Some people would not skip the prologue, no matter what. They would consider it a part that is so essential to the story, the novel would miss something without it. Some people read the first chapters, then come back to read the prologue. Other people consider most prologues boring and not necessary. They skip them or skim through them, eventually reading if the prologue grabs their attention. If half of your readers skip the prologue, or even one fourth ignore it, doesn’t that make you think twice about writing one? If the prologue encourages any reader to walk away, is it worth writing one?
It is not because some people have used long prologues and went away with it, that it will work for you or for your novel.
Robert Jordan’s prologue for A Memory of Light is 60 pages long. The prologue chapter was released as a promotional eBook. Incidentally, the novel is 900 pages long.
“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t even get to Hogwarts until halfway through the book. Then again, the beginning was absolutely necessary to set up the plot for the entire series. Compare with some of the other books that take even longer (page wise) such as Goblet of Fire which doesn't see Harry arrive until page 171.” Source “Prolonged Prologue.”
A prologue is used to:
- Give readers extra information that advances the plot. In a fantasy and science fiction novels, it introduces the imaginary world. It explains why the quest will take place.
- Give a short background information (not the ten pages long backstory you’re thinking about) you could not fit in the book but you feel is important
- Grab the reader’s attention with a scene that will get him all excited about the book.
- Include an event that happened in the past, but cannot constitute part of your plot
- Provide another point of view which reveals something that cannot be told from your POV
- Teasing the reader by describing an event in the future. Sometimes it raises the story question that will only be answered in the last chapter.
- Telling the reader the main character remembers her past or someone who knows the main protagonist remembers her story. The prologue then explains where they have met and why the narrator is qualified to tell the story.
Tips on writing your prologue:
- Include a hook, the main problem related to the event described in the prologue. However, do not forget to include the main problem (the hook) of your main plot in your first chapter too. Prologue and chapter 1 should be two different things. The prologue is like a short story that raises questions, but do not solve them.
- Keep your prologue short and concise
- Match the tone of your prologue with the tone of your novel
- Prologues play the role of the teaser present in the TV series. They give some information, but not the whole information. You could show how your hero gaining her superpowers without telling what the superpowers do.
- Do not just copy a scene from somewhere in your novel
- Do not use the prologue for info-dumping or to resolve a plot-hole
- Using the prologue to set the scene of the crime has been so done, it’s considered cliche.
Some reactions to prologues:
When the prologue describes some obscure future, or is a nightmare or a dream, or does not start the story, people tend to skip them.
Some readers feel let down when after reading an inspiring or an exciting prologue the story jump into a slow build up.
In horror books, a good prologue sets the mood and is usually fun to read.
Some prologues spoil bits of the story like The Running Man by Stephen King.
What some agents say about prologues:
“I'm a prologue hater.
A multitude of reasons. But mainly: because they are HARD to do well.
I'd say 99% of the submissions I receive with a prologue don't need it. Most of the time they read (to me) like: look at me! I can write an AMAZING scene - oh, but...sorry, you have to read 100 more pages to get to it.” Natalie M. Lakosil, agent.
“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”
Laurie McLean, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents
"Nathan Bransford, the most popular literary agent on the web, says this about prologues:
"If you can take out a prologue and the entire plot still makes perfect sense, chances are the prologue was written to “set the mood”. But here’s the thing about mood-setting: most of the time you can set the mood when the actual story begins. Do you really need to set the mood with a separate prologue? Really? Really really?"
Agent Kristin says this:
"This is why almost all the agents I know completely skip the prologue and start with chapter one when reading sample pages. A beginner writer might actually be able to do good character, dialogue, tone, pacing, and whatnot but it’s more than likely not going to show in the prologue.
Now in defense of the prologue, when it’s done well, it’s truly an amazing tool. The number of times I’ve seen a prologue done extraordinarily well in requested submissions? Well, I can count that total on two hands…."
“What makes a good one?
Short, self-contained, comprehensible.
The reader knows full well while reading a prologue that the real story is waiting. A prologue makes a reader start a book twice, because it doesn't always involve the protagonist, and starting a book is hard because it takes mental energy to immerse oneself in a world. You're asking more of a reader, so they'll want to make sure it's worth it.” Nathan Bransford “Prologues” .
“The truth is that many writers use a prologue as a convenient way to introduce backstory without doing the work it takes to weave it into the book. Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to write a scene than to slowly unravel the information through the main plotline. I think prologues can often be predictable and lazy. Lazy for the reason I already stated; predictable because I see the same prologue over and over. Thriller writers, for example, love a prologue that introduces the killer making a kill. I’ve seen it a million times.”
Jessica Faust “The Great Prologue Debate.”
Carly Watters, “The Making of a Captivating prologue: Skills, suspense, backstory and plot.”
Kristen Lamb, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues.”
Rachel Aaron, “How to write a prologue people won't skip .” http://thisblogisaploy.blogspot.com/2012/10/how-to-write-prologue-people-wont-skip.html
Shayron Bayliss, “Trends for the Untrendy: Prologue to Rejection?“ http://sharonbayliss.blogspot.com/2011/08/trends-for-untrendy-prologue-to.html