What is Wrong With Using a Prologue?

Most agents, editors, and publishers frown on prologues because they claim that readers skip them.

Perhaps that’s true. I myself am not a fan of prologues. Some writers have the appalling habit of using a prologue as an information dump, telling readers things they think they need to know rather than presenting the material a bit at a time when it is needed. Some writers have the even more appalling habit of augmenting a poor beginning with a prologue that is not really a prologue but more of an interlogue, an excerpt taken from the middle of the book, copied and pasted into a prologue. While this excerpt might create suspense and keep us reading through a less than stellar beginning, it is not necessary to the story since the material is a duplication, and we feel cheated when we reread it during the course of the book.

I don’t even have much use for true prologues, which present events that happen before the story begins. The main rule in writing is “everything in service to the story.” If a prologue does not advance the story, if it is not as exciting as the rest of the book, then it should be removed and any essential information presented during the course of the story.

Sometimes, however, a prologue is necessary, especially if important events take place years before the main story. Occasionally, lbmugto get past the stigma of a prologue, authors will label the pre-story chapter “Chapter One.” To call a prologue “Chapter One” does not make it any less of a prologue, and it confuses readers, who think they are reading one story and find out they are reading another.

Despite the cautions about prologues, I used one in Light Bringer. It is a true prologue in that the events take place thirty-five years before the present day action, but I do something that is frowned on even by those who see nothing wrong with prologues: I introduce a character who does not appear in the body of the work, only mentioned in dialogue.

When I rewrote Light Bringer before submitting it to Second Wind Publishing, I considered getting rid of the prologue but I kept it for three reasons: I wanted readers to experience for themselves the events that precipitated the story, it was the way I originally conceived it, and I loved the image of tiny footprints in the snow. The prologue might seem like a darling, a word used by William Faulkner to describe the parts we love but that have no real function in the story, but without the prologue, the story loses some of its immediacy. Being told of a radiantly special baby being found on a doorstep is entirely different from experiencing it for ourselves through the eyes of the staid woman who found her.

And if readers skip my prologue? Well, there’s not much I can do about that. The truth is, there is there is nothing wrong with a prologue as long as it has a hook at the beginning, has conflict, and is written with immediacy as a scene, just as with any other chapter.

If you’d like to read the prologue, click here: Light Bringer by Pat Bertram

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

21 Responses to “What is Wrong With Using a Prologue?”

  1. lvgaudet Says:

    I thought the prologue in Light Bringer fitted the story well. It introduced the story and leaves the reader with a sense they have a secret the main character doesn’t know; the memory of that moment in time far in the past.

    I agree that a prologue should have a purpose and should drive the story forward. Either a hint of what event or person caused what you are about to read, or to set the tone and offer a tease of what is to come.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Yes! That’s a perfect reason for a prologue– to give the readers a sense that they know a secret the main character doesn’t know. Gives them a greater stake in the story.

  2. Deborah J Ledford Says:

    I’ve been warned about the taboo of implementing a prologue since I started writing novels. However, given the price of books nowadays, I don’t believe readers skip prologues and move on to Chapter 1. I say that if your book truly needs a prologue use one. Pat, your LIGHT BRINGER is the perfect example. The book wouldn’t have been as strong without the introduction, which wouldn’t have truly worked as Chapter 1.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      That’s a good point about the price of books. I’m sure that’s true, that readers don’t skip them for that very reason. Like all other dictates from the publishing industry, the one about not using a prologue needs to be decided on an individual basis.

  3. rami ungar the writer Says:

    My prologue for “Snake” is four chapters long, about 16 pages. It details the serial killer’s first murder, in all its bone-breaking horror. I think it’s awesome and I don’t want to get rid of it if I can help it. Hopefully I won’t have to.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Four chapter is not a prologue. It’s a “Part One.” A prologue is a short chapter.

      • rami ungar the writer Says:

        Then what’s James Patterson doing with every Alex Cross book?

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          James Patterson is an industry, not an author.

          • rami ungar the writer Says:

            Why does everybody keep saying that?

          • Pat Bertram Says:

            Because it’s the truth.

