Prologues – Don’t Skip

For the longest time I was blissfully unaware of how much people apparently hate prologues.  Ah, yes, prologues, those parts that often start out a story before chapter one.  Like an epilogue, but at the beginning rather than the end.  So it shocked me to find out that actually quite a few people will skip prologues when reading books.  Often their reasoning is because “prologues are useless and unimportant”.

Unimportant?  Useless?  But it’s part of the story!  I don’t know what kind of prologues you guys have been reading, but all the prologues I’ve read are an integral part of the rest of the story and you would be missing vital information without it.  And then I went to a writing workshop and one of the speakers told us that if you send in a manuscript for publication and it has a prologue, at best it will be skipped, at worst your entire manuscript will be skipped because of it.

This attitude seriously boggles my mind.  After all, there are plenty of published novels that have prologues, so why are people trying to get published treated so badly when they have prologues?  My old writing teacher made a comment saying something along the lines of, “If I see a prologue in a student’s story, I’m going to assume it’s not very good because they don’t know what they’re doing.  However, if I see a prologue in a professionally published novel, I’ll assume it’s fine and they know what they’re doing.”

Well, that’s all good and fine, yes, but when you keep telling people things like, “Don’t write prologues, just put whatever it would have been in chapter one,” then how is anyone going to know how to write a prologue the right way when you tell them never to write them?  It makes no sense to me.

That goes double for the people reading through manuscripts.  I’ve heard the point of skipping prologues is that they just want to read chapter one to get a feel for the story and figure out whether they’d like to continue.  To me, a prologue is supposed to be just that: something to help you get a feel for the story.  If the prologue is lousy, though, chances are the rest of the book will be as well.  Prologues are [supposed to be] short, so I think that’d be a better way of quickly figuring out if you want to continue or not than skipping it and going to chapter one.

The things I’ve heard of just why people don’t like prologues are things like, “People use them for massive info dumps about world/history and it’s not something we need right then and there all at once.”  I have seen a student prologue like this before and it was actually awful.  But I’ve never seen published books with prologues like this so I don’t know where readers get that sort of idea from.  (Then again I don’t read high fantasy novels so maybe they have more a tendency to do that than the sorts of books I read.)

Other things I’ve heard are like, “Well if it’s so important to the story, why not just put it in chapter one?”  And actually they said if you are dead-set on having a prologue in your novel, it’s best to call it chapter one when sending it to a publisher so they won’t skip it, which is just totally ridiculous.

The point of a prologue, as far as I’m concerned, is to quickly set up the tone of the story.  It’s a short bit of action or intrigue to hook you into the story, and no it can’t be placed into chapter one, because what would be in chapter one would be a complete shift in some way.  Prologues are usually set in either a different time or different character perspective than chapter one would be.  Often times, the prologue is the action and then chapter one is slower and more “boring”.  If you were to go from chapter one to chapter two with that sort of tonal shift, it would feel far more jarring.  But that’s the point of prologues, and so you expect a tonal shift between them and it’s not jarring.  The same sort of rules generally apply to epilogues too. (I’m not talking about epilogues though because I’ve never heard anyone have a problem with them.)

So, to writing teachers: don’t just tell your students not to write a prologue or to “make it chapter one”, because then they will never know how to write a good prologue or what the true point of a prologue is.  If publishers don’t like prologues, fine, that’s their business, but telling people never to write prologues is silly and ridiculous.

To readers: Read the prologues that are presented to you.  They are important parts of the story and they may be the factor that actually makes you want to continue when chapter one is too slow.  It’s a preview of what’s to come.  It’s something that makes you question what will happen to keep you interested, even if it may take a little time to get to that point.  If you do come across a long, rambling, info-dumping prologue, then yes, feel free to skip it.  But at least skim the prologue first to make sure you’re not missing something good.

It frustrates me when people tell me not to write prologues, “because no one will read them”.  If someone reads my book and skips my prologue, it’s not my fault that they decide to do it, and I’m not going to pander to their laziness by calling my prologue something else.  If I want a prologue, I’m going to have a prologue, end of story.

Learn the point of a prologue.  It’s not a place to info-dump about your world or history.  It’s a hook of action and intrigue to set a tone for what the story will be to help your readers get interested when your first chapter might not be the most exciting thing ever.  And that’s okay.

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