Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog

Do you prefer novels with prologues?

At Writer Unboxed, this, by Vaughn Roycroft: Why I Actually Prefer Stories With Prologues

I don’t just love prologues. I actually prefer when stories begin with them. … In my opinion, all of these prologues are terrific at creating atmosphere. But prologues often do more. They can establish the story-world, set expectations, reveal broader or heightened stakes, lay out pertinent backstory, and provide enticing foreshadowing. … Good prologues can help to transport us to the story-world, and even put us in the proper mood to receive it. Simply put, they are an aid to immersion.

Many examples of prologues the author likes at the link, in both novels and movies.

Well, I can come down on both sides of this argument if I want, because out of my, let me see, seventeen novels currently (or nearly) on the shelf, I’ve got prologues in, hmm, just two. Well, two is enough to establish that I don’t automatically hate prologues. Which I don’t. I just usually hate prologues, because usually they’re not an aid to immersion. Usually they’re boring.

One of the examples Roycroft uses here is The Lord of the Rings, and in fact, I hate that prologue. I’m thinking of the one in the movie version. The warm description of hobbits that Tolkien called a prologue was fine. In the movies, the long infodump about the history of Sauron was not fine; it was boring. Personally, I’d have found that kind of infodump boring even if I hadn’t known the story already, because a long history lesson at the beginning of a fantasy story is ALWAYS BORING.

–Short prologues that tell a brief, immersive, complete story that is set before the main story begins = fine.That’s like my prologue in Winter of Ice and Iron.

–Short, clever prologues that are entertaining in and of themselves = fine, and here I’m thinking of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. “A word from your sponsor: This book begins with a plane crash. We do not want you to worry about this.”

–Any length of prologue, but especially a long one, that delivers a history lesson to the reader, is unreadably boring and I, at least, will immediately DNF any book the moment I see that kind of prologue.

As far as I can tell, that type of prologue is BY FAR the most common in fantasy novels.

In contrast, mystery novels very often open with a short prologue in which the murder victim gets killed. I’m not crazy about that either, but it’s a short, immersive, complete-in-itself story plus entirely standard in the genre. So that’s fine.

But to anyone writing an SFF novel and reading the linked post: think twice before providing a history lesson to the reader. CJC can get by with it in her very long series (I still skip those prologues), but very few other authors can pull it off.

Please provide counterexamples in the comments if you can think of good ones.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

9 Comments Do you prefer novels with prologues?

  1. Mary Catelli

    I’m wrestling with one myself. It’s the only chapter told from the point of view of a character other than the hero.

    (Of course, the big problem with that work is that “seven years happen here” but I need to indicate SOME of the stuff that happened in there.)

  2. SarahZ

    I hate murder prologues – they’re so manipulative

    I liked the prologue in Tamora Pierce’s 4th Wild Magic book – it does a good job of quickly being catching you up on what happened between the previous book and that one. When I was a kid I used to just skip all prologues, until I realized I was missing actual plot in that one.

  3. Matthew

    I’m usually okay with prologues, but have come to really dislike a certain type. I can, maybe deal with the history infodump ones if it’s done well (I read a lot of history as an anthropology student).

    Then there is the prologue that’s from the point of view of a fascinating character… who turns out not to be the protagonist or someone involved much in the story at all.

    It’s similar to the murder prologue you mentioned, though the character doesn’t die so I can get attached to them if they’re written well.

    Off the top of my head, I’ve got two examples. Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire did this, only mentioning the prologue character in passing much deeper into the novel. And there’s Corey’s Leviathan Wakes. I’m told the prologue character is quite important, but several chapters into that book I kept wishing I were reading about her instead and never did finish it (despite hearing how amazing the series is). Maybe one day I’ll go back and skip the prologue and see if I can do it.

  4. Rachel

    Matthew, there’s the sort of prologue where the book is NOT a murder mystery, but the prologue presents a pov character to whom you get attached and then they DO die. While I’ll put up with that in a mystery, in any other genre, nope. That’s even worse than a history infodump.

    I don’t dislike history. You know what I like a lot better than a history prologue? Bits of history presented at the start of each chapter. Some books do that, excerpts from histories and so on, and I like that a lot. Sister Light Sister Dark by Jane Yolen did something like that, presenting the story intertwined with the myth and the history, and that was pretty neat.

  5. Matthew

    It’s definitely much better when chapters get a bit of history rather than it all being in the prologue. :) I even like footnotes, sometimes. (if I’m reading a physical copy of a book)

  6. Evelyn M. Hill

    Hate ’em.
    Hate ’em, hate ’em, hate ’em.

    Mostly because of all the ones that, yes, feature a character who dies and the whole story really turns out to be about their third cousin’s fourth husband’s second-to-last hairdresser.

    I imprint on the first character I meet in a story, and if the character is only around for two seconds, that’s already cut down on the amount of attention I’m willing to invest in the story.

    Really, I’m suspicious of any story with excessive POVs. If a story has a new point of view with each scene, I’m not going to make it through the first half of the book. To me, that’s lazy writing–it’s so much easier to step inside the new character’s head and tell the story that way rather than have the original POV character infer what they feel/think from dialogue and action. But it also dilutes my attachment to any of the characters if the writer keeps hopping from one head to another.

  7. Rachel

    Evelyn, ha! Third cousin’s fourth husband’s second-to-last hairdresser! I may have to steal that sometime!

    Yes, I agree. I’m cautious when I start a murder mystery, since the first person you see is so often the victim. In all other genres, I also imprint on the first pov character and fully expect to follow that character, and have trouble caring about any of the pov characters as they multiply.

Leave A Comment