Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Why Prologues Often Don’t Work

STATUS: Not happy. Still no Amazon links to Macmillan client books.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HUNGRY FOR YOU by The Police

Kristin’s incomplete list of why prologues don’t work:

1. When the sole purpose of the prologue is to fill the reader in on the back story so the real story can begin.

This is so easy to point out but harder to explain.

In the example of UNDONE, Brooke needed a prologue to show how it all started. To juxtapose who the girls were when they first “meet” versus who they are when chapter 1 begins. The prologue also serves a strong purpose. It sets tone, character, and sets up several questions. Why did Kori become a “I-puke-cheerleaders-for-breakfast” kind of girl? Something has happened but what? Why is Serena obsessed with her by her own admission? And it’s very clear that these two girls have nothing in common in this bathroom scene yet Kori calmly states that they are more alike than Serena knows. They are connected.

This is a prologue with a clear purpose. The reader should want to know more by the end or it doesn’t work. It’s also masterful. Brooke managed to accomplish quite a bit in just 4 short paragraphs and this leads me to the second reason why prologues often don’t work.

2. They are too long.

This is the death of a manuscript if a writer has problem #1 and then it’s combined with problem #2.

3. When the prologue is in a whole different style or voice from the rest of the manuscript.

Then when chapter 1 begins, readers are left flummoxed—especially if that style or tone of voice is never revisited.

4. When the prologue is solely there to provide an action scene to “draw the reader in” but then serves no other purpose or is not connected to the main story arc or is only loosely so.

5. When the prologue introduces the evil character simply so the reader can “know” what is at stake.

I can sum this up in two words. Clumsy writing.

6. When the prologue is supposed to be cool (or I might reword this to say the writer thinks it sounds cool).

Lots of writers overwrite when creating a prologue. It shows.

When all of the above is happening (and there are probably a dozen more reasons why prologues often don’t work), it becomes really clear that the writer isn’t paying attention to dialogue, character development, plot pacing, etc. All key elements of good writing.

This is why almost all the agents I know completely skip the prologue and start with chapter one when reading sample pages. A beginner writer might actually be able to do good character, dialogue, tone, pacing, and whatnot but it’s more than likely not going to show in the prologue.

Now in defense of the prologue, when it’s done well, it’s truly an amazing tool. The number of times I’ve seen a prologue done extraordinarily well in requested submissions? Well, I can count that total on two hands….


49 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    What are you’re suggestions for opening a book? Since prologues don’t usually strike you, what does?

  2. Rebecca Knight said:

    Thank you so much–this was really helpful! I’d heard the “no prologues” said so often, but no one spelled out how or why they often fail.

    You rock, Kristin! 🙂

  3. Anonymous said:

    Okay, so I should think long and hard before attempting a prologue. (I’ve already cut the one from my manuscript.)

    Thanks for the tips. I’ll save this entry.

    Connie Gillam

  4. Catherine A. Winn said:

    “This is why almost all the agents I know completely skip the prologue and start with chapter one when reading sample pages.”

    I’m so glad you said that because I once asked students if they read prologues. Some did and liked them but most agreed they just skipped them. One girl explained: “Because the book doesn’t start there.”

  5. Lindsey Edwards said:

    I see why many prologues do not work, especially for first time authors. I have a prologue myself and I had to revisit it several times before I made it work. It’s a mere one page and it’s necessary because it’s an introduction to a series and a fantasy realm. It’s a concise look into the world my heroine resides and gives a brief and enticing glimpse into the events that follow.

  6. Peri1020 said:

    If anyone wants to read a perfect example of #3, read Fern Michaels’ “Pretty Woman.” The prologue is from Vickie’s POV, but the rest of the story is from Rosie’s. The story was good, but the wrong POV prologue had me feeling off-kilter throughout the rest of the story.

  7. Lydia Sharp said:

    Those are really good points.

    This will always be a hot debate. I’ve argued on both sides of it in the past, and am now content to say, “Whatever works, works.”

    The key, however, is that you need to know WHY certain things work and why others don’t. Many common “new writer” mistakes are made simply because they’re new writers. They don’t have the experience of trial and error behind them, and oftentimes, that is the only way we learn.

    Someone can tell you “don’t do this, and don’t do that,” until they’re blue in the face. But until you try it yourself and practice and apply what you learn, you won’t fully understand what they were telling you.

    I’ve seen it with prologues. I’ve seen it with “showing vs telling.” I’ve seen it with “keeping tension on every page.” You think you get it, but you don’t. The problem is, you don’t realize that you didn’t understand, until you DO understand.

    Writing is a craft. It’s not something that you can simply say, “This is how you do it, and this method will always work.” It’s not horseback riding, or carpentry, or baseball. There’s much more gray than black and white, and that’s where the new writers are getting lost and discouraged. In the gray area.

