re: Are Prologues Taboo?

in General fiction by

Dear Editor…

Are prologues taboo? Some writers have told me just to call it Chapter 1. However, it’s a different format than the rest of the book. Someone else said a prologue has to be a different time period. What can you tell us about prologues?

Sincerely,
Sue

Dear Sue…

A prologue is a valid literary device—but use it knowing that some readers will skip it. Some claim prologues force them to start books twice. Others have been jaded by prologues that convey backstory that should’ve been worked into official chapters. Others swear prologues set in the future are simply teasers stuck in when Chapter 1 isn’t gripping enough. These real pitfalls give prologues a bad name. Be sure your prologue provides setup that readers truly need and that truly can’t be worked into the chapters. Be sure you’re not teasing a future event because you fear your Chapter 1 starts the story at too quiet a moment. Experiment. Dump your prologue and see if the story is fine without it. If the opening is now too quiet, put the blame where it belongs and rewrite Chapter 1. If you really do need the backstory info, work it into the main story. Don’t dump it all in Chapter 1, though. Tease out the details, if you can. That makes for fun reading.

Happy writing!
The Editor

10 Comments

  1. It seems it also depends on the genre. Prologues in fantasy seem to be expected. Not always, but they are an acceptable part of the genre. I would be surprised to see a prologue in a romance, for example.

  2. I am currently working on a mystery-romance that takes place in the year 1871. I’m thinking about adding a short prologue that includes a “today” story between several living generations of descentants puzzling over their family history. Then the reader is taken to 1871. In the epilogue, the same living characters travel to view the grave monuments of the main character and her husband from 1871 after unraveling the mystery of what happened in their ancestors’ lives by researching, obtaining documents, etc. DNA testing also plays a small part in the epilogue. But now I’m wondering if a simple prologue and epilogue is appropriate. Chapter one is very gripping so this isn’t a pitfall – if anything, the prologue is too quiet which is why I want to keep it short. On the other hand, if my reader uses a prologue to judge my book before they decide to continue reading…it is simply too quiet. I am torn in different directions – do I use a prologue or not? If not, where and how do I incorporate today’s characters in with their ancestors’ story?

    • JJ, I’m worried that you’re building a frame around your story–a frame that involves a second set of characters in a different time period with their own set of personalities, motives, actions, etc. Are you asking your readers to know a second cast unnecessarily? A more common “frame” has a storyteller character opening the book with “let me tell you a story about”, and then the storyteller pops up at the end of the book to say, “So that’s the story. Did you learn such and such a lesson?” That’s easier to spot as unnecessary. But your frame sounds to me, in this admittedly short description, to serve the same general purpose. Can you just let your main story stand alone, in all its entertaining glory?

      • Dear Editor – Thank you for your comments. My story could indeed “stand alone.” I was a genealogist first and a writer second, so I was loosely basing my novel on one of my ancestors. My prologue and epilogue was to capture the attention of genealogists and would-be family historians and show them how fascinating history can be. But if I want to write a manual on mastering genealogical puzzles, I can do so without incorporating it into my novel. Your comments are much appreciated. JJ

        • “But if I want to write a manual on mastering genealogical puzzles…” That’s funny, JJ. Glad to have helped clarify your options.

  3. I have prologue issues, too. My novel is written in first person and the protagonist won’t know the information I want to relay. So I tried a very short (three paragraph) prologue written in third person. I’m getting ready to submit, so I guess I’ll let you know what feedback I get.

    • Fitting in material that the protagonist has no way of knowing is certainly a challenge of the first person narrative. A prologue is a valid solution. Good luck with your submission!

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