Pub Rants

Fridays With Agent Kristin: Episode 8 – Three Reasons Why Prologues Don’t Work

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STATUS: Agency is going to be closed Monday through Wednesday of next week for the 4th of July holiday. It’s a summer mini-break!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? VIVA LAS VEGAS by Jimmy Buffett

When reading requested sample pages, every agent I knows skips a prologue when reading the sample. Today I discuss three reasons why that is so!

Enjoy and have a great holiday next week!

39 Responses

  1. Ted Cross said:

    That’s distressing to hear, because all of my favorite books have prologues, and I think they have great ones. I’ll never understand readers who skip prologues.

  2. jason said:

    That was interesting stuff. The world building part reminds me of almost every fantasy novel I’ve ever read–the world or big bad guy shows up in the prologue, then when the book starts we meet our humble hero.

    Just curious: what do you think about framing/bookending? Putting the end first as a pseudo-prologue–maybe the first half of the last chapter–then ending the book with the rest of the last chapter. Is that cheating? 🙂

  3. Philip Heckman said:

    You’re absolutely right, Kristin, and the best example is from cinema, the opening to Star Wars: Episode IV, which violates all three of your observations plus whatever other criticism you didn’t have room for in your post. It was a colossal mistake and insult to the audience. It’s no different for books.

  4. J.F. said:


    I’m a published writer of one book (so far), and this is *exactly* what I told my niece just the other day!

    I don’t like prologues. I will put books with prologues back on the shelf most of the time for these very reasons.

    A writer needs to know where the story should start, and how to expose crucial details without the infamous “info dump”. 🙂

    Thanks Kristin!

  5. Authoress Anonymous said:

    I think one of the prologues that annoys me the most is the Twilight ones where it cuts forward to the climax (When the action actually happens) just to build tension, because the real start of the story doesn’t have much tension at all. I am a sucker for some prologues done right though. Great post!

  6. Anonymous said:

    I first encountered readers who skipped the prologue six years ago when I joined a writing forum for fantasy writers. For quite awhile I was baffled as to why anyone would do that. I thought that perhaps it was just this small group of writers, then I joined a different group and there was a split between those who did read the prologue and those who didn’t read it.

    Then I noticed that almost everyone who had said that they didn’t read the prologue primarily read fantasy fiction.

    At the same time, I was beta-reading fantasy stories and several of them had really poorly written prologues with the same characteristics you’ve given here. And then I picked up a published fantasy novel with a poorly written prologue.

    All of this led me to conclude that the poorly written prologue which can be safely skipped over is unique to the fantasy genre. This probably can be traced back to Tolkien and his opening “Concerning Hobbits.”

    Outside of the fantasy genre, prologues are generally well done and need to be read to understand the story. I was going to suggest a post on what makes a good prologue, but it is probably safer to just tell writers to not put one in.

  7. mara said:

    This is very helpful, as I just finished writing a prologue in a half-finished manuscript and am now debating whether it’s needed or not.

    If a prologue does not do any of those things you mentioned, do you still believe it’s a bad idea?

    If it’s introducing relevant plot details that happen outside the main time frame of the story, but adds a needed layer of information that brings a poignancy to the reader’s impressions of the main story, do you still feel that’s better incorporated as flashbacks? Even if the prologue involves no info-dumping and is almost entirely character-building through incident and dialogue?

  8. Elizabeth said:

    Oddly enough, these three reasons are precisely what I have against the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Not that it made much of a difference–I love that book!–but when I re-read, I hardly ever start with chapter one, since it is nothing but prologue disguised as a first chapter.

  9. T.L. Bodine said:

    I agree that a lot of prologues are pretty terrible and skip-worthy, but they do serve a purpose sometimes and that can be valuable. The best prologue sets up dramatic irony by telling us-the-reader something important than the character does not and cannot possibly know at the outset of the story.

    I actually got so annoyed with a “no prologues ever” argument that I wrote a whole blog post in defense of them:

    But I’ll grant Kristin that she’s quite right on all three points. It’s just a shame that so many people are doing this wrong that the few who might be doing it right will be caught in the crossfire.

