Starting a novel with a prologue: yay or nay?

Starting a novel with a prologue: yay or nay?

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Starting a novel with a prologue: yay or nay?


Thread: Starting a novel with a prologue

One critique I saw recently written (for someone else's work) stated that you shouldn't start with a prologue, and that that information should be incorporated into the first chapter, or scrapped entirely. I'm... nervous about that? Because while I am a ways off submitting my own work for critiques, the fact is I HAVE started with a prologue, because I just don't see any way around it. The prologue centers on the Big Bad of the book, and is about him setting things in motion. If that scene didn't play out, then I don't see how any of the rest of the book would even make sense. 

So what say you, Absolute Write? Can a novel that starts with a prologue work, or do I need to go stand in the corner and think about what I've done? 

(for context, the novel is a fantasy quest type premise, and I'm not sure who it's aimed at yet. I think young teens, based on the readability scores, but then again I don't know how reliable those are, or if people even really use them.)

I didn't want it as part of chapter one: because none of the MCs appear in it, the Big Bad does. And unless and until he does what he does in the prologue, nothing else in the book can really happen. 

My prologue is literally about 350 words long, so I briefly considered having it be the first scene of the first chapter, and then doing a really obvious scene transition. But, the gosling thing. I don't want The Big Bad to be the first character in the first chapter, I want him clearly set apart. I want you to meet Bill in the first chapter! 

Also, my setup has each chapter "narrated" by a different character, 3rd person POV fly on shoulder, the same way GoT centers each chapter on a person. The difference, if there is one, is that my chapters are written more how the characters talk. Not heavy dialogue, because I think only Brian Jacques could pull that off, but like... one of my characters has zero contractions in her speech, and when it's her turn to "narrate" a chapter, the prose doesn't have any contractions in it either, because it's her thoughts. 

ANYWAY. The point of saying all that, is to say that I just don't see the prologue scene working as part of a chapter, because it's Big Bad centric, so to shoehorn it into the narrative turn of one of the MCs would be really out of place and odd. It wouldn't be fair to Bill, for example, if during his turn to narrate he had to sit aside and let the Big Bad's thoughts take precedence!


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Starting a novel with a prologue: yay or nay?

For me, I don't mind prologues IF they are ACTUAL prologues... the definition of a prologue being 2 to 3 pages to introduce a previous event important to the plot, but does not take place in the same timeline as the novel.

But far too often these days, authors use the prologue as a place to lecture the readers or write a 90 page worldbuilding explanation of what the world looks like or a detailed 50 page history of a battle or whatever. I feel like the bulk of authors these days don't know what a prologue is anymore and just slap anything at the front of the book and stick the title "prologue" on it no matter what it is.

Fantasy is my primary genre, both as a reader and a writer, and as a result of this recent trend of 50 to 90 page "prologues" that are not prologue... I've stopped reading prologues all together for any book written in the past 10 years.

There was a time when a prologue was a quick 2 page introduction to the back history of the story.

Not anymore!


For the past 5 years, almost every prologue added to a Fantasy novel, is now a 50 to 90 page detailed description of not only the world, but all the things the author researched as well.

I started reading a book a few months back... it had a 90 page prologue - NINETY FREAKING PAGES! - on why Neanderthals make the ideal basis for the book's main character race, and why dinosaurs and Humans should never be in a novel together, and then a detailed history of all the author's Anthropology and Archaeology degrees, then listed off all the actual fossil dig sites he dug at....

I was like... does this guy even know what a prologue is? This is not a prologue, this is a damned history lesson! I mean, if this guy ever wrote a college textbook on the history of the Jurassic Period, he'd be amazing! He really knows his stuff, I'll give him that. But you don't put stuff in your novel! I just felt so much, like this guy had never read a novel in his life and the only movie he had ever watched was Jurassic Park, and that the only reason he wrote this novel was so he could tell fans of dino-sci-fi they were jerks (his word) for liking those types of books. (Yes, he started right in the "prologue" that readers of dino-sci-fi were "jerks"!)

So I contacted this guy and asked him about it and...oooooooooh boooooooy....

WOW! I got a 60+ page response telling me that "Fantasy readers needed to be taught a lesson" (his words), and that they had "no business making up fictional races that couldn't possibly exist" (his words), and he proudly boasted that he never in his life ever read a fiction novel and never would....yow.

Well, it certainly showed in his novel writing, that he had never read a novel before writing one.... but it especially showed in his so called 90 page long "prologue", because it was clear by reading his prologue that he had no clue what a prologue even was!

And I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but, dang, I'm seeing this sort of "prologue" being written more and more often. Especially in self-pubbed Fantasy. And, as a self-pubbed Fantasy author myself, I know this sort of thing reflects on ALL of us. The more prevalent these sorts of quasi-prologues become, the more they turn off readers to prologues.

