There are SO MANY posts out there that essentially declare that friends don’t let friends write prologues. And I think this is basically true, most of the time, unless it isn’t. And of course this is because so many prologues are dreadful.
Here’s a great post, by Rachel Aaron (THE SPIRIT RING) on writing a prologue your readers won’t skip. The money quote: “The most successful prologues fall into two types: prologues that exist to feed the reader information they otherwise couldn’t get, and prologues that set the mood.”
To which I would add, if the info given in the prologue is not actually crucial, don’t include it. A huge info dump of boring history may let the reader understand the complex origins of the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist (for example), but since the reader isn’t yet invested in the struggle between them and doesn’t yet have a reason to care about the protagonist, most likely the reader is going to find this BORING BORING BORING. It is NOT crucial information for the reader. Any tidbits that ARE crucial, if any, should just be worked into the story proper.
I mean, Tolkein didn’t include The Silmarillion as a prologue to The Lord of the Rings, right? You shouldn’t do that, either.
In the post I just linked to, Rachel Aaron explains how she used a prologue in her second book. I’m sure it’s obvious that one thing that might have made that work (I haven’t read her books and can’t judge) is that — and she herself points this out explicitly — the prologue is in the SECOND book, which means readers are already invested.
Nathan Bransford has a short post on prologues, back from when he was an agent, that’s worth a look. He basically reiterates that if a book works without the prologue, then you shouldn’t have put the prologue in — of course this is true. And he adds that a prologue ought to be short, self-contained, and comprehensible — which does rather beg the question of “how short is short?”
Two of my favorite good prologues are very, very short.
This one is from MaryJanice Davidson’s BETSY, THE VAMPIRE QUEEN series — The third one: Undead and Unappreciated. These are cute, fun books and Davidson plays with cute, fun prologues in several of them. In this book, she actually has two prologues, which right there indicates she’s having fun and not taking herself too seriously. The first prologue is this:
Once upon a time, the devil was bored, and possessed a not-very-nice pregnant woman, and ran that woman’s body for about a year.
The devil still drank and smoked, but only in moderation. The devil was good about taking prenatal pills but grumbled about the inevitable constipation.
And eventually the devil gave birth to a baby girl.
After a month of diapers, night feedings, colic, laundry, spilled formula (the devil hated to breast-feed), and spit-up, the devil said, “Enough of this,” and went back to Hell, which was infinitely preferable to living with a newborn.
The devil’s daughter was adopted and grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her name was Laura, and she liked strawbery ice cream, and she never, ever missed churc. She was a very nice young lady.
But she had a terrible temper.
There you go, that’s the whole thing. It’s short, self-contained, comprehensible, clearly sets up an important plot point, leaves the reader knowing something that the protagonist isn’t going to (but in a good way). And it’s funny.
A serious prologue that’s just as short but much more serious is in ALMOST PERFECT by Brian Katcher, which is a contemporary YA that was one of my very favorite reads from the past couple of years.
Everyone has a line they swear they’ll never cross, the one thing they say they’ll never do. Not something serious like I’ll never kill anyone or I’ll never invade Russia in the winter. Usually it’s something less earth-shattering.
I’ll never cheat on her.
I’ll never work at a job I hate.
I’ll never give up my dreams.
We draw the line. Maybe we even believe it. That’s why it’s so hard when we break that promise we make to ourselves.
Sage Hendricks was my line.
Here’s (part of) a much longer prologue that works beautifully, from Judith Riley’s IN PURSUIT OF THE GREEN LION
It was in the Year of Our Lord 1358, in the summertime, just two days before the Feast of Saint Barnabas, that a Voice spoke out of heaven into the ear of my understanding.
“Margaret,” said the Voice, “just what are you doing there?” My pen stopped, and I looked up.
“Surely, You know already,” I said to the still air.
“Of course I do, but I want you to tell Me, and that is entirely different,” the Voice answered.
But to begin in the right place, I must begin with God’s gift of daughters, which is made to mothers as a test and a trial. For on the Day of Judgment when we must answer for all things, what shall we answer if our daughters be too stubborn and impatient for the needle? Thus does God try our souls, and likewise cast out vanity, for the mothers of ungovernable children must always be humble.
Now the day on which the Voice spoke was all fair and warm, and everything was blooming and growing. We had removed our household from London for the summer once again; the disorder in the kitchens at Whitehill Manor had at last been put right, . . . . The air was so fresh, and the green fields so inviting, only a fool would imagine that two little girls as willful as Cecily and Alison would remember their duty. . . . . Still, as I climbed the long outside stairs to peep into the bower up under the eaves, I did not foresee what I would find. Empty! It was clear enough what had happened – two little pairs of shoes tumbled underneath the embroidery frame, a few dozen halfhearted stitches added to the work of months, and on the windowsill, Mother Sarah’s abandoned distaff.
“And she’s no better than they are! How could they?” I called out the window, “Cecily! Alison!” and thought I could hear the answering shriek of children’s laughter from a far-off place. Oh, failed again, I brooded. However will I make them into ladies? And then God will say at the end of the world, “Margaret, you allowed your daughters to become hoydens. Their French knots unravel. And those daisies. Ugh. Exactly like toadstools. Pass on my left, unworthy woman.”
