapter one to start off with the main character but they did not establish those elements as well. This provides food for thought.

  11. #14 by Tamara LeBlanc on July 14, 2014 - 8:49 am

    I love a prologue, but of course, only if it’s good. I’ve written loads of stories and only written in one prologue. It, I believe was necessary due to important story info, a time gap and a little time travel :)
    Loved all of your deadly sins and agree with all of them. Thanks also for including what makes a prologue work.
    Have a brilliant week!!!!
    Tamara

  12. #15 by Nita on July 14, 2014 - 8:58 am

    As a reader I hate, ok that might be too strong. I strongly dislike prologues. I skip them. Because I don’t like them, in my one novel I don’t use one.

  13. #16 by stephaniehurt on July 14, 2014 - 9:13 am

    Great article! I’ve mentioned it in my latest post at stephanie-hurt.com. Thanks for all the advice.

  14. #17 by Darke Conteur on July 14, 2014 - 9:17 am

    Reblogged this on Darke Conteur and commented:
    I wrote a prologue for my scifi series (four books) to introduce some of the characters that will appear later in the series. Because it’s a series, and the way I have it structured, the information in it won’t become relevant until the end of the first book.

  15. #18 by ontyrepassages on July 14, 2014 - 9:21 am

    I’m beginning to think that I’m one of the few people on the planet who reads the prologue. Sure, I’ve read good ones and bad ones, just as I’ve read good and bad books, but if the writer puts it in there I read it. After all, I don’t get to the 12th chapter, believe it’s starting slow, and skip it. Of course, like any chapter, if it ruins the story I probably won’t read the author again. All that said, having seen how many readers skip prologues I’d sooner die than use one.

  16. #19 by A.J. Zaethe on July 14, 2014 - 9:42 am

    I feel that short and sweet prologues are the best. And ones that leave you with questions you want to explore and find the answers to. I don’t mean prologues that leave the reader asking “What did I just read?” I mean prologues that leave you with exciting questions, “How did this come to be?” I feel the Wheel of Time and the Black Jewels Trilogy have great prologues. Respectively 6 and 4 pages long. Both inspire great wonder and hook readers. Their chapter ones, as interesting as anything can be, are not as “hooking” as their prologue. Does this mean that they used it correctly? I don’t know if this breaks your rule and brings them into Sin. What say you?

  17. #20 by Daven Anderson on July 14, 2014 - 10:04 am

    The prologue of Vampire Syndrome is set in 1874 and 1907. Chapter Two shows the same character reading her own diary entries from those time frames. Yes, it all ties in to later events.

  18. #21 by sao on July 14, 2014 - 10:15 am

    Evanovich uses prologues as a way of introducing her MCs to people reading her books for the first time. It means readers who are familiar with the cast of characters aren’t bored by reading stuff we already know.

    The worst prologue I ever read was setting up a series. A clan leader mused on a long list of boys, each of whom got a few words. By the time I got to the story, I’d forgotten everything and had no idea if this one was the brave one, or the quiet smart one, or the joker whose mother had died or the . . . Three pages of slog before I got to the story. No wonder people never read prologues.

  19. #22 by K.B. Owen on July 14, 2014 - 10:26 am

    Kristen, are you peeking over my shoulder (again)? Despite the bad rap about prologues (my agent made me take it out of my first book), I was just considering writing a prologue for my current WIP because my first chapter doesn’t have enough of a hook. Looks like I’m re-writing chapter 1…sigh. Thanks for the reminder, aka the slap upside the head! ;)

  20. #23 by Jack Eason on July 14, 2014 - 10:27 am

    “Prologues need to be short and sweet and to the point.” Not always. Some stories need more explanation. The trick is to find the balance. :)

  21. #25 by Jack Eason on July 14, 2014 - 10:28 am

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Thoughts about prologues…

  22. #26 by Jade M. Phillips on July 14, 2014 - 10:41 am

    Reblogged this on jademphillips and commented:
    I loved this post on prologues done by Kristin over at warrior writers. So here I am reblogging it for your enjoyment. :)

  23. #27 by Jade M. Phillips on July 14, 2014 - 10:46 am

    Reblogged this on Jademphillips.com. I really loved this post and I would love feedback/help on the beginning of my story! ♥♥♥ Thanks for the great info.

  24. #28 by tkmorin on July 14, 2014 - 11:03 am

    I enjoyed your post (I usually do) and by the time I finished reading it, I knew exactly what to add in the preface of a book I’m writing. :-) thank you again!

