Monday, October 29, 2012

You Might Have a Bad Prologue If ...

by R.C. Lewis

If you lurk around writing/publishing sites or follow such people on Twitter, you'll see a couple (hundred) comments on the evils of prologues. And they can be evil. I used to spend a lot of time on an online slushpile of a site. I've seen a lot of unpublished manuscripts, and I think I only ever saw a handful of prologues where I said, "Oh, yeah. That works. That's a keeper."

People wiser than I have posted on the topic (including FTWA's own Jemi Fraser a few months back), but I never let that stop me. So here's a Jeff Foxworthy-style (but probably not as entertaining) list. Read it over, take a good look at your prologue, and try to be honest about whether it fits any of these criteria.



  • ... you only wrote the prologue because EVERY book in your genre has one. Every single one. Not one out there that doesn't in the whole wide world. Well, except those over there. They don't count.
  • ... you only wrote the prologue because you're completely enamored with the idea of prologues. You love them. The books you worship most and aspire to be like have them, so clearly you must have a prologue so your books can be just like the oh-so-awesome works of [fill in the blank].

  • ... your reader feels like they were walking to an important appointment and got held up by a chatterbox in the hallway who won't let them go until they've heard all about the stapler that keeps disappearing from the copy room. In other words, they feel like they're being held up from the real story. (Even a prologue should feel like part of the 'real' story.)

  • ... your reader feels compelled to take notes on all the names of characters, their vital stats, and how they interrelate, only to find out none of them will show up again in the next 80,000 words.

  • ... your reader learns something through the prologue that the main character is ignorant of until the third-to-last page of the novel, and spends the whole novel screaming, "No, you idiot! He's your FATHER!" (Or equivalent.) Letting the reader be in the know when the MC isn't can be cool. It can also be seriously frustrating. Fine line to tread.

  • ... your reader gets annoyed because they already have a long-winded, boring history teacher, and it's no fun in real life, so even worse during pleasure reading, thank you very much!

  • ... you could avoid all of the above with three well-placed sentences rather than the prologue, but you can't see that because you're utterly certain that your novel REQUIRES a prologue to work.

This doesn't mean all prologues are evil and bad and smelly and gross. Plenty of published books have them. They got past an editor's desk that way for a reason. Are you sure you likewise qualify?

Really sure?

If so, go ahead. Just remember, every time we assume we're one of the exceptions, we're taking a risk.

Can anyone add to the You Might Have a Bad Prologue If... list? I'm sure there are things I missed.

R.C. Lewis teaches math by day and writes YA fiction by every other time. Her YA sci-fi novel Stitching Snow will be published by Disney-Hyperion in Summer 2014. Meanwhile, you can find her at Crossing the Helix and on Twitter (@RC_Lewis).


Jemi Fraser said...

Agreed! Prologues are hard to pull off. I won't say the title, but there's an awesome book I read aloud to my class a lot. It has a prologue that I never read. It's SO different in style from the book and throws in a lot of that history. The kids have never missed it :)

Beau Williams said...

Wow; you sure have me intimidated - even though none of the above reasons apply to me. I'm including a prologue because it was the most efficient way to explain why (and when) the protagonist and the antagonist have such a complex relationship. As well as providing a far more effective "hook" to begin the story than the first chapter. (actually, only the first half of the prologue would appear in the prologue...the rest of it would be parceled out in mental, dissasociative flashbacks which plague the protagonist through the story.) Anyway; you've got me rethinking the entire beginning now. We'll see what comes of that.

Jean Oram said...

Look out Jeff Foxworthy! ;)

I generally dislike prologues because they often are extraneous. *Often*