Why Prologues Get a Bad Rap

Prologues get a bad rap because lots of them are awful. That’s why. There’s no need to go beyond that.

However, because I was recently thinking about prologues that don’t work for me, this this post, by someone named Tiffany Yates Martin, at Jane Friedman’s website caught my eye: Why Prologues Get a Bad Rap

So, sure, why does Martin think prologues get a bad rap? Let’s start with that.

The advice in the writerly ether concerning prologues is vast and … well, not varied. Most of it revolves around telling authors simply, “Don’t.”

Yet riffle through a handful of books on the shelf at any bookstore and you’re likely to see at least a few prologues—many of them in bestselling books and classics.

So what gives? Is there a cabal of rogue prologuers defying the injunction? A secret password certain authors get that allows them to break this inviolate commandment?

Good question!

A well-drawn, well-used prologue can set a story up and even become a definitive part of it … But prologues have developed their dangerous reputation because often authors fall into one of several common traps in using them that diminish their effectiveness.

That’s not nearly strong enough. It’s more like: often authors write one of several types of prologues that go way beyond ineffective to absolutely terrible, and these prologues push readers away from their book, sometimes gently, but sometimes with a hard shove.

Martin identifies the backstory infodump, the “exciting” flashback or flashforward, the bait-and-switch, the setting-the-stage prologue, the endless prologue. I think we know pretty well what she means by all that. Oh, this is a good point:

What can make prologues so maddening is that many of these techniques can actually work very well, used proficiently and according to genre expectationsUsing a prologue effectively and well means being aware of what makes them work—and what makes them fail. It’s understanding how to make them essential, intrinsic, and give them a powerful hook and forward momentum; as well as how to meet current reader, genre, and market expectations.

I think this is true, in the sense that practically anything can work if it’s done well and almost anything will fail if it’s handled badly. But, all the above misses the sorts of things I was thinking about when I was thinking, UGH PROLOGUES the other day.

Here’s what I was thinking:

a) I do not want to start in the pov of a despicable person. I am not interested in villain points of view and generally skim them even when I encounter them in the middle of a novel. The obvious problem with opening the novel in the bad-guy pov is that the reader has no incentive whatsoever to turn pages. If the reader doesn’t like to be pulled into the point of view of a terrible person, she’ll shut the book right there. It doesn’t matter that Chapter One moves into a different, better pov.

The best — the very best — that you can hope for is that the reader will skim ahead to chapter one and see if the pov there looks better, therefore missing whatever you thought was so important that it needed to be in a prologue. I will personally not be very inclined to skip ahead unless (say) someone here gave the book a glowing recommendation. As a rule, I’ll just assume that if the author thinks starting in a villain pov is an enticing hook, they aren’t writing for me.

Antagonists, by the way, are fine. Many antagonists are not horrible people. I’m fine with opening in their pov. I can’t remember a specific case when that happened, but I wouldn’t be intrinsically repelled by that.

b) Related: I do not want to start in the middle of a truly horrible situation. I don’t care how the pov character got into that horrible situation. I don’t want to follow him through it. I have in mind, of course, the torture scene that begins A Marvellous Light. That wasn’t called a prologue, but it was a prologue. I saw that some of you said yes, this book has a murder mystery structure. That’s undoubtedly why the author felt this was an okay way to start the book. But for me, it’s really difficult to get past that chapter.

For once, it would have probably been better to call that a prologue rather than chapter one. Often advice suggests the opposite. The advantage to calling this sort of scene a prologue is that the reader will expect to switch pov soon, and in this case, honestly, the sooner the better. Also, calling this sort of opening a prologue invites the reader to skip it. Of course, that suggests the question: Is that prologue necessary to the reader? And the answer is, generally, NO. No, the reader does not need to know anything in the prologue. That information will gradually be revealed during the course of the story. So in that case, why put the prologue there at all? But who knows, MAYBE in A Marvellous Light, the information in the torture scene is actually crucial.

I will add, it’s fine to start in a horrible situation IF that scene involves a rapid rescue. That’s an excellent way to open a novel. I’m thinking of Martha Wells’ The Wheel of the Infinite, which isn’t the same, but still, this is the kind of opening that leaped to mind as a great alternative to a torture-and-death-of-the-protagonist scene. Oh, she did something similar in The Cloud Roads, come to think of it. I mean, she didn’t start with Moon chained to a stake and fighting off dangerous animals, but she sure got there in a hurry, and then boom! Stone snatches him out of trouble and there’s the real beginning of the story. Neither of these books has a prologue, of course, I’m just saying that these openings begin with someone in a tough situation and take off with the rescue scene.

