The Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues

Today I welcome author, blogger and fellow ITW member, Kristen Lamb, to TKZ. I asked Kristen to share her thoughts on the pros and cons of prologues. Enjoy! Joe Moore

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To prologue or not to prologue? That is the KL1question. The problem with the prologue is it has kind of gotten a bad rap over the years, especially with agents. They generally hate them. Why? In my opinion, it is because far too many writers don’t use prologues properly and that, in itself, has created its own problem.

Because of the steady misuse of prologues, most readers skip them. Thus, the question of whether or not the prologue is even considered the beginning of your novel can become a gray area if the reader just thumbs pages until she sees Chapter One.

So without further ado…

The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues

Sin #1 If your prologue is really just a vehicle for massive information dump…

This is one of the reasons I recommend writing detailed backgrounds of all main characters before we begin (especially when we are new writers). Get all of that precious backstory out of your system.

This is a useful tactic in that first, it can help us see if a) our characters are psychologically consistent, b) can provide us with a feel for the characters’ psychological motivations, which will help later in plotting.

I have a little formula: background–> motivations –>goals–>a plan–>a detailed plan, which = plot and c) can help us as writers honestly see what details are salient to the plot.

This helps us better fold the key details into the plotting process so that this vital information can be blended expertly into the story real-time.

Many new writers bungle the prologue because they lack a system that allows them to discern key details or keep track of key background details. This makes for clumsy writing, namely a giant “fish head” labeled prologue. What do we do with fish heads? We cut them off and throw them away…unless you are my mother’s Scandinavian family and then they make soup *shivers*.

Sin #2 If your prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.

This point ties into the earlier sin. Do this. Cut off the prologue. Now ask, “Has this integrally affected the story?” If it hasn’t? It’s likely a fish head masquerading as a prologue.

Sin #3 If your prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader…

If readers have a bad tendency to skip past prologues, and the only point of our prologue is to hook the reader, then we have just effectively shot ourselves in the foot. We must have a great hook in a prologue, but then we need to also have a hook in Chapter One. If we can merely move the prologue to Chapter One and it not upset the flow of the story? Then that is a lot of pressure off our shoulders to be “doubly” interesting.

Sin #4 If your prologue is overly long…

Prologues need to be short and sweet and to the point. Get too long and that is a warning flag that this prologue is being used to cover for sloppy writing or really should have just been Chapter One.

Sin #5 If your prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story…

Pretty self-explanatory.

Sin #6 If your prologue is über-condensed world-building…

World-building is generally one of those things, like backstory, that can and should be folded into the narrative. Sometimes it might be necessary to do a little world-building, but think “floating words in Star Wars.” The yellow floating words that drift off into space help the reader get grounded in the larger picture before the story begins. But note the floating words are not super-detailed Tolkien world-building.

They are simple and, above all, brief.

Sin #7 If your prologue is there solely to “set the mood…”

We have to set the mood in Chapter One anyway, so like the hook, why do it twice?

The Prologue Virtues

Now that we have discussed the 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues, you might be asking yourself, “So when is it okay to use a prologue?” Glad you asked.

Virtue #1

Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.

Genre will have a lot to do with whether one uses a prologue or not. Thrillers generally employ prologues because what our hero is up against may be an old enemy. In James Rollins’s The Doomsday Key the prologue introduces the “adversary” Sigma will face in the book. Two monks come upon a village where every person has literally starved to death when there is more than an abundance of food.

Many centuries pass and the very thing that laid waste to that small village is now once more a threat. But this gives the reader a feel for the fact that this is an old adversary. The prologue also paints a gripping picture of what this “adversary” can do if unleashed once more.

The prologue allows the reader to pass centuries of time without getting a brain cramp. Prologue is set in medieval times. Chapter One is in modern times. Prologue is also pivotal for understanding all that is to follow.

Prologues are used a lot in thrillers and mysteries to see the crime or event that sets off the story. Readers of these genres have been trained to read prologues and generally won’t skip. The serial killer dumping his latest victim is important to the story. It’s a genre thing. Yet, still? Keep it brief. Reveal too much and readers won’t want to turn pages to learn more.

Virtue # 2

Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the backstory relevant to the plot.

