7

A while back I wrote a prologue about the beginning of time and space and all that. One thing I noticed later is that between the prologue and the story itself, the prologue ate out the chapters not leaving much for me to write out for the actual start. I did some backtracking but the point where I want to end the prologue and begin chapter 1 puts me in a bind. I'm pretty sure its at 18k now.

Question: Exactly how long can a prologue be and what should I not do?

Sidetracked: When introducing a story, would a prologue be best for those with historical and adventure genres?

  • 4
    Get rid of it,,,try to integrate some of it in the story, throw away the rest! – Reed Jul 21 '15 at 1:25
  • The later Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan has inordinately long prologues. I remember one that was longer than the first five chaps combined. I recommend that you avoid that length. – Arcanist Lupus Feb 2 '18 at 15:04

13 Answers 13

11

I never read prologues. They bore the hell out of me. Start with your story. That's what I want to read. Weave in the information I need, and don't bother me with what's irrelevant.

What I dislike the most:

  • a prologue that makes me identify with and invest emotions in a character that does not appear in the main narrative
  • the myths of a fictional world (that is, the fiction of a fiction)
  • "what went on before" (I just read that in the previous volume, and my memory is fine, thank you)
  • pseudo-philosphy and pseudo-wisdom ("The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and bla bla.")
  • dreams (please don't narrate a character's dreams anywhere: science doesn't understand dreams, so don't claim that you do)
  • the history of the fictional world (why would I care about the history of a place that doesn't even exist?)

Elizabeth Haydon's Rhapsody: Child of Blood has a wonderful prologue. It is one of the best fantasy short stories I ever read. Unfortunately the book itself was a drag and I didn't finish it. That was unique (I haven't found any other grood prologues), but I take this as a sign that if the prologue is actually good I need not waste time reading the main text.

  • 1
    On the contrary to @what, I don't mind prologues. It is a nice way to introduce some elements that are relevant for the understanding of the world, or the situation, without being connected to the main characters. But indeed, one should make it relevant. No need to mention "Forces of Light and Darkness", if the characters will never ever face one or the other. And furthermore, better to avoid mentioning them at all, they are quite cliché now. – clem steredenn Jul 15 '15 at 7:13
  • @what You seem to have read a few even if you don't read them now. – S. Mitchell Jul 15 '15 at 7:39
  • @Tave I do look at them and scan them quickly, to get an idea of wether they interest me and what kind of information they contain (so I can read them if I have problems with understanding what goes on in the main text – which rarely happens). – user5645 Jul 15 '15 at 8:17
  • 2
    @what I agree. I often want to see what the beginning of a novel is like, flip to the first few pages and there it is staring at me -- prologue. I just flip past it to the real story. Seriously, Author, you were too lazy to just incorporate the prologue info into the real story? Life has no prologues. You experience life as it comes. :) – raddevus Jul 15 '15 at 18:30
  • 1
    i most often skip them too... more importantly, it will affect my buy-not buy decision, as i would consider a prologue as a potential sign of a bad author or a boring story... – Reed Jul 21 '15 at 1:39
8

Firstly, I would say that if your prologue is 18k long, it is not a prologue it is your story in chief. Or it is a prequel to your story in chief.

I think the problem with a lot of prologues is that they are a device of laziness. it is heaping a whole lot of information into the storyline without putting the effort into making it a part of the storyline.

A prologue should be something that gives the reader some pertinent information, that is potentially skippable, because some people do. It is the writer's chance to give some information outside of the normal voice of the story. Details and specifics don't belong in a prologue, it isn't the place for telling the reader that when John was five he squashed a bug. That is what the story is for.

Personally I would say write the prologue once you have finished the rest of the story. Write it to fill in whatever aspects didn't fit in the story. Make it very short, no more than a few hundred words, and work at it like you would the first paragraph.

If at the end of the prologue the reader isn't saying 'wow! I really want to read this book' then you should tear it out and burn it.

7

As for anything else in a work, you must ask yourself: "what is this for?". Everything you put must be there for a reason. So what is the reason for a prologue? Why a prologue and not, for instance, a chapter 1? Why not spread the prologue info in your normal text? Why does my prologue need a separate identity in the narration flow?

Only by answering these questions you can understand if you need it, and how it must be written.