Moving on:

c) When the author uses the prologue to establish the cast of characters or anything about the backstory, this of course always threatens to turn into the dreaded history-lesson prologue. This isn’t repulsive in the same way as starting in an awful person’s pov, but it’s boring boring boring, and this is true even if the history of the world is actually fascinating. In her post, Martin declares that all these types of prologues can in theory work. I have my doubts about this history lesson. If I want to read the book, I may grit my teeth through this kind of prologue, but I hate it and I don’t think anybody can make me not hate it.

The closest someone has come may be in one of the later Foreigner books, when CJ Cherryh starts of with … not sure … a long long long letter or written account that relates the important events of the preceding books. This is highly skippable if you are familiar with those events. But it’s not as direly boring as most history lessons, at least not if you love this series.

Come to think of it, Cherryh also opens the entire series with a backstory prologue, which may or may not have been called Chapter One, but is very definitely a prologue. While this was arguably unnecessary, you’d have to actually have an argument about it because it certainly comes close to being necessary. The setup for this series is important and happened a long time ago, and while Bren might sit around drinking tea and thinking about that backstory, maybe the prologue was a better idea. It was certainly more efficient. Also, if you remember (or take a look at that prologue now), you’ll see that it is a self-contained story in itself, not a textbooky history lesson. That’s how to do a backstory prologue.

d) I think this is what Martin meant by an exciting flashback or flashforward prologue, but regardless, I mean the kind where the prologue throws the reader into a battle scene. Martin says that she thinks writers may tend to do this when they think their actual first chapter may be boring. If so, this is not the solution, obviously. It’s almost funny that a battle scene with tons of action and blood can be, usually is, as boring boring boring as a history textbook. But if the reader has no idea what’s going on, who’s involved, what they’re fighting for, what the stakes are, who the good guys are, none of that, then there’s nothing to care about.

I’m not sure any battle scene prologue has ever worked for me. I am sure that these days, I will just close a book if I see this kind of prologue. Maybe that means I’m missing an effective opening of this kind. If so, tough.

e) Mysterious prologues. This is the kind of prologue that I never before specifically noticed until I wrote the post the other day and included the opening of NPCs by Hayes. I said, I dislike prologues where mysterious unnamed people are doing mysterious things for mysterious reasons. I stand by that, and again, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a prologue of this surprisingly common type that actually worked for me.

I want to add, any time an author starts with “A man” or “A girl” or any unnamed character, I do think they should pause and consider whether that’s working. Because the odds are decent that it’s not working. Of course sometimes that can be all right. But the odds are fair that it’s not all right, that if you start with “a girl,” you’re shoving readers away from your book just when you most need to pull them in. Giving the protagonist’s name helps make the protagonist a real person. Saying “A young man” doesn’t. Worse, that may strike the reader as coy or contrived — which it is, generally — and that’s going to make the reader wonder what you, the author, are trying to get away with and whether the technique is working. You don’t want the reader wondering about you as the author. You want them drawn into the story. Therefore, give them a story. That means a real protagonist doing something understandable for understandable reasons, not a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.

AND, I guess I should finish this post by saying, I’ve written two books with prologues, Winter and Broken Earth. . I don’t intrinsically hate all prologues. I just hate a lot of prologues. I’m fine with prologues that are (a) really brief, (b) really clever, or (c) offer an engaging short story that is related to the real story. I guess I should look around for prologues that I like and do a specific post on those!

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14 thoughts on “Why Prologues Get a Bad Rap”

  1. How many people here have read JRRT’s prologue to the LotR?
    Waves hand. But I read it after multiple reads of the trilogy. I guess it’s the history lesson sort, but it is also very clearly marked as non-essential, if you want to just go on with the story. That sort of prologue I can live with.

    GGK’s Tigana starts with a prologue that works (IMO), partly because it does very far along link up more closely to the main story than the reader could have guessed. For those sorts of prologues I really have to pay attention to time cues the author provides, though. I don’t always notice little things like ‘date/year’ at the top of chapters.

