Friday, December 2, 2016

Why Not All Prologues Are Evil (And How to Write A Good One)

Prologues should be like John the Baptist. Awesome, intriguing, paving the way for an even greater written work.

But most of the time they aren't. They're more like those dreaded "Previously on" pieces of dialogue that come before a TV show that you usually end up forwarding through.

Prologues have accumulated a lot of hate over the years. People say they're too boring. They're info dumping. They're not necessary, they're too long, they're too short, they're outdated, annoying, they lower your chances of publication by 394%.

Pffft. You're not actually going to listen to those fools, are you? I bet they're the same people who laughed at Edison and said that the Guardians of the Galaxy was going to be stupid.
Hannah Heath: Why Not All Prologues Are Evil (And How to Write A Good One)
Allow me to explain to you all of the brilliant things about prologues:
  1. They set the mood and background of the story. It allows you to set the mood and the style of your world, people, society, conflict, etc by giving information in a way that is different from what you could have done with just a chapter. If you don't go overkill and drown your reader in backstory, this is a great capability to have. 
  2. They allow you to write from a different time period. You can set your prologue several years in the past, which is not as easy to do if your opening pages are within a chapter. This can help you set the stage. 
  3. They allow you to write from a different point of view. This lends a flexibility to the story, as it allows you to tell what is going on in a place (or a character's head) that is not generally accessible when using another POV. 
  4. They can tease the reader into the story. You can showcase your awesome style, give bits and pieces of your world away, and show your readers glances of the coming plot and conflict. Prologues are a great way to build tension and understanding of the story right out of the gate. 
I personally have always loved a good prologue. If you're thinking of using one in your book, or perhaps already have one but are thinking of backing out because of all of the stigma surrounding them, then you're in the right place. I don't care if everybody is looking at something in your story and screaming: 
I don't care if it's not popular. All that matters to me is whether of not it can make a good story. Prologues can and do. So don't listen to the naysayers. Follow me. I can show you the ways of the prologue, and how to craft one that readers will enjoy: 

1. Ask yourself whether you need it. Is this prologue necessary? What are you going to use it for? Is it something that can't be placed in chapter form (or sprinkled throughout several chapters) in a pleasing manner? Make sure you need it. Once you have decided that your book needs it, then it doesn't matter if the publishing and writing industry is telling you to change, to move your prologue to the trash. It is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say, no. You move.

2. Decide exactly what it is you need in your prologue before writing. Do not sit down at that keyboard before having chosen exactly what information it is you are going to put in your prologue. It needs to be relevant to the story, it needs to be interesting, and it needs to make your readers care. So keep your information concise, clear, and cool. Alliterations are optional. 

3. Remember that your prologue can have dialogue. I'm not sure why this is, but many prologues are utterly void of dialogue. They don't have to be. In fact, dialogue can keep your prologue from being one of those scary blocks of text with very few spaces. Just keep the dialogue natural and allow it to have subtleties and nuances. 

4. Try to keep it short. Traditionally, prologues are kept under five pages. If your prologue is extremely long, people may get bored and wonder when the "real story" begins. Also, if it's long it's possible that you are info-dumping, which is a massive no. So try to keep it brief. If you need it longer and know you can do it without being boring or monologuing or breaking tip #2, then okay. I will cheer you on. 

5. Don't be afraid to write it from your villain's POV. Yep. I said it. You can open your book with a prologue, and you can open it from your villain's POV. Break two rules at once! Yay! Join the rebellion.
Think about it: It will help with your villain's complexity and it's a good way to convey tension and the conflict to come. I'm not saying you need to open your book with your villain, but if you feel so inclined, then full speed ahead! 

6. Don't you dare info dump. Don't even think about it. If you do, you will become part of the group of writers who are responsible for all of the prologue-haters out there. You will make the lives of us good-prologue-writers infinitely more difficult. Nobody will publish your book, nobody will read it. You will be rejected by your readers, the publishing industry, your fellow writers who you've made life hard for. We will hunt you down and drive you out. You will find yourself huddled beneath a bridge, coffee-less and wifi-less and cursing your stupidity. Sounds bad, right? That's because it is. So don't info dump. Thank you. 

7. Pull out all the stops. You know how you read about the importance of writing a really, really good first chapter? The same rule applies to prologues, only multiplied by ten. Because prologues are considered bad, you need to do everything in your power to prove that wrong. Write beautifully. Be intriguing. Craft your prologue with flair.
Make ever sentence necessary, make every paragraph flow, make the prologue your masterpiece. 

8. Go watch some movies and read a good prologue. Prologues are abundant in movies, and many of them are very well done. Marvel does some darn good prologues, as did The Fellowship of the Ring, The Dark Knight, Fiddler on the Roof, John Carter. Go study them, see what techniques are used, notice what works and what doesn't. Then try to apply that to your writing. You can also read some well-done prologues. My personal favorite is from The Name of the Wind. It's what made me fall in love with the book. 