          • rami ungar the writer Says:

            What’s the truth? I’m so confused.

          • Pat Bertram Says:

            I said that James Patterson is an industry, not an author, and you asked, “Why does everybody keep saying that?” So I replied, “Because it’s the truth.”

          • rami ungar the writer Says:

            No, what do people mean by industry?

          • Pat Bertram Says:

            James Patterson has written 109 books alone or with a co-author — most of his books now are with co-authors: he writes the outline, they write the book — and currently he produces nine hardcover books a year in addition to at least twice that many editions in paperback. I say produces because even though supposedly he has hands on input in all those books, his co-authors who do much of the work. He also handles all of his own advertising and closely monitors just about every other step of the publication process, from the design of his jackets to the timing of his books’ release to their placement in stores. He has two editors, three full-time Hachette employees (plus assistants) devoted exclusively to him: a so-called brand manager who shepherds Patterson’s adult books through the production process, a marketing director for his young-adult titles and a sales manager for all his books. One out of every 17 novels sold bears his name. He sells more books than Stephen King, John Grisham, and Dan Brown combined. He makes 94 million dollars a year. He’s made the Forbes 500 list of richest people.

            That’s an industry.

          • rami ungar the writer Says:

            I’ll never look at Alex Cross the same way again. How could I have been betrayed like this! I thought he just divided up his time evenly to write a million different things like my dad does with his rabbi job.

          • Pat Bertram Says:

            James Patterson was an ad executive who used his considerable marketing skills to build an empire.

          • rami ungar the writer Says:

            That was a rhetorical question, but I appreciate you putting it in perspective anyway, Pat.

  4. mickeyhoffman Says:

    I don’t like them because often I find what’s in the prologue could and should have been put elsewhere. But I don’t skip them because I figure the story won’t make sense otherwise.

  5. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    I hadn’t thought much as to whether to write a prologue or not. I always considered them to be teasers for the reader. A clue as to what to expect in the chapters.

    As with my novel Disco Evil my prologue are the thoughts of the main vampire as he is transformed from dead or dying human into something else.

    It runs along the lines of power corrupting. In the prologue I also have a young woman being corrupted by the power she is given at a local disco.

    The prologue is also about transformation and how it affects the body, the mind and the soul. It is a prologue because the chapters in the novel concentrate more on the technical and physical aspects of change with the action filling in the rest.

    In my novel Ghost Dance I wanted to show the three main characters before they actually meet in the chapters. Each has a unique place in the spiritual scheme of things and each is being guided by the Gypsies who have a special interest in my werewolf.

    In my novel Desk Job I wanted to give some back story as to how my main character Sarah Hollingsworth became a psychic detective and how the discovery of certain powers changed her life. The chapters are about her investigation of a certain office and the people who work there.

    In the current novel I am working on, Cold Water Conscience, I have played around with the idea of a prologue but it doesn’t seem to fit this work. There’s no reason to have a back story separate from the chapters. There’s no notion about the characters that needs to be explored in some separate way. In other words, a prologue to Cold Water Conscience might well turn out to be a useless filler and I don’t want to go there.

    This one has absolutely nothing to do with the supernatural. The things that happen in it could happen in real life. It is in the crime/horror area of fiction. If I had to choose her between crime and horror I’d have to pick crime. The closest thing to it would be The Collector by John Fowles. My novel is more about fear though and less about obsession though obsession is definitely in there.

    In Cold Water Conscience it seems best to reveal nothing about the characters up front but let the reader discover things about them as the chapters continue to be read. Slow discovery amongst the brisk action seems to be the way to go here.

    Cold Water Conscience is my first attempt at writing in the first person so I’m nervous about that. Since it mainly deals with the actions and counter actions of two people, I think it is the way to go with this one.

    How do you feel about epilogues?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Epilogues, for the most part are unnecessary since they are anticlimactic. Most of the information in an epilogue should have already been given in the book to let the readers draw their own conclusions. That said, I did use an epilogue in More Deaths Than One. I wanted to show the truth about Bob Stark from the person most involved since Bob couldn’t do it himself. If he did, there would be no mystery about who he was.


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