  25. #29 by Bill Hunter on July 14, 2014 - 11:08 am

    Great article. I prefer to exclude prologues when I write but my current work in progress I think I need one. It’s set in the future and explains the current world in a paragraph form timeline similar to the Stars Wars script you mention. It is currently on 750 words, so my question is does that work for a prologue?

  26. #30 by HB Heinzer on July 14, 2014 - 11:14 am

    Great post! Sharing this everywhere I can!

  27. #31 by MonaKarel on July 14, 2014 - 11:22 am

    There is always that problem of the prologue being skipped. The one time I felt a prologue was essential to the story, I worked to make it the strongest, best bit of writing I’d ever done. Only to later read a review stating: “this book would have benefited from a prologue”
    Sigh

  28. #32 by unsaintly on July 14, 2014 - 11:38 am

    I struggled for a long time trying to decide whether to do a Prologue or not. I agree 100%, people will skim over that Prologue because many author’s do fail in that area. If the Prologue is short and immediately grabs my attention I’ll read it. Or if I get to chapter one and I feel like I’ve missed something, I’ll go back to the Prologue. Thanks for this information, though. I ended up adding my Prologue, and I think, based on the information you’ve put here compared with my own feelings of the structure of the story, that is fits well. :)

  29. #33 by Aul on July 14, 2014 - 12:25 pm

    Good advice! I took out the prologue of my book because it was unnecessary.
    Aul

  30. #34 by Kira Morgana on July 14, 2014 - 1:14 pm

    Reblogged this on The World of The Teigr Princess and commented:
    Prologues… the bane of the Agent’s life and the love of those fantasy writers who can’t bear to leave all that lovely world building info in their background folders…

  31. #35 by Kira Morgana on July 14, 2014 - 1:14 pm

    Prologues are overused in Fantasy books, often to tie books that are in a series together.

    David Eddings used his to slip in snatches of what seemed like religious writings, but were actually the story of Belgarath that led up to the start of the Belgariad series, told in the view of the different religions of the world.

    When he put together the story of Belgarath and Polgara as separate books, those snippets made a lot more sense.

    I have used prologues in some of my YA books – whether or not they’re successful, I have no idea… but going by these guidelines, they were necessary.

  32. #36 by Andrea Blythe on July 14, 2014 - 1:23 pm

    It’s interesting to find out that so many people skip the prologue. I’ve always read the prologue, since I figure it must have been put there for a reason.

    Great advice and at the perfect time. I’ve been toying with the idea of a prologue in my next novel. Though my prologue is more of a frame story, which would begin in a kind of prologue and end in a kind of epilogue. I feel it’s important to frame the novel in this way, as it solves a problem with, er, timing I guess (I don’t know how else to word it).

    I’m still toying with the idea of how to include it. Labeling it a prologue is the easiest way, but since as you note, some people skip prologues, I’m not sure that’s what I want to do. So, I’ll still be playing with it for a while.

    • #37 by sao on July 15, 2014 - 8:09 am

      You’ve reminded me of one of the reasons I don’t like prologues, which probably applies to frame stories, too, although I’ve read fewer of those. If the prologue has the beginnings of a good story and interesting chars, I want to know more, but the plot line and sometimes the characters get dropped at Chapter 1. If the prologue wasn’t that interesting, I have less patience to read C1 and you need to draw me in to a great story faster.

  33. #38 by Michelle Stanley on July 14, 2014 - 1:24 pm

    Your post is very helpful. I’ll read prologues if they’re interesting, so do skip them if they are lenghtly or boring. A book I recently read had a prologue that didn’t connect to the story.

  34. #39 by tannerakane on July 14, 2014 - 1:27 pm

    Kristen, I chose to use a prologue for one novel only. The purpose was to set up a story in the present by writing historical scenes from the middle 1800s. Including flashbacks to the time seemed awkward and out of place. I agree with your comments regarding the seven deadly sins. Information dumps are unnecessary in a novel. Good writers can hook readers in the first chapter.

  35. #40 by Susanne Leist on July 14, 2014 - 1:50 pm

    I find your posts very useful. So useful that I’ve been saving them in a folder. I will reference them as I write the sequel to my first book. Thanks for the advice, Susanne

  36. #41 by Lynda Jo on July 14, 2014 - 2:36 pm

    Thanks Kristen. I’m reading and working my way through Rise of the Machines right now. It is one of the most useful books on using social media I’ve read – and I’ve read many. I do believe this one is going to jump start my platform — Finally!