The first Harry Potter book is a good example of a book that could have used a prologue, but didn’t (likely because Rowling knew it would likely get skipped). Therese Walsh in her blog Once Before A Time Part 2 said this:

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is told in a close 3rd person POV (Harry’s), but her first chapter is quite different, told when Harry is a baby and switching between omniscient and 3rd person POVs (Mr. Dursley’s and Dumbledore’s). Rowling may have considered setting this information aside as a prologue because of those different voices and the ten-year lag between it and the next scene, but she didn’t do it. The info contained in those first pages is critical, it helps to set the story up and makes it more easily digested for readers. And it’s 17 pages long.

This battle is vital for the reader to be able to understand the following events and thus would have been an excellent example of a good prologue. But, Rowling, despite the fact this chapter would have made a prime prologue still chose to make it Chapter One so the reader would actually read this essential piece of story information.

Food for thought for sure.

Yes, I had Seven Sins and only Two Virtues. So sue me. Smile That should be a huge hint that there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one (that and I didn’t want this blog to be 10,000 words long).

Prologues, when done properly can be amazing literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one. Make sure you ask yourself honest questions about what purpose these pages are really serving. Are they an essential component of a larger whole? Or are you using Bondo to patch together a weak plot?

But, don’t take my word for it. Over the ages, I’ve collected great blogs regarding prologues to help you guys become stronger in your craft. These are older posts, but timeless:

Once Before a Time: Prologues Part 1 by Therese Walsh

Once Before a Time Part 2 by Therese Walsh

Agent Nathan Bransford offers his opinion as does literary agent Kristin Nelson

Carol Benedict’s blog Story Elements: Using a Prologue

To Prologue or Not To Prologue by Holly Jennings

If after all of this information, you decide you must have a prologue because all the coolest kids have one, then at least do it properly. Here is a great e-how article.

So if you must write a prologue, then write one that will blow a reader away. Take my First Five Pages class (below) and I can give you some expert perspective of whether to keep or ditch or if you want to keep your prologue, then how can you make it WORK?

What are some of the questions, concerns, troubles you guys have had with prologues? Which ones worked? Which ones bombed? What are your solutions or suggestions?

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Kristen is the author of the best-selling book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World in addition to the #1 best-selling books We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer. Kristen is the founder of the WANA movement, the CEO of WANA International and creator of WANATribe, the social network for creative professionals. She is a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post and the official social media columnist for Author Magazine.

Follow Kristen on Facebook, Twitter at @KristenLambTX and on her regular author blog.

To contact Kristen, e-mail kristen at wana intl dot com.

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23 thoughts on “The Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues

  1. Good stuff, Kristen, and thanks for stopping by TKZ! (Let me modestly add another post to your resource list if I may, “Death to Prologues?”)

    The advice I find myself giving out a lot is simply this: don’t use the label “Prologue.” It is, I think, increasingly perceived as old-fashioned. Instead, call it Chapter 1, or leave the heading blank (as in Tell No One), or give it a time stamp.

  2. Do readers REALLY skip prologues? I’ve never done it, and I’ve never heard anyone tell me they’ve done it, yet all the writing books mention it as a drawback of prologues. Is there any data available on how many prologues are being skipped?

    • It’s a genre thing. Readers who consume a lot of thrillers, suspense or even mystery might be less apt to skip them. Yet, as an editor for well over a decade, I’ve rarely encountered a prologue that simply HAD to be there. Most needed to be cut or folded in as Chapter One. One thing to appreciate is context. If you or other readers are reading a finished product, than MANY sets of professional eyes have given it the green that it NEEDED to be there. What you aren’t reading is the rough versions that cross our desk, if that makes sense.

  3. Great post, Kristen. One of the best articles I’ve read on prologues. Thanks for the links to other posts, and thanks for writing at TKZ. I’ll use this info the next time an editor wants me to cut a “vital” prologue…or just title it Chapter One.

  4. Love this post, but then I have a bias against prologues, as a reader and a writer. But only because they are often misused or mislabeled. (As Rowlings did, just call it chapter 1 and move on.) Yes, there are good prologues. And they can be useful just for the reasons you mention. But mostly, I agree that if you feel the need to write “Prologue” go lie down down until the urge passes.

    Thanx for the great post!

  5. Welcome to TKZ, Kristen! I think one reason thrillers make use of prologues is that the protagonist is always running to prevent something terrible from taking place. And many times, he does not know what he’s up against in the beginning of a story. A prologue is useful for establishing the stakes right off the bat. It can show a gory crime, for example. So from then on, the reader knows what the protagonist will eventually be confronting, even if the character is as yet unaware in Chapter 1.