    I consider prologues a gray area. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. They often don’t for the reasons stated above. Conversely, it would be nice to see some examples here of prologues that do work, limited number that they are, so we have something to compare to.

    Just my thoughts.

  8. The Invisible Writer said:

    Thought provoking . . . Gonna have to reconsider my little prologue. I like it and think it’s one that would survive the cut, but . . I wrote it. Of course I think it’s good . . . Better cut it.

  9. Dal Jeanis said:

    Remember that a prolog and an epilog are just a method of framing a work.

    The only thing in a prolog should be something that absolutely sets the tone, mood, theme, etc, of a work, and therefore changes how the reader will experience the first scene or chapter.

    If it doesn’t change the meaning of the first chapter, then save it and put it in a flashback – once you’ve earned the right to a flashback. If it doesn’t affect the story at all, then sprinkle it through – or drop it in an appendix.

    On the other hand, if it’s the same characters, the same subject, and so on – or if your book already jumps time zones and places between chapters – then call it “Chapter One” and get on with it.

  10. _*Rachel*_ said:

    Dude, Amazon again.

    I got a promotional email from them about the Edgar Awards. Of the six books they showed, the top two were Macmillan. So much for advertising.

    Thanks for the prologue info. I’ll make extra-sure not to use one now.

  11. Basil Zyllion said:

    Thanks Kristen.

    I still find it hard to give up my prologue because IT’S JUST SO MUCH DAMN FUN to write it for this book. I’ll try to knock it off but I enjoy it so much!

  12. Cam Snow said:

    You forgot the Prologue that actually isn’t a prologue and should just be labeled Chapter 1 – that’s the rookie mistake I made in novel #1!

  13. K. M. Smith said:

    Thanks for the insight, Kristin. I generally skip prologues. I find them often manipulative, a cheap attempt to shock the reader. When talking with others and in reading contemporary fiction, I find confusion between the use of a prologue as a narrative framing device and the use of a preface. For example, one highly popular YA novel begins with a preface and ends with a epilogue. Call me picky but it bothers me. Any thoughts?

  14. C.D. Reimer said:

    What if I sent an agent the first three chapters, and get a request for the full manuscript, would the agent have a negative reaction upon finding a prologue?

  15. Tamara Hart Heiner said:

    I have recently read several published books that do one or more of the following, and well. So is it a matter of experience?

    And if a writer has a prologue, should they just not include it in the sample to an agent?

  16. Amber Tidd Murphy said:

    What do you think about a prologue that is forward-story, a la THE SECRET HISTORY?

    I want my prologue to work. I want it to work!

    Maybe I’ll have to rename it chapter one.

    Sigh.

  17. Jennifer Shirk said:

    Great info! I generally don’t like to read prologues–which I now know are due to those reasons you’ve listed. 🙂
    But when I read one that’s done right, it can really make a story.

  18. Kimber An said:

    Thanks! I only knew that 99% of the time they didn’t work. I never thought of why.

    When one does work, it really works though, you know?

    I’m not at a level to try yet.

  19. Natasha Solomons said:

    I just wanted to say how much I’m enjoying your opening pages series. I rushed out and bought and read ‘Soulless’ as soon I’d read those first few pages (and suggested to my London bookstore that they order in some more). My only complaint is that I have to wait until May for the next installment!

    I’m also writer-in-residence at a school next week and am going to use your opening pages session as the basis for a workshop. The aim is to help kids understand how to hook their readers right away and, of course, read them some great openings and persuade them that they need to rush out and buy the books!

    I suspect that ‘Pain Merchants’ is going to be rather popular…

  20. Blogging Mama Andrea said:

    Mine is exactly 600 words. It makes you go OMG. It’s actually the middle point of the book (where the first scene would be in order) and then the first chapter backs up to 3 months before to tell you how you arrive at the OMG scene. The scene is the premise of the entire book.

    The prologue was actually a short fiction work that got lots of good comments for it’s drama and emotion and people wanted to know more (which is how it’s becoming a full length piece.)

    Does something like this work?

  21. Scott said:

    The best prologue ever is from Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. Amazing book. The prologue, though the reader doesn’t realize it until much later, sets the stage for the entire novel. One sentence only, that most readers will probably forget and then . . . oh, my!

    I learned from experience that, normally, what fits in a prologue can be interspersed throughout the first chapter . . . using less words. : )

    Great post and thanks for the info.

    S

  22. Kelly Bryson said:

    Arrrrgh. I’m struggling with ‘is this one of those rules that should be broken in my particular situation?’ I know, the odds are against me, but I tried it by the rule first and it feels off.

