The Great Prologue Debate
So, in shopping my latest fantasy novel, The Oldest Trick, around, I keep running into the following controversy:
How important or not important is a prologue in a fantasy novel and should you even have one?
The obvious answer is ‘depends on the book’ or ‘depends on the prologue’. Let’s make the debate a little more complicated, though, as this will be closer to my own problem. Say the prologue (or, even generically, ‘a’ prologue) is needed to provide background to the fantasy world that will assist the reader in understanding the context of the novel’s events BUT introducing the main character in the first chapter of the novel would probably make for a better hook. What do you do then? I’ve narrowed it down to a couple choices.
- Cut out the prologue and shop the novel to make the prologue unnecessary.
- Make the prologue as good a hook as the first chapter.
Of these two choices, I’ve been focusing on #2, but I fear I’m not quite doing it to my satisfaction. I’m considering different tacks, different options, and so on. I don’t really want to sit here and have what I’m doing workshopped, specifically, but I do want to think about how prologues go and how to do them well. So, let’s to it. To my mind, there are three kinds of prologues, more or less.
Type One: A Long, Long Time Ago
This prologue throws the reader into the ancient past to witness some cataclysmic event or climactic battle. If done well, it stokes the audience’s thirst for finding out how *that* ancient time connects to the contemporary story. If done poorly, it leaves the readers confused and frustrated, since they didn’t understand what happened and, before they got a chance to figure it out, they were teleported centuries or millennia into the future with no way of ever figuring it out for sure.
Examples: The Fellowship of the Ring (movie, not book), The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, Foundation by Isaac Asimov, Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling, etc.
Type Two: Something Wicked This Way Comes
The next type you usually see is when, instead of meeting the hero first, you meet the villain. You see him plotting his evil plots and doing his dirty deeds and you think to yourself ‘man, that guy is bad news!’ Of course, you are excited to see how he interacts with the hero and how. In the best case scenario, this prologue is just so stunning and shocking that you can’t help but keep reading to see how it works out. In the worst case, you are faced with a villain whom you have no investment in since you have no idea who he is or why you should care.
Examples: Most James Bond movies, Excession by Iain M Banks, Star Wars: A New Hope, A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin, and so on
Type Three: Secondary Sources
This method involves introducing the reader to some secondary source or journal entry that discusses the events of the novel from some kind of distance-it may even be a storyteller or some kind or elaborate narrative frame. These are done for the purpose of creating a kind of historical and realistic weight to the book’s world. If done well, they make the world come alive before the reader has even met anyone in the book. They also have the advantage of being rather short. If done poorly, the reader’s eyes glaze over and they simply skip it and, therefore, miss out on the information that may very well be important to their comprehension of the following plot.
Examples: Dune by Frank Herbert, The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (sort of), etc.
There, those are the biggest ones, to my mind. They come in many variations, of course, but that’s the lion’s share in broad strokes, at least. Now, it is very possible to not need a prologue at all and many very good books skip them entirely. It is, however, a convention of the genre, so one must weigh the pros and cons. I know that in all the books I read as a teenager, I expected there to be a prologue. I even treated them as a kind of special challenge, and I was excited to see how they linked up and I never, ever skipped them (and I still don’t). As I’m writing these books now, however, I’m wondering whether they’re worth it.
What to you fine folks think? Worth it or not? Do you like prologues? What makes them good to you?