A Prologue Primer

by James Scott Bell

Today we look at a first page from another anonymous author. Here we go:


“Where is my Aunt,” Daniel Dubov hissed at the stranger. It was midnight and he was standing on the roof top of the Angebilt Hotel waiting to rendezvous with Esther Fiedler, the owner.

“She’s still in the nightclub, enjoying Wini Rose’s trombone solo,” said the shadowy figure. “Somehow Mrs. Fiedler didn’t get the note telling her to meet you here, but I have a message for you.”  Without warning, Daniel was grabbed and held tight while the Nazi slit his throat and dragged him behind some potted palms. The Nazi gloated that it had been so easy to finish this night’s mission and slipped through the darkness to the nightclub one story below.


Ludwig Lash, aka Flash, the leader and piano player of our swing band, handed me a bouquet of flowers to the cheers and claps from my colleagues and friends.
“Way to go, Wini,” my friend Mac shouted and gave a loud two fingered whistle.

I threw him a grin then looked around at the other four band members, and nodded my thanks to their encouraging smiles, well, all but one was smiling. Steve Beckett, the clarinetist, was scowling as usual. He definitely had a jealous streak and didn’t like all the attention I was getting. It wasn’t my fault that I finally graduated from college and Mrs. Fiedler, the owner of the hotel where our band played, decided to throw me a surprise party to celebrate. It was a surprise all right. Too bad I hate surprises. I smiled and waved to the audience and told Flash out of the side of my mouth, “Cover for me, please?  I needed some fresh air.”

After a five minute stop to powder my nose, I climbed a flight of stairs to the rooftop of the Angebilt Hotel. I shivered a little in the cool breeze. It was in sharp contrast to the smoked filled stuffy room of the Top o The Town Nightclub. I took a deep breath and could feel myself relaxing, enjoying the twinkling lights of Orlando, eleven stories below.

As I was leaving to go back to the nightclub and do some mingling, I saw what looked like a shoe behind a potted plant. Going in for a closer look I noticed the shoe was attached to a body and the body sure looked dead to me. Any ordinary girl might scream but I was cultivating a tough cookie persona and tough cookies don’t scream or at least not very often. There was a scrap of paper next to the body. I bent over to grab it and that is the last thing I remember before coming to.


JSB: When is a prologue not a prologue? And should prologues be used at all?

Some time in the last fifteen years or so, one of those critique-group memes mushroomed, ready to chew up young writers, like that plant in Little Shop of Horrors. This meme is Never use a prologue! Editors hate them.  

How did such a meme arise? Perhaps from the editors on conference panels who said, “Never use a prologue! I hate them.”

Just a guess.

Anyway, what are we to make of this? Prologues have a long and honorable history and are still being used by A-list novelists today. Okay, so you’re not A-list. Yet (and when you are, you can do whatever you dang well please).

What then, classically, is the role of a prologue? Here are three:

  1. To hook the reader from the get-go with a gripping scene.
  2. To lay out some mystery to be resolved later.
  3. Sometimes, to give us the POV of the villain engaged in an act of villainy.

All fine reasons. Here are some not so fine reasons:

  1. To give us backstory information only.
  2. To give us a scene that does not have an integral relationship with the plot.
  3. To tease.

This last one is what we have here. A prologue needs to be an actual scene—at least enough of a scene to get us bonded to a character. Even if that character dies.

If it’s not a scene, and we don’t click with a character—and especially if it’s as short as this—we have a teaser. But a teaser is not a function of storytelling. It’s a function of advertising. Like a movie trailer.

So … either cut this prologue or make it a full scene, from Daniel’s POV. As it stands now, we bounce out of Daniel’s POV and into the Nazi’s. And yet I’m not sure that there aren’t three POVs here. It’s not clear that the shadowy figure and the Nazi are the same. Physically, it appears they aren’t, because Daniel is grabbed and his throat is cut—an action that usually takes place from behind.

I’d say cut this, because a true prologue is separated in time from Chapter One. This teaser is merely some action happening just before the opening scene.

