Prologues. Some authors swear by them; some readers roll their eyes at them and skip ahead. Me? I believe that, like most literary devices, prologues have their time and place, i.e. some stories need them while other stories are better off without them. If used with moderation-but-pizzazz, The Prologue is a vehicle that may really put your story into gear and make the reader buckle in. However, writers without a firm handle on the steering wheel may drive their story to an early death [especially when querying], so beware.
Ok, enough with the vehicular metaphors. Here are two lists of when and how prologues may work – or not:
Time Gaps & Backstories. “Long, long time ago, before our princess met her prince…” Most stories begin long before the main story really begins. Before Cinderella’s blankie was moved to the sooty hearth in the kitchen or the ball was announced, her mommy had to pass away and daddy had to bring home an evil stepmom before dying himself. Stories are about the characters and sometimes it is critical to get a glimpse of that pivotal moment in a character’s past that sets the course of their stories.
Tone & Pace. Sometimes prologues may help set the tone for the entire story. Whether a meeting of the protagonist with the antagonist or the hero with the heroine, world-building, or simply going deep POV into the MC’s mind, the prologue can help create atmosphere and/or hint at the main conflict. This is especially useful when the following chapter, i.e. Chapter One, is more gradual in pace and acts more as a layup to the main story. However, just because you have a fast-paced prologue, it does not mean that you have a license to slow down the first chapter into drudgery because remember, a lot of readers do skip the prologue.
Active & Emotional. A cousin of the Tone & Pace, the author needs to ensure that the prologue is vibrant and perusal-worthy. This is not to say that the prologue must be action-oriented but that it should relate an event or aspect of the MC or close counterparts that can truly help readers identify with the issue that will be addressed in the story. And while at it, make it engaging.
Ends before Beginning. Stories that start at the end often use prologues. The author relates the climax of the conflict before starting the main story to show how the MC got that point. It’s a great way to hook the reader and pique their curiosity. Readers are fully aware of the conflict and enjoy an opportunity to pick out all the places where everything went awry for the MC.
A Piece of History. Sometimes the main story is related to a major time in history that sets the course of character’s lives. Though it may not be fairly obvious when the story begins, it impacts the overall setting of the story and forces the undercurrents. A decision imposed by the government, an action worthy of review, or some document that relates or alludes to an event that impacts the MC or a body of people who are the major players in the story. Though most often placed in the preface section or the author’s notes, sometimes a story can benefit by including such matters of history in the main body.
A Mysterious POV. This POV is used only once, never to be experienced again in the entire story. He/she lays the foundation of the story and then the rest of the story is told from different POV(s). Situations where this may work? The villain in the process of committing the crime, an ancestor burying a family heirloom, or a mountaineer causing a crack in a glacier that leads to a major avalanche, etc.
NOT TO PROLOGUE
Dumping Grounds. Though the most common use of prologue is to give the reader a glimpse of the MC’s past, this is not an opportunity for the author to info dump on the reader. This is not a semi-chapter to unload all your hard-earned research materials nor is it an opportunity to for speed dating where your reader totally irrevocably falls for your character. First thing to remember is that if the content is not relevant to the main story, hit backspace. Second thing to remember is, keep it limited to one event or incident and make sure it’s a super important one.
Playing Hook-y. If the entire motive is to hook the readers and build atmosphere, ixnay on the prologue because it can just as well be done with the opening chapter. Readers are well aware that prologues do not automatically denote a pivotal past or epic world-building so, as said above, not all stories benefit from a deferred starting point. Moreover, some readers never read the prologue, in which case, if your prologue is where all the atmosphere is and your chapter one is dull by comparison, you may just have lost yourself a reader. This also means that you will have to do double the work to ensure both your prologue and chapter one are grand.
Condensed Boring. Again, if you plan to info dump on your readers in the prologue, and I cannot stress this enough, DON’T. This can happen when you end up traveling too far into the MC’s past and summarizing everything that ever happened to the character, or revealing excessive details of the world your story is set in. What you think you’re doing is laying the foundation for your reader, what you’re really doing is putting your reader to sleep. You are burdening your reader with data that you can probably easily trickle in at various parts of the story later, making for an overall richer but less loaded reading experience.
No Conflict. If there is no hint of conflict in the prologue, chances are that you’ll fail to pique your reader’s interest. The prologue is an opportunity to show that your MC has a stake in the story, and thereby enlist your reader to embark on the journey with the MC. Without this, your reader will not be able to engage and your prologue will fall flat.
The Case of the Missing MC. Your prologue has nothing to do with the MC. Oh, it’s not necessary for your MC to be present in the prologue physically but whatever information that the prologue is relating should have something to do with the conflict the character will face or the solution that can get him/her out of the mess. It needs to reveal a key element that drives the MC’s course through the plot.
Written Differently. Even if your prologue relates to a time with a thousand year gap between your real-time plot, it must be written in a similar style. This is a golden rule to avoid disorienting your reader when they get to the main story. And the only exception to this rule is when your prologue includes a documentation of some kind that is composed essentially by a person, real life or fictional, not existing in the main story.
So, there it is. That’s what my years of research have helped me determine about when and when not to prologue. I think the above rule of thumb can help you sail into your story without major turbulence [I promise this is the absolute last transportation-related mataphore]. And if you wish to read more about what makes a good opening to a story, I posted a blog on that too a couple of months back.
If you, as a story composer or consumer, have additional tips on when prologues absolutely work for or annoy you, please do share below in the comments section.