  23. Timothy Fish said:

    I believe the most important thing to remember about the prologue is that it absolutely must be a part of the story, but because it takes place with a different time, place or characters than the rest of the story it seems appropriate to label it differently. Because of where it is in the story, the prologue must be the beginning of our introduction of the problem that we are trying to solve. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain uses the prologue to introduce the protagonist, a man we quickly see has trouble getting along with people and through most of the story takes place in a different time and place, we see that it is this problem that carries the rest of the story.

  24. Anonymous said:

    Thank you! I can’t stand prologues, and never read them. This is certainly just me, but I always get the sense that the writer is a little self-important about their work — needing to go outside the normal realm of just beginning the book on the first page — as if to say, look at me, I’m writing!!

  25. Ldspete said:

    If my prologue is wrong, I don’t want to be right! 😉

    “This is a private journal and not intended for any other audience. If you have found this, in spite of my efforts, please destroy it immediately.”

    At least it’s not long.

    Leah

  26. Laer Carroll said:

    A lot of readers are taking away the wrong message: “Don’t do prologs.” Kristin’s point is that you must do them RIGHT if you do them.

    And if you do anything right it must certainly be the very beginning of a story.

  27. fatcaster said:

    Prologues work for me —

    Water For Elephants (fiction)
    The Cliff Walk (memoir)
    The Prince Of Frogtown (memoir)
    Dark Sun (nf)
    Friday Night Lights (nf)
    Barbarians At The Gate (nf)
    Den Of Thieves (nf)

  28. parametric said:

    I’ve ranted about prologues a couple of times in the past, so your complaints are familiar! I also hate the world-building prologue, in which a ton of stuff about countries and races and etc is infodumped by a writer who doesn’t know that story = character + conflict.

    Other prologue things that infuriate me:
    * Lack of continuity between prologue and first chapter. None of the same people, places, plot elements etc.
    * Prologues which don’t become relevant for ages and ages.
    * Protagonist’s birth prologues = overdone.
    * Prophecy prologues = ditto.

    I can only think of a handful of prologues I truly enjoyed. Scott Lynch sold me on The Lies of Locke Lamora and Joe Abercrombie on Best Served Cold by way of their superb prologues. Other books – not so much.

  29. DG said:

    I can’t believe how many people I talk to that say they don’t bother to read a book’s prologue.

    So what about introductions Kristen? If you have to set the scene, such as a historic perspective, what’s the best way or place to put such info?

  30. Alex said:

    there is nothing more disconcerting than reading this a few days after submitting a sample with prologue and thinking, “oh no! She’s not talking about me?”

    So I will believe instead that I committed none of the 6 sins of prologue writing. Until an editor-friend tells me otherwise.

    A good outline of what NOT to do.

  31. Eridani said:

    The best prologue I’ve ever seen is the one that kicks off the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. It does rather break most of the rules above, though.

    It’s also the main reason I’ve read through the long, involved series, no matter how much it’s meandered. That prologue was effectively the end of the story last time this set of circumstances came around. It was utterly chilling and it gave you a sense of what was at stake. Evil may not have triumphed entirely, but good was vanquished and the world destroyed. Will this time be any different? After 18 years, I am still anxious as hell to find out.

  32. Chris M. said:

    What a prologue that is, for all intents and purposes, just a chapter. I have a prologue where the only reason it’s a prologue and not Chapter 1 is that it’s from the POV of one character when the rest of the novel is from the POV of a second character and I thought the transition would be jarring without making the former a prologue.

    Is the stigma against prologues so great that I’m better off just making my prologue Chapter 1? It really is just a normal chapter besides.

  33. Liesl said:

    I hate prologue! Okay, not all, but since I am a fan of fantasy I see it all the time and 9 times out of 10 I just think it’s a crappy cop-out. The writer didn’t know how to skillfully weave in the backstory and expose the important information, so they just jumble it all together and throw it up on the page and call it a prologue. Ironically, most of the time I’m just confused and spend half the story trying to figure out how it all connects, whereas I would have been much more engaged if they could have woven it all into the plot, revealing important information as it became relevant. I’ve sworn on the keys of my Macbook to never use prologue.

  34. onewriterslife said:

    Kristin, I’m over here slumping down in my classroom chair. Guilty of a few of those Rules. Will give serious thought to moving the first part of ch. one to a scene much later in the book (where I had it orginally).

    Thanks…but I’m guilty of reading prologues, tho I confess, not the ones that go on for six pages. Shorter ones most times have a purpose and get me in the mood for what’s to come. Sure nice to know what agents think.

  35. The Daring Novelist said:

    I’m not surprised when people who read slush hate prologues, because so many beginners use them badly.

    But I surprises me when end readers say they hate them. I think sometimes what they are saying is they hate the kind of genres that use them (or that they assume use them). Especially certain kinds of fantasy.