There is white space, and then the next scene. This is rendered in First Person POV, so I am assuming it’s Chapter One. If so, it should be so labeled. And this is where I would begin. If not, it’s still a distraction.

One more word about prologues. Being aware that the label Prologue might hit some editor or agent the wrong way, outfox them: Don’t label it Prologue!

Label it either Chapter One, or don’t label it at all. Begin with white space or a date stamp. Make sure it’s gripping and relevant and ends with a page-turning punch. Then you can label the next scene Chapter One and no one will be the wiser….heh heh.

As for the rest of the piece, there is nice potential. I like that she’s a female trombonist. That’s fresh. She goes up on the roof, discovers a body, and gets conked on the noggin. Nice disturbance to her ordinary world, I’d say!

I also like the voice. I threw him a grin … I noticed the shoe was attached to a body and the body sure looked dead to me. This has a nice, snappy, noir feel to it. And some attitude. That’s always a key for me to enjoy First Person POV.

I suggest a few tweaks:

smoked filled stuffy room should be smoke-filled room. (Stuffy is redundant)

but I was cultivating a tough cookie persona and tough cookies don’t scream or at least not very often. This is already a long sentence, and the last few words are superfluous. Don’t soften a good strike. The line is snappier this way: but I was cultivating a tough cookie persona and tough cookies don’t scream.

Similarly, clip the last line: I bent over to grab it and that is the last thing I remember. 

Now I really would want to read on!

In general, for this type of writing, keep long sentences to a minimum. I’d look over all of it and see about dividing some of them into two or three. You can even make paragraphs out of them. Here’s just one example:

I threw him a grin looked around at the other four band members. I nodded my thanks to their encouraging smiles.

Well, all but one was smiling.

All in all, though, this is promising. Well done, author. Keep at it.

TKZers, what have you to say?

17 thoughts on “A Prologue Primer

  1. I was confused. I figured Nazi = World War II Germany. Then we’re in Orlando?

    I’m in Orlando, roughly 3 miles from the Angebilt. When exactly is this taking place? There’s been no smoking here for quite a while, at least the last 10 years or so.

    I think I would like this if I could figure out what was going on. I do Shakespeare theatre and I’m used to keeping lists of tons of characters in my head, but I had trouble keeping up with so many characters in such a small space.

    Side note – my co-worker’s daughter plays trombone.

    • I assume WWII, Cynthia. I’m an L.A. boy and know little about Florida, except that it’s hot and muggy and has the occasional croc on its golf courses, but I did find this in Wikipedia:

      Orlando, as Florida’s largest inland city, became a popular resort during the years between the Spanish–American War and World War I. In the 1920s, Orlando experienced extensive housing development during the Florida Land Boom. Land prices soared. During this period several neighborhoods in downtown were constructed, endowing it with many bungalows … During World War II, a number of Army personnel were stationed at the Orlando Army Air Base and nearby Pinecastle Army Air Field. Some of these servicemen stayed in Orlando to settle and raise families.

  2. Thanks for the discussion of prologues, Jim.

    I’ve always felt that prologues have been given a bum rap. I like the way they set up the story.

    The list of 3 roles for the prologue is helpful. I particularly like #2 – To lay out some mystery to be resolved later (emphasis on “later”). That type of prologue really hooks me and pulls me into the story.

  3. Excellent advice. I think prologues can be a double-edged sword. As a writer, it feels like a great place to throw exposition when I’m creating a story. However, I’ve yet to keep a prologue when in the editing phase.
    Back to this story: I really dig the noir pulp fiction feel thus far. I’m an old Carter Brown addict (giving away my age here-haha), and I always enjoy when a story sends me back to those early roots of reading. Write on! Write on!

  4. Thanks for defining the role of the prologue, Jim. I’ve never quite understood the “No prologues, ever!” mentality, and your brief passage on them brings a little love to the subject. Within the narrow perimeters you have staked out, a prologue can be a very effective tool with which a writer can open a novel. I also agree, don’t call it a prologue.

