What’s in a prologue?

by PD Martin

For some reason, I think every book I’ve written includes a prologue. It just seems like while I don’t want to cram clunky ‘back story’ into my books, there is some basic information that’s needed before readers start on chapter 1. Know what I mean?

Couple of examples…my first Sophie book, Body Count, includes a prologue of Sophie as a child, so it’s 30 years or so earlier. Yes, the main story is complete without this prologue, but it gives readers some important character information (namely that Sophie’s brother was abducted when she was a little girl).

Another example is from my current work in progress. This book, tentatively called The Pulsars, includes a prologue from 18 years earlier when a woman (who’s the mother of my main character) finds out she’s carrying a Pulsar fetus. Again, while the main, present-day story works without it, there is scene-setting in the prologue. Plus, the reader discovers that the scans are compulsory worldwide and that if the fetus is a Pulsar, the governments around the world have enacted the Pulsar Termination Act, which means all Pulsar fetus must be terminated. So I guess the story works without it, but the short, two-page prologue also does a lot. Yes, as the reader moves through the story they would discover that the main character is a Pulsar whose mother and father went on the run so they could keep their child. But I do like the way the prologue, as it is, launches the reader into this new world.   

As you can probably tell, I like prologues. Like writing them, like reading them. Funny thing is, after I’d written about three books I met someone who said they NEVER read prologues. That they figure it’s not necessary for the story. This shocked me. I consider a prologue to be part of the story, and as long as it’s pretty short and tight (and well-written, of course) I think they’re a great writing device. Many novice writers make the mistake of packing in back story in large chunks in the first chapter or two. A prologue (as long as it’s bare essentials!) can get rid of this more clunky ‘reveal’. It can set the scene, deliver character motivation or back story. Ideally, a prologue should also capture a reader’s attention. Make them want to read on–instantly. 

So, what do you think of prologues? Do you read them? And if you’re a writer, do you write them?

Note: I’m afraid I’m not going to have internet access when this post goes live (or for the couple of days following it). But I am very interested in everyone’s thoughts on prologues and will get back to the comments!


8 thoughts on “What’s in a prologue?

  1. Dana King

    I always read them; they're part of the book, right?

    I write them sometimes, though more to set the tone than to provide backstory. not that no backstory gets in there, but mostly I want to set the mood, give the reader a glimpse of what kind of book this is. You know, so they can't come back later and say they were disappointed because it "wasn't what I expected." To which i can reply, "Didn't read the prologue, did you?"

  2. Alaina

    I just wrote my first prologue, and I'm not sure if I'm any good at it (yet).

    I don't skip them myself… usually. But I have found stories where it's clear the author, even published, is trying to cram every bit of worldbuilding in there. If it's boring, I skip it. I figure lots of authors can't do good prologues but do good stories… but it does set off an alarm bell.

  3. Richard Maguire

    I've noticed that a lot of TV shows begin with a teaser and the caption: "6 months ago" or "last week", or whatever.

    For some reason the very word "prologue" has, for me, the ring of 19th Century fiction. I can't remember, and I'm too lazy to check it out, but I'd bet the farm that Dickens and his contemporaries loved prologues, prefaces, not to mention "introductions" and a frontispiece. And if you have a prologue does it follow that the story fades out with an epilogue?

    Why can't an author wanting to set the scene and get in essential backstory just begin: Chapter One, then the simple heading before the first paragraph: Borneo 2010? Chapter Two then starts in whatever subsequent period the story is set.

  4. JD Rhoades

    I left the mystery listserv DorothyL during what I called the "Prologue Wars.' There were people there insisting that they'd never read anything that had a prologue. Some said they'd read it, if it was an author they liked, they just wouldn't read the prologue. If it was the exact same prose, just called "Chapter One" instead of "Prologue", they'd read it. I and a few other people thought this was silly. Saying so however, was apparently Bad Form.
    My latest WIP has a prologue which is one of those in medias res chapters..it starts with the protagonist in a shocking situation and then the book goes back to show how he got there. What are peoples feelings on that?

  5. Dana King

    Like most things, when done well, that can be very effective. The movie MICHAEL CLAYTON comes to mind, as well as Adrian McKinty's novel FIFTY GRAND.

    The most extreme example I've seen is in a book by Boris Akunin, the title of which escapes me. He spends the first half of the book getting one character from A to Y, then essentially starts over and does the same with a second character, whose Point Y brings him to the same place and time as the first character. Then they finish together. I thought it would stink when i realized what he was up to, but it was brilliantly done.

  6. Reine

    Hi Phillipa,

    I love prologues. I always read them. I read every word. I don't want to miss anything. Background has always added to my enjoyment of a story. Sometimes, though, they are so good that I want the story to stay back there. I also like occasional dives into the past when it will enhance the story or the understanding of a character. I don't like that if it is too obviously a fix for something in the story that doesn't fit. That's not a prologue, though, so ah never mind. You can see the connection though… right?

  7. Reine

    Dear Phillipa,

    I don't know what happened, but I am upset about losing this community so abruptly. I realize that we all have our own lives. I am very aware that the bloggers of Murderati are not my neighbors or family. Yet… I have strong feelings for you and all the Murderati bloggers, past and present. Perhaps my feelings are stronger than they deserve to be, but they are my feelings. I only write this to you now, because I am hurting at this loss.

    The love of reading and writing brought me here. This relationship, whatever it is, has meant the difference between connect and disconnect. I just want you to know.



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