To Prologue or Not to Prologue? – Part One
That is indeed the question.
And to be honest, it’s not something writers and sometimes even readers question or think about. Surely it’s just as simple as knowing you want a prologue or not in your novel and going from there, right? Sadly not. This is an issue mostly for writers, although readers may understand more of the writers’ intentions if you stick around and read the rest of this post. And hey, maybe you’ll just want to read this for fun! 😉
First of all, what is a prologue, really? Collins English Dictionary – 21st Century Edition tells us that it’s “A preliminary act or event.” Okay, so we’ve established that a prologue happens before the main story begins, and so in theory it cannot be a flash-forward to a later event (although I’m sure this rule has been broken). But is a prologue really necessary? Many people believe it is not. However, there are ways of knowing when to use (and when not to use) a prologue:
1.) Use it when a “Chapter One” just won’t work. This is a good reason to use a prologue, so let’s have an example, shall we? Let’s say the book is a fantasy about werewolves and how the main character needs to find a cure. The prologue, however, would focus on a completely different character trudging through the woods and eventually encountering a werewolf. There is a struggle. The writer tells us mid-action a few characteristics of the werewolf and its personality. Then it gains the upper hand and swipes the man’s chest, leaving his lungs and ribs shredded. As he gasps for life, the man realises something. Perhaps it’s a weakness, something to cure the werewolf…
And then the prologue ends and chapter one begins. This is perfectly fine, as the prologue could techinically be skipped as it’s nothing to do with the main story and the character that we will be investing time over. But knowing that there is a cure might be important, and showing it before the storybegins proper may well be significant. Some writers would say that they should instead drip-feed these things throughout the story, and in most cases this works, but sometimes this is just not possible. Or it might be, but it does not get across the emotions and themes the writer wants it to. In a first draft of one of my novels, I used a prologue. It was a scene of a newsreader explaining the evants of a World War Three and how it was becoming clearly imminent, before going into chapter one with the main character. However, in my second draft, I decided that for my story it just wasn’t needed; I reasoned with myself that readers would enjoy the story more if the reasons for a post-apocalyptic world was drip-fed to them, simply to create more suspense and thefore more enjoyment. This worked for my novel, but remember it may not work for yours.
2.) Use it when you need to provide back-story, but be careful. This reason can be a bit more hit-or-miss. Usually prologues are used in fantasy or science-fiction novels, and most of the time are used because the writer needs, or more often wants, very many facts about the world or characters to be given to the reader before the story proper begins. There are two problems with this:
- It can be considered info-dumping.
- It drags out the story before the “real” stuff begins.
However, when used well, info-dumping turns into something called exposition. In one dictionary this is defined as “A statement or rhetorical discourse intended to give information about or an explanation of difficult material.” But when does info-dumping change into this, and how? Well the main reason is simply the writer’s experience; when you’ve got a few novels and such-like under that belt of yours, why wouldn’t you be able to write a prologue in this way? Experience means a great deal in the writing world, so remember that usually it’s better just to get some general experience (i.e. write some books in the “standard” format, and don’t play around with it) before you go attempting something larger, difficult, or downright weird. Weird is good sometimes, but when people aren’t familiar with your work and style, weird is usually bad.
3.) Don’t use it if you want to hook your reader. Plain and simple. If you want to hook your reader, do so under a heading titled “Chapter One”. Remember, a prologue is not just another name for a chapter; a prologue has a purpose, much like an epilogue. If anything, a prologue is more likely to bore the reader and make the switch off, but we’ll be dealing with that in part 2 of this series.
So how do you know if your particular prologue works? Well first of all, ask yourself:
- Does the whole novel work just as well if I put it under “Chapter One” instead?
- Is the prologue’s POV any different? Is the tense different? If so, that may be a clue to leave your prologue in.
- If the prologue is about the past or the future, or includes a completely different cast of characters to the main plot, that may be another clue to leave it in.
If all else fails, write the novel and print it out without the prologue. Ask your friends and family, even people who don’t know you, to read it. When they’ve finished, ask them whether it made sense. Were there any plot details left out that were vital to the plot and couldn’t be put into your main body of work? If it could, is a prologue necessary? From this, you should be able to work out if your story really needs a prologue. And be honest with yourself; if you’re not, your writing projects are never going to be as good as they could be. In the end, even after all this information, it is up to you to decide whether prologues, epilogues, and other such things work for your novel. You are the storyteller, we are the listeners. Use the devices you wish to use to grab us, hook us, and leave us wanting more.
Part 2, which will be available soon, will be focusing on whether readers actually want prologues anymore, and whether you should leave them out simply because your audience demands it. Remember to leave your thoughts and views below in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe and follow me on Facebook and Twitter!