If you spend enough time hanging around online writing forums, or looking at articles for new writers you may come across this persistent theme. The consistent advice that if your manuscript contains a prologue, make your manuscript NOT contain a prologue.
In this post I’m going to look at why this is advice at all and how to work through it.
First of all we might have to talk about what a prologue actually is and does. The technique is almost unique to the epic fantasy genre although there is no particular reason for this (In my humble opinion) other than its become a bit of a genre expectation, much the same as fantasy series are often expected to run for multiple books (which we’ll save for another post). Prologues seem to fit with the lofty large-scale feel for fantasy but there certainly are not a requirement or restricted from other genres.
The official definition of a prologue is a separate introductory section for a piece, but the actually use of and purpose of one is more complicated. Usually prologues are divided from the main story of a novel by either: time, character, setting and/or perspective. That is to say you might have a chapter set far before the events of the main story, or from the perspective of a non-main character or perhaps a more world building sort of POV before focusing on the MC.
A prologue can be quite helpful in terms of establishing aspects of the story that wouldn’t necessarily sit well with the main narrative, as mentioned above you might want the reader to know some worldly lore that the MC doesn’t even know OR you might want to create a sense of a broader world. GRR Martin in Game of Thrones creates this effect by using a prologue to introduce ‘The Others’ a supernatural threat that barely features in the main story, but hangs over the head of the reader as an existential threat to the world.
So why the heck are prologues frowned upon or advised to be avoided?
Well without sounding too patronizing (after all I am essentially an aspiring writer too) I think that like flashbacks, and POV changes (and surely more techniques I just can’t bring them to mind) prologues are commonly screwed up by new writers.
Because prologues by definition sit separately from the main story, they are practically asking to derail, bog-down or distract readers before the story even starts. It’s devilishly hard to craft a prologue that does all the things its supposed to while not feeling like its just dead-weight on the story. For example many aspiring writers see prologues as an opportunity to world-build, thinking (perhaps logically) that knowing the world of their story is imperative, before actually embarking on the story. Of course this conflicts with the fact that many readers will put a book down if they aren’t drawn in within a few paragraphs – or perhaps more importantly an agent/editor will put the book down possibly just from seeing the 60th prologue that day.
So I think the question to ask (other than can you just rename your first section chapter 1 or not call it a prologue) is whether a prologue is necessary? Does it actually help the story to have a section like that, especially considering that the first parts to your story are the most important for drawing readers in and establishing your tale?