    But Chris M. is right – a prologue is really just another name for Chapter 1. The same rules should apply — and really do. So many great serious fiction, and hard-boiled, police procedural and other realistic and more literary novels use prologues, and nobody notices. often times it’s just not labeled as a prologue. It’s the first chapter or the beginning of the first chapter.

  36. Edward G. Talbot said:

    A bit late to commenting here, but a topic that interests me. I have to say I have heard many, many agents say something along the same lines. It is helpful to see here specific reasons why a prologue might not work.

    On the other hand, as a big fan of thrillers (Ludlum, Cussler, Rollins, etc), many of my favorite books have prologues. Looking at the list of six problems, most of those prologues at least stray into problems with #4 and/or #6. How does one define “loosely” connected? It’s kind of a “know it when I see it” thing (like so much of writing). And often in thrillers, the primary purpose of the prologue IS in fact to portray something cool that is related to the story by not really critical to convey with a prologue. As a reader, I enjoy these a lot.

    So in writing thrillers, I’ve had a tough time figuring out what to do. On submission for my first book, I simply left the prologue out. I had submitted the book to contests and about half of the critiques I received loved the prologue and half hated it.

    With the book I have on submission now, I toyed with the idea of just calling the prologue “Chapter One” even though it takes place a thousand years ago. I decided to let it stay as is, since most of the feedback I received about it was positive.

    I’m not under the specific illusion that I’m “good enough” to be one of the submissions that could be counted on two hands. But I do feel it meets two very important criteria: 1) I and many other readers of the genre enjoy similarly styled prologues; and 2) A lot of top-selling books in the genre do the same thing.

    In this case, if I’ve failed to pull it off, it probably has more to do with my writing/plotting ability and less to do with the fact that it is a prologue.

  37. Deb said:

    Most novelists think their prologue is terrific and everyone else’s are awful. I’ve almost always skipped them when I read, and never felt the lack. I no longer write them — I figure, if I can’t start the story where it actually begins, and dribble in the backstory as I go along, it’s probably not a very good story in the first place.

    If they went away entirely, I’d be fine with that.

  38. Christi Goddard said:

    I’ve been trying to determine if my first chapter is going to be considered a prologue. It is the infection of a little boy and death of my MCs father trying to save him. Then my MC at five deals with the death and leaves his home. Then chapter two begins when he is seventeen. Chapter one is referenced continuously through the book, so I feel it is necessary, but since it happens 12 years before my MCs journey begins, will it be considered an unnecessary prologue?

  39. Ian O'Neill said:

    These are great suggestions that new writers may take as gospel. A dangerous avenue that needs a roadblock. Never say never.

    Your post is something writers should read before they write their prologue. Yep, I love them and think they’re a great tool (if used correctly).

    Cheers,
    Ian

  40. Ledo Cook said:

    What if the story starts off with an abrupt car accident? Can the accident be handled in a prologue?

    The crash happens. The the story goes back and tells how the two people in the car had met, then about their life together up to the moment of the crash. Then the recovery of the survivor. Then what the survivor discovers about their lover who died in the crash.

    If I stretch the car accident out, so it can be the first chapter, it seems like it would not be able to capture the abrupt feeling of a life altering accident.

    The accident is want sets the story in motion, but the outcome and what comes to light because of it is more important than the crash itself.

    Four paragraphs seems about right somehow. Enough to get a little bit of dialogue, some characterization, then the cold fullstop of the crash.

    Then going into how it all began for them in the slower narrative of the first chapter, feels like it might be able to communicate that sense of recovery, like the audience is there alongside the survivor in the hospital as she tries to figure out what the hell happened to her life.

    If that’s not a good usage of a prologue though, then I don’t want to make that mistake. So any advise on that would be very much appreciatted. Thanks.

  41. Anonymous said:

    I am completely glad I stumbled across this before I had begun the first chapter of my book. I am a beginning writer and had written a prologue that “loosely” related to the main story/plot. I’m now cutting it out, and am restarting the book… this time from chapter one. I had a great time writing the prologue so perhaps I’ll just run with that and eventually write another book based around IT. It does have the potential for it… But now thanks to your words, I know it’s useless to the book I’m beginning now. Thanks for your words!

  42. Anonymous said:

    I got a beta to read chapter 1 on its own. Then I got them to read the prologue first, then chapter 1. On the second reading he said chapter 1 made much more sense and it really heightened the tension and drama. I asked my agent whether I should keep my prologue. She said yes, because it works, just don’t call it a prologue.

    I think the ‘prologues rarely work and most agents skip them’ advice is a very fashionable opinion right now, but no one should let it put them off if they really want to write a prologue. Just do what works.

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