Monday, February 14, 2011

The Great Prologue Debate

There are two schools of thought circulating in the writing world concerning prologues. Why, you may ask? Because for some reason, someone out there thought a heated debate should arise about whether this element is worthwhile when it comes to an author's novel. That reasoning is entirely up to you, the writer.

To start out, I ventured into the deep, dark world of 'Prologue vs. No Prologue' and I took a look around the Internet world to see what people are saying concerning the use of a prologue.

Wikipedia gives a good description of a prologue:
A prologue . . . is an opening to a story that establishes the setting and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information. The Greek prologos included the modern meaning of prologue, but was of wider significance, embracing any kind of preface, like the Latin praefatio. In a book, the prologue is a part of the front matter which is in the voice of one of the book's characters rather than in that of the author.
Okay. Nice and to the point.

On Yahoo! Answers I found the following advice:
  • If it's over three pages, then people won't bother reading it.
  • It's okay if it's short -- anywhere from one paragraph to five pages.
  • Prologues aren't necessary; they should be included as backstory in the first chapter.
  • There's no point if it's too short.
  • Have a little "exposition" moment in the story instead.
  • Have a flashback instead.
As you can see, the information and advice is rather varied, so let's try somewhere else.

According to, a prologue can be like "playing with guns," meaning you have to be very careful about how you approach yours. If you start it off all wrong, then you'll end up sending your readers down the wrong path.

And one last site. According to Writing Forums, here's some answers pertaining to prologues:

  • It is a prologue if it is distinct from the rest of the story.
  • It either has different characters, is set in a different time, or both.
  • You can name your prologue.
  • A book is best explained without some massive backstory at the very beginning.
  • A prologue is a crutch, especially for first time authors.
  • "Experts" say prologues detract from the story.
  • Do what is best for your book.
What to do?
Are you confused, yet? Probably, but that's okay. Personally, I'd go with that final answer. Do what is best for your book. Sure, a prologue can be a tricky element to work with, but when you use it correctly, the whole object is for it to enhance the storyline in some way, shape or form.

If you want to add a prologue to your novel, here's a few things to keep in mind: 1) It should take place during a period far removed from the time your full novel is taking place. For instance, perhaps an important scene takes place in your MC's childhood that will spark a chain of events later on in your MC's life. 2) Write it in a different voice than what the reader will find in the majority of your novel, i.e. first person POV if the rest of your novel is in third person, a character whose voice never appears anywhere else in the novel, or an omniscient POV. 3) Agents will not crucify you and send you off to the writing trenches just because you've written a prologue at the beginning of your novel. The whole 'agents-hate-prologues' myth has received more attention than it deserves. If you've written a clean manuscript with a good plot and story, then an agent isn't going to care too much about that prologue by the time he/she gets to the end of your story. They might actually appreciate your work more for adding it.

I did find some good pointers by Marg McAlister on Foremost

Before you make a final decision about whether to write a prologue for you book, do this.
Spend some time at the library (or at your bookshelves at home, if they are extensive). Pluck books from the shelves, looking for prologues. Read through at least a dozen. More if you can. The time will be well spent.
Which prologues worked well? Which pulled you into the story? Which cleverly outlined the backstory, getting it out of the way before the story started?
Which dragged? Which didn't need to be there at all? Which were weighed down by the load of the information they had to carry, and bored you? How could they be fixed?
Analysis of published work is an excellent way of deciding what works and what doesn't.

Whatever you decide, if you do choose to use a prologue, use that prologue wisely!

Perhaps you've found yourself struggling with the great prologue debate. Do you avoid the use of prologues at all costs, or do you have a fondness for them, so much so, that one always winds up at the beginning of your current WIP?

Mary Mary

Join me next month for my interview with writer/translator Tiina Nunnally!

Stop by The Random Book Review and see what book I'm discussing this week!

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Happy Valentine's Day!

Go have yourself some chocolate!


  1. I've heard the great debate, too, but in the end I agree - do what's right for your story.

    Also, another place to look is inside the books that are being published right now in the genre you write in.

    I write YA and and there are plenty of books with prologues in them, so while there is a lot of opinion out there, the truth is prologues still get published.

    In fact, I defied convention and my own book (Return the Heart) does have a short prologue. It worked for my story. It may work for yours. :)

  2. As with many other controversial issues, such as length and backstory, I am marveled at the time wasted in superfluous debates. I happen to love prologues, but since they have become anathema, I found the perfect solution. Write your prologue, make it as long as you wish, and name it “chapter one”.
    I find the Yahoo answers fascinating. Why would a reader be bored by a four-page prologue and not by a ten-page chapter? And the alternatives are well known no-nos in the industry (backstory, flashbacks, exposition). Not very helpful guidelines.
    I am currently reading a wonderful series called The Zion Covenant by Bodie Thoene. She starts her first book “Vienna Prelude” with a prologue about a violin at a music shop in 1972, almost four decades after the events the novel narrates. To me, it doesn´t add or subtract anything from the story that is quite good and encompasses five volumes. Well, Vol. 4 of that same series (Jerusalem Interlude) also has very moving and intriguing prologue set in 1984. However to find more about Tikvah, the main character in the prologue, her birth and death of her parents you would have to read The Zion Chronicles, another B. Thoene series! This is the wildest use of prologues I have seen, and yet it made no never mind to me. I love the series, and yes, to learn more, I also bought the Zion Chronicles. So in the end, prologue usage might benefit a writer.