9. Write it as a prologue and title it Chapter 1. I know it seems weird, and it certainly doesn't work for every prologue. In fact, I'm not even recommending that most people do this. However, if it works with your book and if you're afraid of people skipping your prologue simply because it's titled "prologue," then it's worth a shot. This is what J.K. Rowling did in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Don't believe me? Go read it. It is 100% a prologue: It takes place years before the story begins, gives valuable background information, and is written from a different POV than the rest of the series. It is a chapter in name only. But it works. Test this idea out. If it fits, feel free to run with it. Your book. Your rules. 

Prologues can be amazing. They can be beautiful and well-written and a wonderful set up for the rest of the book. Don't be afraid of them.

Still not sure if you should put a prologue in your story? Leave a comment below with questions, concerns, or your own tips for writing a killer prologue! And don't forget to tell me about some of the best prologues you've ever read!

Related articles:
The 10 Commandments of Writing
8 Tips for Developing a Strong Theme in Your Novel
Why Writers Should Strive to be More Like Batman

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18 comments:

  1. Hi, Hannah!

    I've been a kind of "silent follower" for a little while now, but I have kind of surfed around and read several posts, all of which were informative and (even better!) funny. I love your wit. ;)

    All that to say, "hi, I'm Kate, lovely to meet you, I'm breaking my silence, your blog is awesome, keep up the good work. Amen."

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    1. Hi Kate! I'm so happy to meet you! I love it when silent followers drop in to say hello!

      I'm really glad you like my helpful wit. That is my goal. =) Thanks for the sweet comment! I will strive to keep up the good work. Hope to hear from you again!

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    2. Definitely! I will be more involved from now on!

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  2. My favorite line is your analogy comparing a prologue to John the Baptist! Definitely gets the point across. :-)

    Good tips for writing a prologue. I really enjoy your Friday posts!

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    1. Lol! Thank you. I thought, "Hmmm. I do nerd references all the time. I wonder if I could do Bible nerd references?" And so the analogy was born. =D

      So happy to hear you're enjoying my posts! Glad you liked these tips!

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  3. Thanks for another great post! I've often heard the scorn surrounding prologues, but I've never considered looking for the well-written ones. One more plot technique to keep an eye out for! I also really like your advice on labeling it chapter 1. That's a great idea, not only for the readers' benefit but also for querying literary agents. They're more likely to decline a manuscript if the sample includes a prologue. As for the info dump, I agree with you 1000%. Can we just get rid of them entirely?

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    1. YES. Down with the info dumps!

      I also really like the idea of labelling the prologue Chapter 1. I feel like that would help me sneak it past agents (and some readers). =)

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  4. Great tips. And I love the first paragraph. As intriguing and John the Baptist.

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  5. Prologues should be like John the Baptist.
    Well there's a sentence I never thought I'd read. xD

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    1. Lol! It's not a sentence I foresaw writing, either. =) You never can tell with this blog.

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  6. Very good, encouraging tips! I don't generally go the prologue route but for my one fantasy novel I have. And that's almost twice as bad because bad prologues and bad fantasy novels go together like peanut butter and jam. So that can seem a little disconcerting when I stop to think of all the reader eye-rolls I'll probably get. However, I think you made some very good points in favor of prologues here. I like to keep mine short and often write from the villain's POV (it's so fun!). Thanks for sharing and helping me to realize that it's okay. XD

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    1. Ah! So true. So many bad fantasy novels with prologues. But I'm sure yours won't be one of those. Especially since it's from the villain's POV. Mine is, too. =) I love them!

      Anyway, glad this post helped you out Emily! Happy writing!

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  7. Ha, I understood that reference. *winks*

    I personally can't do prologues because I suck at them quite badly, but there are certain situations where they work really well. And I agree, Marvel does some awesome prologues, like Iron Man 3. That was a pretty amazing prologue. (I didn't like the one in Thor 2 though? I felt like they used one too many backstories there and it just got boring. Anyways.)

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    1. *winks back*

      Yeah, some writers can do prologues, others are just better at writing darn good first chapters. I'm sure you're in the latter category.

      And yes, I thought the Thor 2 prologue could have used some work. I still enjoyed it because...it's Marvel. =D But yes, I agree.

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  8. Hi Hannah! I discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago and I really like your articles. They've helped me a lot with my book. I am a teen writer working on a first draft of my first book.

    I have been trying to strengthen the start of my book, and I think a prologue would fit in with my story, but all other articles I've read about writing introductions say that prologues suck. I'm kind of doubtful. Any tips?

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    1. Hi Abbie! Sorry for the late response! I'm so glad that you're enjoying my posts.

      Go you for writing a book! If you think a prologue will fit into your story, and if you feel that you are capable of writing one, then go for it. Don't ever listen to anybody who tells you, "No, you can't write that." There are pretty much no absolutes in writing. So don't let those other articles get you down. If you think you can do it, go for it. Show them what you can do.

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  9. This is a great article full of good info and advice.
    Personally, I don't much care about prologues. I never use them. I do read them if they are in a book, but honestly I find that most of them are indeed useless. It's like writers think they should include a prologue... because they should include a prologue.
    I hope people will listen to your advice ;-)

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