ROW80 Check-In 9 – Prologues: How and why to write one

Hello gentle readers and fellow writers,

Last week I came across an interesting post on the MythicScribes forum. It is a great forum for fantasy writers and a member called Lunaairis posted his thoughts on prologues on August 17th 2012.

Usually, writers are advised to avoid including prologues at the beginning of their novels. Prologues should be banned because they most likely are 1) unnecessary lengthy narrative of back story, 2) boring scene-setting that can be cut without harming the plot, 3) information that should be your chapter One, 4) something that readers don’t read anyway.

However many published Epic Fantasy books do start with a prologue and Lunaairis explains in his post when and how this is acceptable:

“I was looking at a post about prologues and I couldn’t help but think that there seems to be something wrong with people’s reactions to them. I for one like prologues as they can set the tone for the rest of the story; When they are prologues and not just masses of text. After reading Farlander (by Col Buchanan) I have realized what makes a prologue good, and why more fantasy stories need them.

1) A prologue should be like the story you will tell but in miniature, it should be no longer then your longest chapter and should never be split into parts (I’ve seen this done and it’s just horrendous). That said you should always leave the prologue to be the last thing you write. A prologue is so much like a door hinge I can’t even begin to explain. It is best used with the idea to gather readers; it’s a chapter the average man/woman or child can read at a book store to get a feel for the authors writing without going into the main story. It is what an author should use for getting the reader from the real world to their fictional world. Again like a door hinge it keeps the book open for the public eye to grab a glimpse.

2) The author can also use the prologue to slip in information that the other characters in the novel might already know (if it is important to the story). You wouldn’t want to write a chapter about a city falling to pieces, only for it to have no purpose for the rest of the story, waste-of-space much? (…) Don’t allow prologues to become information dumps, remember you are trying to get the average reader into your story, don’t bombard them with names that won’t or can’t be explained till 2-3 chapters in.

3) Prologues, after keeping in mind that they should not be long, they should also not be short. A prologue consisting of 1-4 paragraphs is rather useless; all the information presented could be bleed into the speech of some of the characters. Removing the need for the prologue all together. If there are only 1-4 paragraphs it’s likely that you just wrote an information dump and should delete it anyways.

4) There should be a story going on in your prologue, a beginning and an end. Introduce a key character in your story, Maybe a villain? The main character? A magic object? Something that has reason to exist, and has wants and needs. Present them a challenge; it could be a rival, a theft (the theft of a person’s life, an object, a person or a way of thinking) or maybe the end of a cycle. (…) Remember when coming up with the challenge, it may be a good idea to take the main problem of you fiction but show it on a miniature scale. If your story is about racism show a glimpse of the racism here.

5) Now show off the character or object’s skills by somehow getting them though the situation. This is a great way to get your reader interested in the character or object they are going to follow for the rest of the book. It’s time to show their talents, as this character or object may not be the only main character or object of the novel but is the one that pulls the story along, and likely won’t be showing up again for a few chapters.

6) Never talk history in the prologue; write as it happens. Do you remember sitting in those boring history classes with your unexciting history teacher? Thank god I loved history and never had a crappy history teacher. But I know other people who have and I also know they don’t like to read about it in their fiction, so keep it out of there! There is a time and a place to talk about the last great war between the Jubjubwicks and the Didolgigs but the prologue is not the place to be talking politics from a second source.”

So what do you think? Do you agree with Lunaairis? Have you included a prologue in your novel? If yes, what is it like? Or are you against prologues? Let me know in the comment section!

Finally, my update: I have had a good writing week after a very lazy summer on the writing front. I haven’t worked on my WIP, but I have written a short story, worked on my query letter and devised a new editing plan for my WIP. Next week I’m planning on diving back into editing…

How are you fellow ROWers doing?  Here is the Linky to the list of participants.

Happy writing!