As a personal opinion, I love prologues. What I like about them, when they work, is:

  • They set the mood and tone of the world
  • They introduce fundamental plot elements that are outside the main narrative arc, but become revelead later (for instance: the prologue of Martin's A Game of Thrones shows white walkers very clearly, but they are unseen again for a very long time after that. So why introduce them here? Because the reader must remember that the threat is present)
  • They can serve as exposition for something you don't want to spend too much time later on. For instance, in the Lord of the Rings movies, the whole Ring's story is condensed in a prologue, so that the viewer knows everything he needs to know right away - that's done, moving on
  • For these reasons, it must differ a bit in terms of style and pace

The don't list is kind of the opposite of this one:

  • Don't write a prologue set up in the same time and place of the main plot
  • Don't write a prologue with the same style and pace of the main plot
  • Don't use it for exposition that can be spread elsewhere
  • Don't use it as background for something that can return later
  • "Don't use it as background for something that can return later" could you explain how that's different from the whitewalker example? – Andrey Oct 19 '17 at 14:08
  • The key is the difference it makes. "Something that can return later" means something that makes no difference if told at another point in the story. The WW thing is a scene that shows one important element - supernatural zombies - that we don't see again for the rest of the whole book, but we hear talking about here and there. But they need to be at the opening, because they say: despite what happens in the next 300 pages, this is what the novel is about. If the novel opens with Winterfell, and delays the WW later when we get to the Wall, their function loses importance. – FraEnrico Oct 20 '17 at 7:05
2

To answer your last question (and sort of the rest of it):

Sidetracked: When introducing a story, would a prologue be best for those with historical and adventure genres?

Prologues are very common in the fantasy genre. It's a good way to introduce different elements of your world to the reader.

As I read mostly thrillers, here's what I've noticed in that (and mystery/suspense/adventure novels): most do not have a prologue. Those are stories where you need to start with the action almost right away and preferably start with relevant action. However, for historical thrillers, prologues are common as well, because they start with something that happened a long time ago to set the stage for the rest of the book.

In my opinion, prologues shouldn't be more than a few pages (book pages, that is). That's enough time to get some important information down, but not so much as to wear the reader out and think "good grief, when's the darn story going to start?!". 18K seems like an awful long prologue. That's about a fifth of a book.

2

Personally, I'd say keep a prologue under 5 or 6 pages; also, instead of using the prologue to introduce the main story, use it as an interesting way to introduce the setting and set the tone for the rest of the story.

Let me use one of my personal stories as an example. I'm writing an adventure fantasy story, that I want to read similar to a fairy tale. So I've written the prologue like this "Many people say, that Fairy tales are nothing more then stories for small children. Some meant to teach, other to scare. But those people are wrong. Magic exists; and most fairy tales happen right under your nose."

Try to keep a prologue simple. Use as few words as possible. Like one of the commentators already said, they, want to get right to the main story. So make the path to that story as short, and easy as possible. As to whether or not you should do a prologue in the first place, it all depends on the story. You might get halfway through writing something, only to realize that the information in the prologue is better explained through elements of the main story and vise versa.

2

I appreciate all the ideas flowing in this thread.

However...one sentence has hijacked my thinking about prologues.

"Many agents and publishers immediately throw a manuscript aside when they see the word "prologue" at the opening." If that is true, I imagine all other considerations are moot. Bummer. I have prologues in two of my manuscripts. They conform to all the 'good' reasons enumerated above.

So what? I'm not ambitious with my writing but I'd hate to be scratched from consideration automatically over a decision to use the word Prologue...

  • 1
    I also got bothered by this sentence a few weeks back and asked about it a sci-fi meet up that I attend. The response that I instantly agreed with is, "You don't want that agent anyway." I realized they were right. there are plenty of agents, and I don't want to work with someone who thinks prologues are worthless. – DPT Oct 17 '17 at 16:18
  • I personally never read them because I just want to get to the main story, however for them to be completely dismissed is a bit off-putting. It's not hard to skip 5 pages and it costs them an extra what 25 cents? – ggiaquin16 Oct 17 '17 at 20:06
  • 1
    I think that perhaps this is a separate question, as it doesn't directly answer the question above. Please consider opening a question of your own about this. – Neil Fein Oct 21 '17 at 15:32
1

Prologues are good for the author's purposes (fleshing out your backstory), but consider whether the reader needs to know it.

Many agents and publishers immediately throw a manuscript aside when they see the word "prologue" at the opening. This is because quite often, what we write in a prologue is actually backstory that is more for the author's sake than the readers. I have a friend who wrote nearly 500,000 words of backstory. He could have included a lot of it in a prologue, but he opted not to because it isn't something the readers need to know. Unless the prologue is absolutely, completely critical to the story and nothing would make sense unless it's included, it might be better to cut it.

If you do need a prologue - for instance to show something that happens outside of your protagonist's point of view - it should be written with great care. Make it as short as possible to get your point across. If your prologue is longer than an average chapter in your book, that's a red flag. If your prologue is a couple thousand words of essential information, that's ok. (Just name it something other than 'prologue' so an agent/publisher doesn't skip your manuscript.)