  37. #42 by Jess Mahler on July 14, 2014 - 2:48 pm

    I’ve never understood readers who don’t read prologues. I always read them, which I guess makes me weird. I’ve also put down a lot of books because of poorly written prologues–I figure if the author can’t write a good prologue they probably can’t write a good book.

    I’m using a prologue for the first time in my current WIP. I know it lines up with your 2 virtues, and I think I’ve avoided the sins. We’ll see what the editor thinks!

    FYI–this blog is one of the few I read regularly. You always have a great info and a really enjoyable way of writing.

    • #43 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 14, 2014 - 3:34 pm

      Great to know. Hey, I’ve done all the dumb stuff so y’all don’t have to.

  38. #44 by Rii the Wordsmith on July 14, 2014 - 3:10 pm

    I’m actually planning on a prologue in my current WIP. It’s probably the most polished “chapter” I have right now XD but considering how short it is, that can’t be too surprising.

    My take on it is that it provides interesting and useful information – information that might enhance the reader’s experience of the story, make them wonder and build suspicions of later introduced charters – but not vital information. Because of how often I’ve been warned the prologue will be skipped, I want to reward readers for reading it but not punish them if they don’t. The whole story is 1st person; the prologue’s POV character is different from the rest of the story but immediately connected to the actual MC immediately in the first paragraph of Chapter 1.

    Is this not an appropriate use, from the sounds of it?

  39. #45 by Tricia Drammeh on July 14, 2014 - 3:13 pm

    Reblogged this on Tricia Drammeh and commented:
    Great advice by Kristen Lamb!

  40. #46 by allisonbrennan on July 14, 2014 - 3:14 pm

    I love prologues when done right. I have had this conversation with many, many authors and reviewers and others. Almost all my books have a prologue. I think all (but maybe one) were critical to the story. And the suggestion by one of my writing friends to call the prologue “Chapter One” is disingenuous to me. I have a prologue in NOTORIOUS and COMPULSION that are critical to the story, take place months or years before the story starts, reveal an important clue for the reader to fully enjoy the story — or they will be more surprised than they should be by the revelations over the course of the story. I’ve had two editors with two major publishers, and two agents at two major agencies, and none of those people ever told me to dump my prologue.

    That said, I agree with all your vices and virtues — I really don’t like world-building prologues and I especially detest prologues that have a completely different tone than chapter one.

    • #47 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 14, 2014 - 3:33 pm

      And that’s why I said genre WILL affect whether we use prologues or not. Usually in thrillers, suspense, mystery, we are less prone to skip them. They aren’t per se “bad” just are very often used poorly, sort of like flashbacks. Yes, we CAN jump back in time, but how we do it and how often is the key.

  41. #48 by saralitchfield on July 14, 2014 - 3:26 pm

    Love this! I ditched my prologue in the latest MS and life is better for it!

  42. #49 by Lila L. Pinord on July 14, 2014 - 4:31 pm

    I just did this but it disappeared because it said I had to change my password!
    I wrote two prologues for two of my books, but they fit in well with what you said about writing something that happened in the past, which I did. Then the first chapter starts in the present day with a tie-in to what happened in the long-ago. I like the way they did that in Jurassic Park, based on the book. Some well-known authors simply take a good scene from their book and put it at the beginning instead of a prologue! What does everyone think of this little trick to attract our attention? Is it a good idea, what do you think?

  43. #50 by katherineclairehayward on July 14, 2014 - 4:49 pm

    Reblogged this on Katherine Claire Hayward and commented:
    I love this, I have written 3 books , none published yet, I was toying with the idea of a prologue but none of my books have one

  44. #51 by Michael Smart on July 14, 2014 - 6:16 pm

    Hi Kristen, just discovered your blog from a share by someone in my G+ circle. I share your perspective on the use of prologues, and I do not believe it’s an either/or proposition, or whether to use or not use a prologue, as many community discussions tend to focus on. The take away I get from reading those discussions and comments is most new writers have a basic misunderstanding of the prologue’s purpose. And while writing tips and rules concerning prologues serve a valuable purpose, especially if you’re going to use a prologue, the problem of inappropriately using prologue will continue as long as this misunderstanding of its purpose persists. Clive Cussler is a master of the proper use of prologues.