13 thoughts on “ROW80 Check-In 9 – Prologues: How and why to write one

  1. S. J. Maylee says:

    I agree with Lunaairis. I’m the reader that has to read everything, cant miss a word the author put out there, so I always read prologues. And when done as Lunaairis describes they bring power and anticipation to the story. My current WIPs are contemporary erotic romance, I wont even consider a prologue, BUT the WIP plotting in my head is a paranormal romance, the bad guys started their plan centuries ago and they will have a PVO in the story. I’m planning a prologue. Thanks for this, I’m bookmarking this post.
    Congrats on diving back in, have a great edit week.

    • EM Castellan says:

      Thanks! I do enjoy prologues as a reader, so I’m always a bit surprised to hear the “No Prologue Ever” advice. It’s nice to see other writers considering prologues for their own WIP 🙂

  2. I’m not usually fond of prologues, for the reasons listed at the beginning of the post. However, I think they can be done well, and Lunaairis gives some good guidelines for doing this. In addition to the reasons s/he gives, I’ve seen prologues put to good use in romance novels by showing something that happened years before the story takes place, that has a profound effect on the story events. For example, this might be in a reunion romance when the couple was together years before, but their relationship didn’t work out. It can be much more effective to show this in a prologue (and get the reader invested) than to dump it in later.

    My ROW80 goal report doesn’t look like I accomplished that much, but I feel like I did – and I did a couple things not on my list, but that still needed doing. So I’ll consider that a success. Good luck on your edits!

  3. stephseclecticinterests says:

    I always read prologues. I know the jury is out, but the above pointers sound like good ones to me.

    All the best as you dive back into editing and your WIP.

    Have a great week. TTFN

  4. Juliana Haygert says:

    I have ambiguous feelings about Prologues. I think it depends on the story. I don’t mind reading them, if they make sense and are important.
    Good job on your goals. Writing a short story is always an accomplishment.
    Have a great week!

  5. Gloria Weber says:

    People say Prologues are bad but they are in so many books. I think the argument against them is possibly misguided. But the fact is I like the word itself… Prologue. I mean it is pretty and odd…

    I wish you the best with your current WIP and hope the editing plan is a success.

  6. Em says:

    I always read prologues and I like ones that leave me guessing for a large chunk of the book who was speaking or who is was about. Marian Keyes does this well in Sushi for Beginners.

    Glad you have been productive and thank you for your comment over at my place 🙂

  7. Mike Paulson says:

    I always try to read prologues if they are included, and I find myself paying dearly for them. I agree completely with Lunaairis that the prologue should be the public’s glimpse into the book they may be about to buy. From the quality or material of many prologues I’ve read, I have put a book back down and never thought about it again. It’s sad that some authors seemingly put so little effort into the first thing a serious reader will read of your novel.

    That said, I believe that a well-written prologue can be beneficial. As much as I hate to use movies as an example, the opening scene for The Fellowship of the Ring had a narrated section talking about how the Ring of Power was forged, and how it was forgotten, then found a thousand years later, and ended up in Bilbo’s hands. This, in my opinion, was a perfect prologue. It took the driving force behind the series and showed it in all its glory, and in all its “personality” as it strove to find its way home. I can’t remember if a similar prologue was included in the book, as it’s been so long since I’ve read it, but the version in the movie, in my opinion, was perfect.

    A write who can capture this energy, this tension, in a short opening prologue should add it to a novel. This works better in fantasy than any other genre, in my opinion, but can be used in any genre by a novelist who understands his or her craft.

  8. Rebecca K. says:

    I think if you can write the prologue short, sweet, and poignant, more power to you. But if you can’t, skip it. You’d have to have a fairly intricate plot or setting to require it in the first place. It needs to work as both a selling point and have expositional value, if you’re going to give up precious, front-row real estate in your novel for it.

  9. Scott says:

    I wrote a prologue that was what are the bad guys doing and how did they get to this point before the rest of the novel was written from the perspective of the good guys. The bad guys were back for their perspective in the epilogue and I think that worked.

  10. EM Castellan says:

    It does sound like it would work! Thanks for stopping by my blog, it’s always nice to “meet” other fantasy writers 🙂

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