    I share your loathing for authors who start with “a man” or “a girl”, or any unnamed character. I’m close to adding authors who I can tell are trying not to let me know the character’s gender. Since I’ve read whole books to the end and only realized after finishing that someone – or all of them, in one case – never got gendered references, it’s not that I mind not knowing. I think it’s a clue to not quite good enough writing, when I can spot it in the opening pages.

  2. I’ve recently read Keeper of Enchanted Rooms by Charlie N Holmberg. In the prologue we meet a nice animal-loving boy who kills his brutal abusive father in self-defense. He is quite likeable, I definitely rooted for him. The way he turned out later was such a letdown …

  3. I was just thinking that WINTER starts with a prologue where there is indeed a terrible situation, but it is resolved VERY quickly (hurrah for patricide) and immediately leads into a very intriguing situation where Innisth starts the dukedom turning away from his father’s practices, while at the same time recognizing how much darkness and danger he himself carries— that’s a prologue that sets up the story and makes us really impatient to get back to Innisth and see how he and Pohorir are doing. But it couldn’t be Chapter 1, both because of the time skip and because Innisth is not exactly the center of the story that WINTER tells. He’s NEAR the center, but it’s still Kehara’s story, as Chapter 1 establishes.

    So: a very effective prologue!

  4. Thank you, Mary Beth — that’s all exactly what I was trying to do with that prologue! Innisth could absolutely look like a bad-guy pov protagonist; among other things, that prologue is there to make sure that most readers will say “Hurrah for patricide!” — not normally the reaction one might expect!

  5. Elaine, I had to go and open The Lord of the Rings and actually look at the prologue … and, while I think I probably read it the first time I ever read the trilogy, I don’t think I’ve ever read it again since that time.

    The part I skipped the first time was the transition from Sam pounding on the gate of the orc tower to …. Sam getting into the orc tower. I don’t know when I finally read the first part of the third book. A LONG time later. I did not appreciate that cliffhanger at the end of the second book one bit!

  6. So this morning I started rereading WINTER, and realized that actually I’d completely forgot that the REAL prologue is about Innisth’s mother, and ends with his birth and her death. I’d completely forgotten that prologue exists. Chapter 1 is in fact Innisth’s succcessful patricide, and it has such a wonderful opening line that somehow in my mind it’s the actual opening line of the book: “When he was fourteen, Innisth terè Maèr Eänetaì tried for the first time to kill his father. He did not succeed.”

    Pondering now whether I think the Jeneil prologue, as sad and beautifully written as it is, is necessary at all. We gather everything we need to know about Innisth and his father and the Immanent Power from the following chapter; Gereth Murel is also reintroduced there. Would you still keep that prologue if you were writing it now?

  7. Maybe — probably. It also sets up Gereth’s pivotal decision halfway through the book. But of course I don’t really know. I might decide to handle that setup with a conversation between Gereth and Kehera later.

  8. As a kid/teen, I habitually skipped prologues entirely, until I realized I had missed an important character moment in a Tamora Pierce book because of that.

  9. 90% of the prologues I’ve encountered kill off a character who doesn’t become relevant until the end of the book. Authors tend to say “Well, it’ll make sense once you finish.” But the problem is, I usually don’t care enough to get that far.
    I imprint on the first character I see, then he/she/it gets killed off and most of my interest in the story dies along with them.
    And yet, I did write a prologue for a story. Once. But no one died in it.

  10. I hate any prologue that kills off the pov character. I know that’s a thing in some genres, hate it anyways – it’s a cheap trick to get me emotionally invested in the “case”, and I feel manipulated when it happens.

  11. Sabriel starts with a good, short story type, prologue. Although in the paperback I have it’s jarringly all in italics.

    I also thought I remembered Pierce’s First Test starting with a prologue about Kel and her mom, but it turns out it actually starts differently. Still kinda qualifies though it’s not marked as a prologue, just the first few pages of the first chapter. (Btw, SarahZ, which Pierce book?)

    I’m one of those people who always read the prologue, but I like the points you make. I’ve recently been bothered by prologues that are the flash forward type that take half the story to get back to (I’m thinking specifically of comics here; I don’t think I’ve seen it in book format). Because why not just start the story there? I don’t want chapters on chapters of what’s essentially backstory after a great hook.

  12. Oh, yeah. I had to find my copy to check, but that prologue starts like a history lesson. Easy to bypass.

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