    • #52 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 15, 2014 - 5:49 am

      Great to meet you! And I don’t have a problem with prologues. I just want writers to lean what purpose they serve and WHY one is used, thus HOW it can be used effectively.

  45. #53 by Catherine at Critique My Novel on July 14, 2014 - 8:14 pm

    • #54 by Lila L. Pinord on July 15, 2014 - 5:04 pm

      When I wrote IN TIME – my time travel book about openings into different times and places here on earth, several of my friend read it and said they needed to know WHY there were these misty curtains of time openings. So I immediately wrote a prologue explaining this which they liked and it fit in neatly with the story. So sometimes I think it is a necessity! I self-published this time travel book, but it is now in the hands of a traditional publisher and so it is off the market for now.

    • #55 by gilliansnotebook on July 27, 2014 - 8:56 pm

      I’ve always been unclear about prologues. How many pages, at most, should they be and what is the best use of a prologue?

  46. #56 by Deborah Makarios on July 14, 2014 - 9:14 pm

    It seems to me that if you can’t guarantee people will read it, you can only put in stuff that people don’t need to know (or a note after THE END saying ‘confused? should have read the prologue, shouldn’t you?’). And if it’s full of unnecessary, well, it’s unnecessary.
    Or you could just have two chapters headed ‘Chapter One’ and see if anyone notices :-)
    Myself, I often read everything from the copyright and paper-source info right through to the typographical information at the back. What can I say, I’m a compulsive reader…

  47. #57 by Brian Douglas Moakley on July 15, 2014 - 10:12 am

    Unfortunately, I’m one of those people who may not just skip the prologue, but drop the book because of it. I feel the same about flashbacks. I have so little time these days that it’s almost a mortal offense when I feel that a writer is wasting it.

    In any case, thanks for the nice, well written article. I appreciate the additional references as well.

  48. #58 by Betsy Ashton on July 15, 2014 - 4:42 pm

    I have generally avoided prologues at all costs. That said, in my new thriller, I have a brief (one and one-half pages) letter to an unknown person or persons from a serial killer. It’s an apology for violating said person’s trust and setting the reader up to uncover who the recipient is and why s/he can never tell anyone what the narrator did. Let’s hope my agent likes it… *she sighs*

    • #59 by Lila L. Pinord on July 15, 2014 - 4:57 pm

      I like that idea! It grabs you and I would definitely want to read further…Sounds like a suspense thriller which is what I like to read and write.
      Lila L. Pinord
      Author of four books

    • #60 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 15, 2014 - 8:06 pm

      But prologues are commonly used in certain genres. It’s all about understanding genre and reader expectations.

  49. #61 by davidjrogersftw on July 16, 2014 - 9:44 am

    I’m a stylist and I love prologues whose language is beautiful in the same way I like prologues in movies–usually from the forties–that borrow the words from the book and are spoken by a lovely voice. Very nice and stimulating article. I’ll see what you’ve written, Kristen.

  50. #62 by harrymanners on July 16, 2014 - 12:38 pm

    Brilliant post. Prologues always crop up novice writers when they’re learning the ropes. (Guilty as charged!)
    I think most are down to writers building the skills they need to start a story properly.

  51. #63 by jeffguenther8 on July 17, 2014 - 1:59 am

    There’s only one rule for prologues: They must be short–half a page or so, certainly under a full page. That covers “Sins” 1, 4, and 6: you can’t have an info dump or build worlds in half a page. And if the prologue is short, there’s not much incentive to skip, is there?

    But can you direct me to actual statistics that show most readers skip prologues? I suspect there’s some confusion with prefaces, which are written to thank people the reader doesn’t know for doing things the reader doesn’t give a poop about, and which, truly, people skip.

    Sin 3, prologues to “hook” the reader: If the prologue is short, there’s nothing wrong with hooking the reader there, and then again in Chapter 1, early and late, twice on Sunday, And chapter 2. And 3. And 4… Hook the reader early and often. If you have a prologue, hook them there, too. It’s not a sin.

    Sin 5, prologues with different style and voice, not in the A plot: Narrative prologues are common and can be very effective in first person novels because the narrator can know and say things the character can’t. Sometimes the narrator appears again at the end to bookend the novel, sometimes not. Prologues in a different POV from the main thread are also useful in many cases. Not a sin, in any case. If you’re using a prologue to linearize the story (avoiding flashbacks), a different style may better fit the earlier time-frame. Even so, keep it short.