    • Exactly, which is why I firmly believe certain genres need them and aren’t the same bugaboo as, say, for a Women’s Fiction. But even if we are writing a thriller, that prologue AND Chapter One have to be slam dunks because there is the extra work of hooking twice.

  6. Thanks Kristen – I quite like prologues when used appropriately to set up backstory that would otherwise bog down the rest of the book – or to set a world in motion (briefly!). So the virtues can be there – but as you say, so can the sins – so use with caution!

  7. I’ll be bookmarking this post–it’s a great summary of the pros and cons of prologues. I read the post quickly, so if you didn’t mention them, I also dislike prologues that

    1. introduce throwaway characters, although Ruth Rendell did that in one of her books; and

    2. start with a crime–or battle (although my novel does!) before the reader is vested in the main character (I hope the reader is vested in her and I hope that’s an important difference.)

    Although I dislike them when reading manuscripts because they’re so often done poorly, I don’t skip them when reading.

    I’m hoping that my “Chapter 1” does it properly.

    You didn’t mention frames, e.g., Irving’s A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY and THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, and many other novels.

    Would love a post about frames because the opening frame is often called a prologue.

    Or, I could volunteer to do such a post.

  8. Great post, Kristen! And welcome to TKZ!

    As a reader, I often/usually skip prologues as I want to get started right away on the “real” story. I find that more fantasy and speculative fiction novels use prologues to introduce their world than do thrillers or mysteries.

    As a fiction editor, I usually try to discourage prologues for all the reasons you’ve mentioned, or at least encourage the authors to make them as brief as possible and written as a compelling action scene in real time, not as “telling” – descriptive world-building or background information for the readers. That’s the lazy way out.

  9. Kristen Lamb–
    I think your cautions all make good sense. But if the writer knows what prologues are for and how to use them, there’s no reason to demonize them as some “experts” have done. On your list of prologue virtues, #2 is very applicable to my suspense novel, The Anything Goes Girl: a critical element in the backstory is relevant to the plot. By making my prologue action-oriented, not an information dump, I place the reader in a good position to understand what happens in chapter 1, when my lead character first appears. And: because the reader now possesses information my lead character doesn’t have, he–the reader–can enjoy the pleasures of dramatic irony.

    • When I wrote the post it was off the already demonized reputation of the poor prologue 😀 . I kept getting so many submissions that made it clear writers didn’t understand WHAT true purpose the prologue served. And I like leaving on a high note. So, here is why they have a bad rap. Here’s why they shouldn’t If writers understand what that “extra” screw is for and that it really isn’t “extra” I think (and hope) we will see more prologues used properly. They are a fantastic literary device.

  10. Thanks for the great advice, Kristin. I’ve never written a prologue, and rarely read books that have them. I can see how it would work in the mysteries or thrillers you’ve mentioned, though.

  11. Thanks for such a great post, first of all! This is a question that I’ve been pondering in my WIP. My MC was traumatized when she was 7 years old by seeing the aftermath of her parent’s murders. She doesn’t remember that night and didn’t speak for 5 years afterward. Since most of my story is backstory, I know that I must be extra-careful not to create an information dump. I also have her getting involved in an even colder case from 1871. So, my original idea was to have a prologue briefly showing what happened when she was discovered. I have heard about this skipping of prologues, so it did concern me, but as this murder is directly tied to her present and why she gets involved with the 1871 cold case, I am not sure how to work it into the story without the prologue, unless I were to write in sections by date. Any ideas? Thanks so much for your help! 🙂

  12. Rebecca, anything can be done. Execution is all that matters. BUT, you might generate more suspense if we the readers DON’T KNOW. That makes us turn pages to uncover this “mystery” with her. It’s a stylistic choice.

  13. Yay, Kristen Lamb has visited one of my favorite blogs! =D

    I’m currently wrestling with a prologue right now. It has some of those virtues, but it might be wrestling with the “attract readers” vice. I’m not sure. I’m trying to decide if I should ditch it completely. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while, so I’m not sure I WANT to ditch it, so this post is helpful for me to go through the prologue and decide what to do.

  14. Sometimes we need another set of eyes from those who are skilled and not emotionally attached. I wrote the first novel of this trilogy I’m working on and LOVED my beginning. I handed it to a friend of mine, Author Les Edgerton and he SLAYED me. He was all, “Kristen, you are super funny, but this isn’t moving the story.” And with that, he lopped off FIVE pages of brilliance. Sigh. But, when I saw it, I knew he was right. I was entertaining myself and forgot to invite the reader, LOL. Happens to us all.

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