  3. Thanks for the post, Mary Mary. Looking forward to reading the interview with Ms. Nunnally.

  4. TK - It's very true indeed that many books with prologues get published. I have no idea why people would want to waste their time arguing about this, but I have met some rather vehement opposers to prologues. Go figure!

    Violante - I don't get it either when people say they won't read a short prologue but then will go right ahead and read a ten-page chapter. Doesn't make sense. For me, a prologue adds a little mystery to the direction of the story, kind of like a puzzle right from the start that I, the reader, must figure out. Therefore, I love a good prologue! Thanks for the info about The Zion Chronicles.

    Aurora - Thanks for stopping by and having a read!

  5. Hi ladies...I have a stylish blog award for you on my blog if you care to accept. :)

  6. I have been asking this myself for a while. I wrote one, but as I write the novel, little bits and pieces keep getting pulled out. At this point, I might chuck it entirely.

    I don't mind prologues when they add to the story. I tend to believe they are there for a reason ( or at least the author thought so). I do wonder about the heated never ending debate though. What's all the fuss?

  7. I am also in the group of prologue lovers. I don't understand why the controversy. Successful contemporary authors like Jodi Picoult, Madeleine Wickham, Rebecca Wells, Elin Hilderbrand, Whitney Otto, Amy Tam and a big etcetera have used them in their books. I think a good/short prologue sets the tone of the novel and like Mary Mary says, it entices the reader. There may be agents who hate them, but like in all things, it's a matter of personal taste. I think that if an agent truly likes a novel, a prologue won't be a deal-breaker.

  8. Li, thank you for the lovely award.

    Kari Marie, I really don't understand all the fuss either!

    Lorena, I agree with prologues setting the tone, especially a good/short one. And yes, so many published writers use them that I don't get why so many others have an issue with them. It's all about what the writer wants for his/her novel.

  9. Hmmm, prologues. Sometimes I like them, sometimes I don't. I guess in the end, all rules are meant to be broken, including the "no prologues!" one, and there will be books out there where I wish the author paid more attention to the "rules".

    Can I possibly be more wishy-washy? I think not.

  10. I like getting right into the story, so as long as the prologue doesn't keep me from doing that, I won't mind it. In other words, the prologue must contribute to story in a meaningful way, and not detract (as mentioned above) from it.
    I'm a writer also, and I'm glad I found you Sisters here. You're posting a lot of helpful information. Nice work! :)

  11. Lydia - Aren't all rules made to be broken? Not necessarily. If that were the case, most books would be a horrible mess.

    Jayne - I'm glad you found us, too! I'm glad we're helping you out in any way we can.

  12. Great post. I'm taking a class on storywonk right now and the teacher has urged against prologues. But I agree that the writer usually knows what's best for their story. I sometimes feel writing classes/rules can be so stringent they kill the creativity.

    I'm your newest follower.

  13. Welcome to our blog, Beth! And I agree that all those nit-picky rules can most certainly kill the creativity. Do what's best for your own writing!

  14. In the Writer's Digest "Yearbook 2011" there's an article by agent Jennifer Lawler, in which she says, "Here's what happened when I became an agent: While reading the umpteenth slow-starting manuscript that crossed my desk one afternoon, I found myself practically screaming, 'Throw away the prologue! Just throw it away! I never want to see another prologue in this lifetime!' In fact, of all the submissions I'd looked at, I had yet to read a prologue that improved a manuscript. Good stories should start where they start, and no before or after. You need to work the backstory into the story, and not just shove it into a prologue."

    I thought it might be interesting to hear an agent's perspective. If having a prologue really hurts our chances of getting published, that's something to take seriously. At least it should make us take a hard look at our prologues and decide whether we really need them. We don't want an agent picking up our manuscript and having an "oh no" reaction right off the bat.

  15. Stephanie,
    Thank you for your helpful insight. It's always good to have an agent's perspective, but as writers, we need to keep in mind that that is only one agent's perspective. Each is different in what they prefer and don't prefer. We will never please all. That's why I say the best thing to do is to do what is best for your book and use a Prologue responsibly!

    ♥ Mary Mary

  16. It's interesting that the advice I found for my post said it's BAD for your prologue to have a different voice/style from the rest of your novel, whereas the advice you found for your post says "Write it in a DIFFERENT voice than what the reader will find in the majority of your novel."

    He, he, he... conflicting?!

    Anyway, do what's best for your book - sounds like the best advice :-)

  17. Very true, Rachel! Very true, indeed! It seems all rules in writing have conflicting pros and cons. Do what's best, that's all I can say!

  18. Thanks, I've never seen this issue analysed in quite this way before! I do have a prologue in my recent MS and it occurs at a very different time from the rest of the action. Nice to see this listed in your post as one of the right times in the "to prologue or not to prologue" debate. Phew.


    I agree, hard and fast rules about ANYTHING in writing are usually notable for their exceptions.

  19. Thanks for stopping by Adina! I believe a good, well-written prologue can most certainly enhance a story and set the tone for it as well. A bad one? Well, that can also set the tone, but in a way the reader won't enjoy. Just be careful!


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