    Sin 7, prologues solely to set the mood: Absolutely no reason not to do so. The prologue is to give us the mood of the book as a whole. Chapter 1 (often) shows the Hero’s ordinary world and its mood as first seen. THEY MAY BE DIFFERENT MOODS.

    Sin 2, prologues that have nothing to do with the main story: Not a frequent problem; most writers know enough not to have the prologue just hanging there. But the main story may take place in a wider context which should be mentioned to put it in perspective. E.g., war pictures, foreign places, different times, and so on. This includes any necessary (and brief) backstory.

    So: Rule 1: Write your prologue as a half page, when possible; less than a full page in all cases.
    Rule 2: When done, check to see if you’ve just written your Chapter 1. If so, retitle it.

    • #64 by Lila L. Pinord on July 17, 2014 - 4:46 pm

      I always read prologues, short, long, or in-between. I consider them part of the book’s story. I don’t understand how people can just skip them!

  52. #65 by Andrew Toynbee on July 18, 2014 - 3:58 am

    Loved the ‘fish heads’ analogy. LMAO – but such a great visual!

  53. #66 by mygrandfathersuncle on July 23, 2014 - 9:29 pm

    Kirsten, I’m wondering if the sins you speak of also apply to Prefaces?

    • #67 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 24, 2014 - 2:07 pm

      Most people skip those and I think they are pretty much homonyms.

      • #68 by mygrandfathersuncle on July 24, 2014 - 2:37 pm

        Thank you Kristen, I have heard some opinion recommending using an Introduction in lieu of a Preface or a Prologue, in order to catch more of those hasty type readers. What do you think about an Introduction instead? I should add…in the case of a memoir?

  54. #69 by Stanislava on July 24, 2014 - 4:17 pm

    In my very first drafts of my sci-fi novel I had a prologue that I later on changed into a first chapter with a distinct time gap of twenty years before and after. It made more sense and also saved me from typecasting my manuscript when I was ready to query a lit. agents.

  55. #70 by Klimpaloon on July 27, 2014 - 3:03 am

    I feel like the prologue for my current WIP is both really important and really weird. First of all, it’s a prologue in two parts, both scenes that happen four years before the plot gets rolling.
    The first part is a scene that is repeated in the flashback later in the novel, though from the perspective of a different character to show just how badly everyone has been understanding her motives. The second part is dialogue only between the two other main characters; no dialogue tags appear so as to symbolically show they are essentially identical twins that started out the same but diverged–not to mention that the scene shows the reason that they go AWOL in Chapter 1.
    I feel like I have to do the prologue this way since the “Four Years Ago” stuff is vital to the climax, and while it is foreshadowed in the main text, the reader might be more likely to ignore it without being warned ahead of time. The two-partedness is also necessary because one protagonist barely would have even met the other two, who have been joined at the hip for as long as they can remember–I feel like it might be better to switch it to a single scene or three scenes, to better reflect the protagonist distribution, but I have no idea how to go about this without losing all of the benefits I’ve listed above.

  56. #71 by jeffguenther8 on July 28, 2014 - 6:22 pm

    Nobody took me up on providing stats on whether people really do skip prologues or not. I started a thread on Goodreads and posed the question, “https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1915548-do-you-read-prologues” The results:

    Of the 12 who addressed the question, 10 said they read the prologues and 2 were luke warm about them. Not one reader said they skip prologues without ever reading them.

    An earlier Yahoo poll had similar results, 14 were pro-prologue, 7 were pro-prologue, generally, but with some reservations. Again, not one single reader said they always skip them.

    https://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100727194850AARrRCN

    Keep them to half a page and you won’t lie awake at night wondering anybody’s skipping your prologue.

  57. #72 by Betsy Ashton on July 29, 2014 - 8:15 am

    The beta readers have spoken and the verdict on prologues is in. For my serial killer novel, the prologue will be chapter one. Easily solved problem. I need the readers to read that first page, so …

  58. #73 by Andy Oldham on July 29, 2014 - 10:50 am

    You struck my interest right off when you mentioned that the prologue was a big fish head and agents hate them. After reviewing my book I think this is why I am being rejected so much. I am going to work on moving my prologue into chapter one and see what the effect might be. Should I also consider moving the epilogue into the last chapter as well. Would love your thoughts on this. I’m glad I have found your blog! Blessings!

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