To Prologue or Not To Prologue

If you ask me, it’s not much of a question at all. As writers, we are all tempted to include still more information for the reader to take in and there are few simpler tools with which to do this than a prologue that shows a (usually) different perspective on the story than the body of the manuscript will.

It may come from the eyes of the villain, a scholar who’s discovered an ancient text, a minor character, a parent, or an unrelated narrator but, no matter what, its goal is to give the reader another peek behind the curtain of the world that the writer has built.

Unfortunately, these are rarely successful in modern Young Adult, Popular, or Literary Fiction. More often than not, the prologue jars or upsets the modern reader. She opens a book and begins to read a story and is dismayed, several pages later, to discover that she’s just turned the page to Chapter 1. How disoriented and confused she must be. I know more than a few avid readers who’ve felt a bit betrayed by a prologue and been put off the book because of it.

Be warned, fellow writers, that the prologue takes a lot of art to execute properly (if at all, and I continue to recommend not at all). There is no hard and fast rule set about prologues as far as I am concerned, but I think the most successful I have read are short, not so different from the book itself, and immediately engaging.

As with any First Five Pages, a prologue MUST have a hook. It should, if at possible, begin with one. It must make readers eager to continue reading the story. Perhaps the prologue asks a question that the book will answer. Maybe it opens with a mystery or some newspaper clippings that set up the murder or robbery case. There may be hints of a conspiracy brewing in the prologue, the results of which are made apparent in the book itself.

Whatever approach you choose, do so with care. Ask yourself, fellow writer, some important questions before you decide whether or not to include a prologue in your manuscript:

1. Does it grab the reader’s attention?
2. Does it include information that could not possibly have been included elsewhere in the manuscript?
3. Does it create too much distance between the reader and the story he came to read?
4. Is it even one word longer than it absolutely needs to be?

There are a fair few things that K.M. Weiland of Structuring Your Novel and I can be said to disagree on but prologues are not one of them. My final word, fellow writer, is this: unless you deem it absolutely necessary, skip writing a prologue.

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