But the silence of the abandoned bower was so inviting. I could feel the wonderful possibilities rising from the floor like mist. Mine, all mind, rejoiced my careless heart. Space, room, and quiet! And before I knew it, I had my paper and ink from the chest, and my writings about housewifery spread about me.
Now you must know that long ago I made a plan to write down all the wisdom Mother Hilde taught me, so that it would not all be lost. And my girls shall have it after me, and so become celebrated for their mastery of the arts of healing and cookery and housewifery. And it is very well that it all be written, even though these are all true secrets, for suppose some grief should come to me – how would they manage then? And this I must say of them, though they are slow at the needle, they are swift at the art of reading, which is most rare among females.
I set the pen at the place I had left off. “To keep the moth from woolens . . .” I had written, all those months ago, in London. How much had happened since then! Their father dead, so much changed. A bright shaft of sunshine from the little window above made a warm puddle of light on the page. Moths. How can keeping the moths off make my girls happy?
“Oh, bother moths! What do I care about moths? What ever possessed me to write about moths anyway?”
“Certainly not Me, Margaret.” The Voice sounded warm and comfortable, as if it were somehow inside the sunlight. I looked up from the paper and inspected the sunbeam carefully. The only thing I could see were thousands of dancing dust motes, all shimmering golden.
“It seemed like such a good idea at the time,” I addressed the sunbeam. “But now it’s all turned into moths and recipes for fish. And I don’t even like fish.”
“Why write about them, then?”
“I thought it was proper.”
“What is proper is what you understand best, Margaret.”
So, of course it was all clear. It wasn’t fish and moths I needed to write about after all. It was about something much more important. And certainly something my girls should know about, for the world tells them nothing but lies, leaving them entirely deluded on the subject.
“Why so busy, and so inky?” asked my lord husband that very evening. “Have you take up that recipe book again? Write about those tasty little fruit things in pastry – they would definitely be a loss to posterity. My future sons-in-law will bless me.”
“I’m writing a love story.”
“Another tale of courtly love to add to the world’s stock of lies? Surely you lead mankind astray. Pastries would be far better.”
“No, I’m not writing about that false, flowery stuff. Jousts, and favors, and lute playing in rose-covered bowers. I’m writing about the happily-ever-after part. I’m writing about true love.”
“Real love? Oh, worse and worse, Margaret. Nobody writes about that. For one thing, it’s not decent. For another, it’s impossibly dull. Now, if you wish to write about love, you must respect the conventions. What interests people is the trying to get, not the getting. Look at Tristan! Look at Lancelot! What kind of romance would it be if they could have had what they wanted? Tristan marries Yseult, and they produce a dozen moon-faced brats! . . . You must face facts, Margaret. You don’t understand anything about writing love stories. Stick to recipes.”
So of course I set to work right away. After all, my lord husband considers himself a great expert on the topic of love, because he has written a number of poems on the subject. But I, I have loved greatly.
I snipped a bit out, but that gives you the flavor of it. This prologue is about four pages long in the book. And what makes it work? Why, the protagonist’s voice, of course. THat last sentence is a beautiful hook: we are given a delicious sense of anticipation because we know just enough about what the book is going to be about. For me it’s a plus that we also know things are going to come out well at the end. But you see we certainly aren’t being handed an info dump of any kind. We do see something important, though: That God speaks to the protagonist, who takes this in a very matter-of-fact way. That’s intriguing and a nice draw.
There’s another kind of prologue that I hope works: the one that starts off as a chapter and then gets called a prologue kind of at the last minute. I know this because of *my* prologues. How long was the one in the third Griffin Mage book, The Broken Earth? About 25 pages? THis certainly doesn’t count as short, does it? I actually wrote that as Chapter 1. I and my editor went back and forth quite a lot before deciding to call it a prologue, the deciding factor being that it opens up with Mienthe’s childhood and thus well before the story proper begins. I wanted that chapter in there for several reasons, though, one being that I wanted Miente to be perceived as the main protagonist and that meant letting the reader see her pov first, before Tan was introduced. And that meant stepping back in time since the story proper really didn’t start until Tan crossed the river.
And in my as-yet-unpublished novel that opens with a prologue, that one started as a chapter, too. I eventually cut it A LOT and since it also involves a character’s childhood — though it also sets up a crucial aspect of the plot — anyway, I eventually started calling it a prologue. It’s perhaps five or eight pages long and I think it works quite well. But I admit this one is still going back and forth between myself and my agent. (I expect to send it to my Knopf editor pretty soon — I’ll be crossing my fingers about that.)
So . . . the “All prologues are bad” advice is too simplistic, but I do think it’s a good idea to SERIOUSLY think about whether your prologue is really an exception to the rule. As always, the take-home message: everything depends on you just being able to tell whether the prologue you wrote is a good one that will serve a crucial purpose effectively, or a terrible sucking wound that is draining the life out of your story.