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.

  1. Cut out the prologue and shop the novel to make the prologue unnecessary.
  2. 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.

This prologue routinely gives me chills.

This prologue routinely gives me chills.

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.

Uh-oh! Jimmy Bond's in Trouble!

Uh-oh! Jimmy Bond’s in Trouble!

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?

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on November 30, 2012, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I actually like prologues and it saddens me that they’re taboo. I particularly like the type that takes place a long time ago and hooks the reader with intrigue and you’re left anxious to see how it ties in with the plot.

    • I don’t know that they’re necessarily taboo, or at least not in the fantasy/scifi genre. I do get the sense that a lot of agents/publishers may be tired of them, but I’m wondering if that’s more my imagination than anything else.

  2. Some of the greatest works of literature are prologues. Shakespeare is chock full of gems. Also consider that a reader, (or audience member) forms their opinions within the first 30 seconds. I feel that unless the first few pages of Act I don’t properly “hook” a reader, then the prologue is necessary. Maybe get feedback during your writing process? That should gauge a requirement. Another option could be to provide prologue information after the story has begun via flashback. This could be if the first act begins with a large amount of action. Choices choices choices…

  3. I’ve come up across this problem too, but sort of in reverse – my beginnings weren’t working quite right, and adding prologues fixed the problem. But I agree that they’re tricky beasts, especially when you’re trying to pitch something and you only get one chapter to do it. My vote is usually for querying without them and introducing the main character as soon as possible–but, you know, it depends on the book. 🙂

    • That has, indeed, been my strategy of late, as it seemed a better sales pitch. I worry now, however, that should an agent want to see the whole she-bang, he/she would object to the presence of a prologue they didn’t originally see! Argh!

      It’s probably just easier to find a way to jigger the book so it doesn’t need one. Yet I like prologues, and I have good ideas for them…

      Ah well.

  4. I’m not a fan of the prologue. They often seem superflous and vague, and in fantasy, simply an expected convention. I’d much rather the author use their good idea or description in the body of the work where I have context. If I pick up a book to see if I want to read it, I read the firsrt few pages, not the prologue because it’s often in a different style or tone and doesn’t represent the rest of the book. I often skip the prologue, then read the book, then go read the prologue, and never have I felt like I missed anything.

    However, I love Epilogues. If the book is excellent, then I just want more! If the book is so-so, I still get satisfaction of seeing the loose ends wrapped up.

    • Interesting! Oddly I feel the exact opposite; epilogues often feel totally superfluous to me, and unless I *loved* the book, sometimes I skim or even skip them. I mean, if the story’s over, it’s over.

      Of course, the same can be said of prologues, only in reverse. Hmmmm….

  5. I love teasers and trailers, so prologues appeal to me as well. Reading a prologue is like looking at a postcard of a country before you travel there. It sets the tone of the world and gets you excited if done well. Related to your third type is the prologue where the stuff is about to hit the fan–basically, an inside view of the climax from the protagonist’s point of view. The story then resets and winds up to that point. Of all the prologue types, I think this one is the one most currently overused.
    I am surprised that publishers are frowning upon them, though. You’d think in this world of sound bites and short attention spans…ooh shiny!

  6. I sometimes enjoy prologues. For me, they’re best when they show something that’s apart from the main action–the GRRM style prologue, for example. When it gives me insight I wouldn’t get otherwise, or a glimpse at something that’s enough to leave me wondering how this factors into the rest of the story, it can be really cool. I enjoyed the one I read in the draft of Oldest Trick, for example, because it was of this variety.

    I don’t like prologues that show me the main character(s) because I’m already about to read their story. I really dislike the prologue set in the future in the same book and reflecting back on the story because it feels cheap and it takes the teeth out of any tense moments. I know the character survives until the end (or some future point, at least).. (Of note, and one of its many failings, Twilight did that in EVERY single book and it was awful).)

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