Explanatory prologues in novels

“Shoot the Sheriff in Paragraph One!”

That’s the advice most writers get, when they’re first learning how to write a story. But this creates a problem if you’ve got some preliminary things you feel you need to get out of the way before the story can get started. So you’re stuck with a big question.

Should you write a prologue at the beginning of a novel?

When it comes to a futuristic story, especially one featuring a society vastly different from ours, you may think, “Well duh, of course you need a prologue.” Or if there is other back-story you think needs to be there to set the stage for the main plot, as in a historical setting, you may also be tempted to write a prologue to set it up.

Yet many editors think that this not-quite-chapter, stuck in before the story even gets started, makes a novel weaker rather than stronger.

Hook ‘Em Real Good

Part of the reason people hesitate in their approval of prologues is that these devices make the novel start slowly. Writers are taught from day one that they have to hook the reader in the first paragraph — “shoot the sheriff in the first sentence” — because if the person in the bookstore doesn’t get really interested by the end of that paragraph, they’ll put the book down and look at a different one.

So when someone looks at the first page and sees the equivalent of, “The setting looks like this, and the society functions like that, and the last war means people no longer have the other thing,” they’re likely to yawn and put your history textbook away. It won’t matter how good the actual story is. It won’t even matter if you shoot a whole room full of sheriffs in the first paragraph of Chapter One; a lot of readers won’t get that far.

When a Prologue might work

You may have no choice but to include a prologue in certain types of stories. A historical novel may require some setup to explain the events at the beginning of the novel.

You might also write it not so much as a summary of the setting and recent history, but as a dramatic scene all its own. In some novels where an event from a character’s past turns out to be crucial to the plot, the writer may set  that scene apart from the story, emphasizing its importance by the very fact of its isolation.

This also works well in suspense thrillers and mysteries, where we might be shown the crime or some other event that happens before the story begins, but which the whole story will center on.

Another case where a prologue might not have a negative impact on a reader may be if this is a later book in a series. By the time you get to Book Two, the reader probably already knows that if this initial summary is a bit dull, the story itself is likely still good. Even so, you have to remember that some people discover a series when it’s partway through, so not everyone picking up Book Two will be that forgiving.

So how would you write the prologue if you have one?

If you feel that you absolutely have to have a prologue for some reason, then the “hook” rule will apply here, as well as at the beginning of Chapter One. If you’re writing an important scene, especially, it will have to be dramatic enough to catch the reader’s attention as quickly as possible. If the sheriff is going to be shot at all, it had better be here, by golly!

Even if the prologue isn’t a specific scene but has to act as a summary and explanation of “how we got here,” you have to make it interesting. There will need to be something with significant punch within the first sentence or two. If you’re writing a post-apocalyptic novel, you might start your prologue with something like, “If people were lucky, they died that first week.”

The reader would probably want to keep reading, don’t you think?

It’s still better to do without a prologue

Reactions to a prologue are not always positive, especially in this day and age of “Let’s get to the point.” So if humanly possible, try to do without. Even if the society is so different that you’re sure your reader will be too confused without some explanations, most of the time you can work those into the text itself.

I don’t mean that you pause in the story, turn to the reader, and say, “By the way, the reason he has an LED display in his forearm is that in this society they meld these screens to the skin along people’s arm when they turn 18.” Instead you’d say something like,

He shoved up his sleeve, his palm running over the smooth LED display embedded in his forearm. Even a decade after his 18th birthday, when it had been installed, he still wasn’t quite used to its cool surface along the top of his arm, or the slight ridge around the edges where it melded with his skin.

You don’t even need to tell the reader that this is normal in this new society. As they see the character matter-of-factly interacting with others who have the same devices in their arms, that will be obvious. If you can find a natural, plausible way for the character to take note of an odd thing like this himself or herself, you won’t need to make a special explanation.

I know of some agents and editors who read the main novel first, and only then go back and read the prologue. Almost all the time, they discover that they didn’t miss anything that wasn’t eventually made clear in the main book.

You may want to write your novel that way first – without a prologue. Then as you go back and read it afterward, think long and hard before you decide: does it need that prologue at all? Most of the time, you’ll find yourself answering, “No.”

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2 Comments

Filed under * Writing tips

2 responses to “Explanatory prologues in novels

  1. Great advice here. I blogged a while back about prologues, and how they’re kind of out of style now. I originally had one in my manuscript, but I’ve since reworked it and am trying hard to make chapter one work instead!

  2. I got this advice from someone on Twitter (I agree with you about its usefulness!), but had already been thinking about it because I’ve been editing someone’s novel that started with a Prologue like this. And I really didn’t think it worked very well. So the discussion on Twitter reinforced what I was thinking.

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