Prologue (noun): a preliminary discourse; a preface or introductory part of a discourse, poem, or novel. ~Dictionary.com
Prologues are a hot topic when it comes to fiction. Writer’s Digest has published dozens of articles within its pages, and publishers receive thousands of manuscripts daily that include prologues. Agents have even admitted to skipping over a prologue, right to Chapter 1.
The trouble with prologues is that they’re often a challenge to write well.
In a Q & A from WritersDigest.com posted in 2008, the then managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine stated that “A prologue is used when material that you want to include in the opening is out of time sequence with the rest of the story.” The prologue should be relevant to the story but occur at a different time from when the story takes place. So if the story is about a middle-aged man hunting a monster that’s begun destroying his hometown, the prologue will show that he had a bad experience with the monster under his bed when he was very young.
A prologue shouldn’t be used to unload back-story onto the reader ahead of Chapter 1, but that unfortunately happens all too often. I’ve been guilty of this myself more than I’d like to admit. Over time, I learned to cut that out in revision. But it still hurts to take out that background information.
The problem with putting back-story in the prologue is that the reader doesn’t yet know the protagonist or have any reason to care about him or her. Why should it matter to me as a reader if a character was heartbroken after his father sold his prized ’76 Mustang? Unless the car serves some purpose later in the story or foreshadows something, the reader doesn’t need to know about it. If the writer wants to show that the protagonist is sensitive through that incident, the scene would be better placed later in the story.
I’ve noticed in my own writing that I put all of the back-story at the beginning because I’m still learning about my characters. And those pages help me flesh them out. Once the story finally hits its stride, I eliminate that background from the beginning. The reader doesn’t need to know everything that I need to know right away. I should have an idea where the story is going to go. The reader is just along for the ride.
What are your opinions of prologues? Do you use them? Have you read books where they worked?
Next Wednesday I’ll look at the use of dreams in the prologue.