DON’T BE HATIN’ ON PROLOGUES

In the current run of the online Worldbuilding course I teach for Writer’s Digest University, a couple of the student/authors mentioned a bias against prologues. But this wasn’t cast as a sort of “I think most people don’t like them,” but as a hard and fast rule that they were actually hearing from agents and editors. The assumption is that all prologues are bad, all are info dumps that in no way serve the story, so if your manuscript begins with the word Prologue, that’s as far as we’ll read and it goes right into the reject pile.

This just floored me, and for a few reasons.

First of all, I can’t believe that this is in any way a widely-held belief or the slightest bit a common practice, either in terms of the gatekeeper auto-reject, or the bias on the part of readers who see prologues as “optional” and routinely skip past them and start reading at chapter one.

In an effort to take the temperature of the room, at least to some degree, I reached out to a couple author groups I belong to on Facebook, and got a few responses that I’ll share here with the permission of the authors.

Let’s take this monumental misconception in two parts. First, the notion that prologues are optional and no one reads them.

As both an editor and a reader I have never in my life skipped a prologue or in any way went in thinking it was not necessary to the story. Not one time, not ever. This notion is so alien to me I couldn’t even begin to understand the origin of it.

Richard Lee Byers, author of Called to Darkness and The Reaver (neither of which happen to have prologues) tried to help: “. . . the assumption is that the prologue is an info dump. Beyond that, even if it’s exciting in its own right, there’s a feeling that if Chapter 1 switches to different characters or is Ten Years Later, you’ve thrown away whatever narrative momentum you might have built up.”

There should never be an assumption that a prologue is an info dump, because prologues should never be info dumps—not ever, not under any circumstances. And yes, even if your world is really complex and you’ve spent years worldbuilding and you’re sure no one will understand your story unless you “set the scene” or teach them all about your amazing world, and all that nonsense. If this is what your prologue is doing, that’s why your book is being rejected, not becuase it has a prologue, but because it has a crappy prologue.

Instead, the prologue should be setting the tone of the story, it can cover what Hollywood hacks might call the “inciting incident,” you can begin with the villain, or otherwise in media res, then come back to set the story in motion having benefited from that prologue.

I’m delighted to see that Ari Marmell (Hot Lead, Cold Iron, sans prologue; and Lost Covenant, with prologue) feels much the same: “Yeah, I’ve heard from a number of readers who just skip prologues.

“To which I say, ‘If you then don’t understand something in the text, that’s a problem with you, not the book.’

“I hate this prejudice. Hate it. Yes, prologues are often done poorly or are a sign of lazy writing. You know what else is often done poorly or a sign of lazy writing? Everything involving writing. It’s all bad if done badly. Might as well reject a book because the main character is tall, for all the indication it truly provides.”

If you’re reading this and you’re one of those people who buy a book, sit down to start reading it, and skip the prologue because of any reason you need to stop doing that and never do that again.

But what about people who are supposed to know better? Agents and editors immediately reject, unread, any book with a prologue, or so I hear.

“In my opinion, the book should be able to stand without the prologue (or epilogue). Those are best used for ‘extra’ info, getting readers up to speed on a continuing series, or putting a bow on the ending,” Greywalker author Kat Richardson piped in. “But that someone would auto-reject a book because it has a prologue is distressing and I hope it’s not true.”

Here we can agree to disagree on the first part but agree on the latter. If any part of your book—as Ari stated above—could be cut without affecting the narrative in any significant way then cut it! Cut it if it’s a prologue, cut it if it’s an epilogue, cut it if it’s Chapter 18, cut it if it’s a scene within a chapter. Anything that feels the slightest bit like “ ‘extra’ info.” needs to go.

Full stop.

I would love to know who these agents are who have decided that this is now a rule, so I can contact them directly and tell them how wrong they are and find a way to get them to stop damaging aspiring writers with bullshit made up rules based on baseless misconceptions.

Apparently, Erik Scott de Bie, author of Shadow of the Winter King and Shadowbane (both of which begin with a prologue) shares my rage: “It’s a short-sighted, prejudicial way of winnowing the slush pile.

“I can understand using poor grammar and syntax, info dumps, and other amateur mistakes as a means of eliminating applications, but to eliminate a submission based on having a prologue, regardless of whether that prologue is done well?

“That just sounds like bad business practice.”

It sure does.

In fact, the rote application of a nonsensical rule like this sounds more like politics to me. Maybe these particular agents should stop hurting authors and run for congress.

But I’ll leave you with some good news, from Toby Tate, author of The Lilitu, which happens not to have a prologue: “I have an agent at a top NYC agency, Trident Media Group. I have prologues in a couple of my books. She never told me any such thing.”

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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6 Responses to DON’T BE HATIN’ ON PROLOGUES

  1. adpauli says:

    I’ve heard from agents in several workshops that I’ve been in that prologues are a no-go. Their rationale is that if it’s so important to your story, you should call it chapter 1 and not the prologue. That feels frustrating to me for the reasons you outline, among others. When done correctly, the prologue can be integral to the enjoyment of the book. Thank you for this post!

    • mouseferatu says:

      “Their rationale is that if it’s so important to your story, you should call it chapter 1 and not the prologue.”

      Except there’s a substantial difference between a prologue and a first chapter. They’re meant to accomplish different things. It horrifies me that agents or editors–who should know better–would equate the two when they aren’t the same thing at all, regardless of how important the content is.😦

  2. JakeAStrife says:

    As an author, I love prologues. I feel like a book is incomplete without a proper prologue AND epilogue. It drives me crazy that so many people ‘hate’ on them. I’ve been to writing groups where people have said they NEVER read prologues, and I feel they’r crazy! Prologues can be SO important! I’m grateful you posted this blog. I find so many useful tips from reading these.

    Thanks!

  3. I’ve heard this said around the web as well. Personally, I like prologues.

  4. laurieawill says:

    Thank you! I have been way too much bad press on prologues the last few years. There is an assumption out there that no one knows how to write them. I love how you put it, that any part that is bad needs to be cut – so obvious, but yet people feel the need to single out the prologue. So glad someone with clout is sticking for the prologue!

  5. Pingback: NaNoWriMo 2014 Update: Day 3 | The Claire Violet Thorpe Express

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