For me as a reader, these days, I'm likely to skip even buying a book if it has a prologue, let alone read it. ESPECIALLY if it's self-published, as it's become a trend of late for authors to let their egos lose in prologues. You don't see it in agented/trade books that often, because editors don't let those sorts of author rants go in the book. And as a self-pubbed Fantasy author, I'm worried that this sort of thing is not only putting readers off Fantasy with prologues, but turning them away from ANY self-pubbed Fantasy prologues or no. Yes, this is something I worry about a lot, because I know that as a Fantasy reader myself, I'm tending to avoid self-pubbed Fantasy lately, because of this "fake prologue" issue... and that worries me because I LOVE self-pubbed Fantasy and don't want to avoid them! Newer self-pubbed books these days have these weird "fake prologues" that are insanely long. 50 pages is fast becoming the norm, and I've seen longer ones.... which I wouldn't mind if they were actual prologues and not just the author having a hissy-fit rant.

My belief is, if the author feels they have to explain the details of their story, outside of the story, then that author is a very poor writer and in desperate need of taking some writing classes so they can learn how to tell a story and include everything the reader needs to know, woven within the story.

I would like prologues if they did what they were supposed to do, and BRIEFLY in a few pages, introduce the setting/backdrop of the story. I mean if it's an ACTUAL prologue, then fine, I don't mind.

But I think far too many authors these days don't know the difference between a prologue and an "here's my life history on how I wrote this book"...and it's ruining my perspective on books with prologues.

I mean, you look at books written 30 or more years ago, and how prologues were written... they BELONGED with the story. They were PART of the story, but they were just a part of the story that didn't fit in the story. And they worked, because they helped the reader get to know the plot and characters better. Prologues like that I'm fine with and don't mind reading.

But I don't want to read 50 pages of an author explaining how they did their research to ensure that we stupid readers know the difference between a cave man and a neanderthal, followed by explanations of all the hows and whys of the ice age and its effect on the story, followed by the author listing off all their degrees in anthropology, and which digs they dug at, blah, blah, blah. I bought the book to read the story, and if I want to know the history of how and why they wrote it, I'll head to their website and read their "About Me" page.

Far too many authors use their prologues as a way to talk down to their readers and, I wanted to read a story, not be lectured by an arrogant author.

Now, from what I'm understanding, it sounds like you want to tell you story from one character's perspective, but it's important to the plot, that the reader know a bit of backstory from another character's perspective first? But you don't need to do a 2 PoV story, so you just want to write a quick short story told from 2nd character's PoV, and call that a prologue? Right? Well, that's EXACTLY what a prologue is supposed to be. A quick backstory, from the PoV of someone not the PoV character, to help the reader understand the main character.

Based on what you have described, I think your prologue sounds like it fits the story and is actually a prologue being used as intended. So I would think your story would be fine with a prologue.

Of course, you also said it was only 350 words?

A 350 word prologue is only half a printed page in a paperback novel... you know that right?

What you are classifying as a prologue, is barely big enough to even be called a paragraph, so I'm not sure, you even need to put it separate from your first chapter at all. Just have it be the opening scene of your book, on the first half of page 1.

That said however, I still as a buyer, would probably skip buying the book, just on grounds that it had a prologue at all, even one done right, simply because I'm so fed up with trying to slog through world building info dumps and author lectures, disguised as "prologues", that I just don't even bother to sift through fake prologues trying to find real prologues.

So, with that point in mind, I think, it may in fact be in your best interest to rather then write it as a prologue, instead write it as a flashback, and then title it Chapter 2 (not Chapter 1) So, what I'm suggesting is, use chapter 1 to introduce your main character and plot; then swing into the important backstory in chapter 2, then jump back into the main character's story in chapter 3. Does that make sense? You end up weaving the "prologue" into the story itself that way, instead of it being a separate piece before the story.

Or perhaps, if the prologues was very long... perhaps you could tell it throughout the whole story. Say for example your novel is 200 pages long, and your prologue is 20 pages long, and your novel is 20 chapters long. You could have 1 page of the prologue at the beginning of each chapter; have it be an "opening scene" printed in italics, on the first page of each chapter, so taking the entire book to tell the prologue, each page ending abruptly with a '...'. With the reader learning a little bit more at the beginning of each chapter, resulting in it being a sort of mini-story within the story. It makes sense in my mind, I hope I'm explaining it correctly. I think that method would work pretty well with the particular story you are describing.

In the end, I think, some stories NEED prologues, but most stories don't, and far too many authors, thinking ALL books REQUIRE a prologue, slap together something that is NOT a prologue and stick it at the front of the book and call it a prologue when it isn't one.

As a reader, I don't mind prologues that really are prologues, but I'm fed up with things that are not prologues being slapped in the front of a book and being called a prologue.

So, if your book needs a prologue, give it one, but if it doesn't need a prologue, don't write up something just for the sake of having something at the front of your book.

Last edited by PinkUnicorn; Today at 06:20 AMReason: I can't spell :P

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