1

Obviously, there is no definitive rule on how long a prologue can be. If I were you, I would approach a prologue with caution. Why?

  1. Usually the first chapter sets the tone, style and themes of the text. If the reader doesn't like the first paragraph/page/chapter etc. they will put down the book.(permanently) A prologue (by definition) is not written in the same way that a chapter is written. So what impression is it giving the reader about the method of storytelling used by the author?

  2. Prologues are not that common and may be misunderstood. Does the reader know that they are supposed to read it before chapter 1? They might confuse it with a 'Forward' and skip it, thinking that it is irrelevant rubbish. (Forwards are more common than prologues and are full of uninteresting trivia about the authors career and associates and stuff)

If your going to have a prologue, I think you could make it as long as half a chapter if you wanted. However, just make sure that its length is properly offset by how "Intensely Interesting" it is. Prologues by nature tend to introduce a long list of historic facts without using any dialogue, action, characterisation, or any of the techniques that actually make a story interesting. So you need to develop a writing style explicitly for prologues.

Having said that, I think that it is generally better to skip the prologue, jump into the drama at some point, and then find clever techniques of establishing the backstories later.

1

The best prologues that I have read have action in them. Instead of weighing the reader down with info (that you can give to them gradually later in the book), you hook them and make them want to read on, to find out what this action is all about and who these characters are.

1

Well... I'm currently writing a story that has a prologue that is more than 5 pages. I mean, I personally don't mind prologues (unless they are boring). As long as the prologue isn't extremely long you should be fine.

I really can't answer your second question though (the What to avoid? question) since most of the books I have read so far don´t have prologues.

Please just don't write the kind of prologue where the characters are all grown up (I've read a book with it and hated it).

1

What do you count as a prologue? In some way, there are two types of prologue:

The explanatory first act

The Greek tradition demanded, that a play or piece starts with some kind of framing device that tells us who is to be depicted and where we are set.

For example, let's take Oedipus Rex. All the text in lines 1 to 150 is the prologue. It starts with the prologue of Oedipus sitting in his throne room and getting confronted with the plague. The whole reason is, to give us some background of who is who, and why he will send for the oracle and seers. But without telling the audience about the plague, showing that Oedipus tries to be a good and just king, how should the audience know? The appearance of Creon brings the audience a new plot element, revealing that the current plague is the result of some action happening in the past, the murder of the former king Laius and that they didn't pursue the murderer then because of the Sphinx. All in all, the Prologue is a huge infodump that puts the spotlight on why the whole drama is about to happen.

The outgrowth that delays the start

Roman writers took the Greek prologue and turned them into long, finely crafted pieces that were hugely elaborate... and took at times just as long to write as the rest of the play. It was around Plautus time when they started with using throwaway characters. On Plautus works did the Renaissance grow and fester, detatching the contents from the main story and making it pretty much superfluous.

How to do a good Prologue

  • Stay on track, it shall serve to introduce not tell the whole story.
  • Tie it into the actual story!
    • You might use the main cast1
    • or make the happenings appear later2
  • keep it reasonably short

Footnotes & Examples

  1. As in Oedipus Rex
  2. Example: The Prologue tells a scene of some hero slaying a dragon. The following up story tells us that this scene was the turning point of the last dragon war and later we encounter the tomb of the dragon slayer and the protagonist picks up his sword.
0

This is an interesting discussion. The prologue i have written for my current project (climate fiction/fantasy) is 2200 words. It feels long to me, but I like it.

I saw writing it as a way to provide supplemental info, as Nicole says. It complements the story and takes place 17 years before. It fleshes out two characters that have less play in the main text.

I loved writing it, and I like it. It complements the story. And I see prologues and epilogues in fantasy. But about half the people I see/share with say to ditch it.

Since we live in an age of webpages I am thinking of putting some of these things on a website for anyone who starts to nerd out on my world. I like the idea of weaving the essential info in. But, I gotta say, I still aesthetically like the idea of a section of the book that provides a different feel.

This is not so much an answer as a response to the thoughts here which are along the lines of "here's my experience." My experience is I love my prologue but 50% of the people I share with, don't. If publishers don't want it, then I think it makes sense to build a website and push my (fantastic) manuscript with the teaser that a website adds supplemental info.

0

The longer the length, the more you have to think about how it influences the story. Instead of having this long backstory when you first open to the chapter, the prologue is kind of that back story, so you can jump into the action.

  • 1
    Hi Madelynn! Welcome to Writing.SE! I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to say. Could you edit your post to clarify your idea, and perhaps expand it? You might also find it helpful to take a look at our How to Answer page. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jan 20 at 18:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.