  5. Thank you for the critique and comments. It is very much appreciated.
    For Cynthia, we may be neighbors as I also live about three miles from the Angebilt Hotel. My story takes place during WWII. In the “History of Orlando Vol II” by Eve Bacon, there is a section entitled war years. There is a paragraph about a Nazi cabal in Orlando made up of German officers who had settled here after WWI. Also a reference to the Sheriff arresting a notorious escaped NAZI.
    The Orlando Army Air base was also home to a German prisoner of war camp.

  6. Jim, you covered this nicely. I’ll just toss in one quick edit/nit for this author:

    “Where is my Aunt” is a question. What’s missing is the question mark. Not the end of the world, but when it happens in the very first four words of the story, people notice. I do get that sometimes questions, when framed in the dialogue context of someone making a declaration, are best served without a question mark (though editors will stick one back in there almost every time). But this one… it’s a pure question, no wiggle room.

  7. Anon, are you ever lucky to receive critique from JSB!

    The background/history in your comment sounds like a terrific unusual twist on a WWII mystery.

    The prologue isn’t necessary except it establishes time/place. Just transfer that info to Chapter 1. You might slip it in with something like:

    “Earlier today, June XX, 1941, I’d finally graduated from college. Mrs. Fiedler, owner of the Angebilt Hotel where my swing band performed, threw me a surprise party. Too bad I hate surprises.”

    Intriguing and fun. Looking forward to seeing the finished book!

  8. Like anything, except politicians, a prologue can be good or bad. A problems I see in them, prologues not politicians, is that they often take away a potential mystery or extra tension in the rest of the story. In this example, if our trombone player found a body without preamble, we’d be wondering “what the heck”. I think that would strengthen the story as we read on to find out.
    Nazi is such a loaded word in this day and age that it draws too much attention to itself. I wouldn’t use such a character. Maybe a female Swedish assassin since I’ve never heard of one.
    Finally, a well handled prologue can be great. Denis Lehane’s Shutter Island comes to mind. Check it out. The book’s page on Amazon has it in the preview.

  9. Just a thought about the comment that a prologue shouldn’t be used as a tease, and the further statement that “But a teaser is not a function of storytelling. It’s a function of advertising. Like a movie trailer.”

    Given the push to make everything multi-media, including books, is that so bad?

  10. I figure it had to be early because the last I heard it was being used as a courthouse. I assumed it had been torn down (like everything else around here). It hasn’t. It’s an office building.

  11. Jim – we are some of the service people who raised our family here – though it had gone from Air Force to Navy by then. Pricey neighborhood on that old site.

  12. Thank you for writing this article. I was going to eliminate my prologue but my gut would not allow me to push delete. I’m happy that didn’t go through with it. After reading your article it looks like I nailed it.

  13. I love stories about WWII and the events leading up to it, and the idea of a female
    trombone player as the protagonist (I assume) is intriguing as well. Once ready for publication, I would definitely want to read this story.

    I absolutely agree that prologues are poorly handled by many authors, but people like Ruth Rendell, who used one that breaks another “cardinal” rule about prologues, can get away with them. The cardinal rule (there are no cardinal rules, except maybe lack of clarity, but even lack of clarity can be used effectively as a humor technique) I’m raising that I don’t think has been mentioned so far is that it’s risky to introduce characters who never appear again in the story. The Nazi is okay, but spending a lot of time in the POV of the victim (assuming his character or prior activities don’t relate to the plot as an almost-dramatic character) gets us invested in him, when what we really want, IMHO, is to have the reader invested in the protagonist. It’s her journey that needs to be foreshadowed, I think.

    The other points (renaming as C.1, separated in time, a full scene required, no backstory or world-building or info dump, etc.) are excellent.

    Oft times, we use a prologue like a frame (think CIDER HOUSE RULES, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, etc.), and that makes it even more important to be able to distinguish between a prologue and a frame. I’m wondering if one of you could deal with frames in a future post???

    I adore this blog. Thank you for making it so interesting and valuable.

  14. Just want to say thanks again everyone of the thoughts and comments. I’ve learned so much and this has been a great experience and opportunity!

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