  10. Firetulip said:

    Personally, I don’t like them because for the most part they are back story and info dumping and there are very few writers who can execute them right. Now, having to say that they must’ve been a norm or a standard thing back in the ’80s or earlier since almost every book published around that time has one. And Tim Powers “On Stranger Tides” has four prologues and legends before you even get into the story.

  11. Natalie Aguirre said:

    Thanks for the great tips on why prologues generally don’t work. Great advice to save it for after the agent requests a full. And I love this Friday series.

  12. Michelle said:

    Great tips and they all make sense. Perhaps this message is more for the novice or unpublished. As around 60% of novels I read have prologues. Xx

  13. Jill James said:

    I love prologues and epilogues too for that matter. As a reader I see them as bonus matter for the book. It adds to the enjoyment of the story if done right.

  14. efthaliapegios said:

    Hi Kirstin,

    Thanks for posting your expertise on Prologue. I’ve had this whole prologue dilemma and whether it works for my story or not.

    I had written a historical prologue that didn’t fit in. So then I did the inevitable, I trashed it and thought what would truly be enough of a bite but not long drivel in order to give background as to why this whole story took place in the first place. What set the wheels in motion for mystory?

    I created two prologues (don’t cringe Kristin) like two separate scenes in a movie, flash, flash. Both prologues are no more than three short paragraphs each. The POV is the same as the rest of the book.

    It’s just enough of a teaser as a prologue to hook them in. I believe a prologue should be just as much as a hook as the first chapter. Especially if it is paramount to the rest of the story and especially if the prologue/backstory is beginning of whence an actual event took place. Truthfully the prologue can be seen as the bridge that allows the past to flow into and connect with the future. The prologue/backstory is the pinnacle of empowerment that propels the plot forward.

    Having said that I agree that it should not be long and cumbersome for the reader and it should not read differently from the rest of the book. The style and execution should flow.

    I know you are probably saying no, no, no and shaking your head that it won’t work but for me it works and I really believe it will work for the readers. It’s how the writer weaves the story to connect that past present and future within the writing that makes a prologue either successful or a mere waste of pages.

    Clearly, the question we writers need to ask over and over again is, “do my readers need to know this?” If yes then by all means put it in. If no then cut it out and don’t weep over it.


  15. The Cardboard Crafter said:

    Good to know! I am not a big fan of prologues, but ended up including one in my first manuscript because a friend was simultaneously writing a story focusing on a minor character in mine, and we wanted to link them together. (Then she didn’t finish hers, and well… I should have taken the prologue out but didn’t. Maybe I’ll go back and fix it and query again 😉

  16. E. Syck said:

    That’s the kind of “rant” about prologues I like to see. I’ve had WAY too many people just throw up their hands and say “Dunno, prologues aren’t in fashion now, never ever ever use them and make sure you tell everyone who has a prologue that they are doomed to failure”.

    Personally, I experimented with them in a couple novels, but whenever I read them back it was pretty obvious that I was being CLEVER. And whenever I can tell that I’m trying too hard, it’s time for a rewrite 😉

  17. scottjrobinson said:

    I have prologues in each of the 4 books of my series.

    The first one is an excerpt from later in the book to tell people the type of story it is. It’s a SF/Fantasy mix but starts at the Robin Hood Festival in Sherwood Forest, so no obvious link (though there is one).

    The ones for the other books are more excerpts, from earlier books as reminders of important things that will be referenced later.

    Obviously I think they all work.

    Probably it would be best to say that bad prologues don’t work but good ones do.

    Having said that, if I pick up a book in a shop I don’t read the prologue there. The first chapter is a better indication of if I will like the book. I do read it when I get home though.

  18. averyfrost said:

    I’m almost finished with the first draft of my novel, and have began planning my second. I decided a few weeks ago that I would delete the prologue in the second draft for the third reason. My story reads quite differently from the tone and action of the prologue! Thank you for posting this–it helped reinforce my decision.

  19. Anonymous said:

    Hi Kristin,

    I guess the key phrase is “…for aspiring writers” or new authors who use prologues for the reasons you’ve stated. As an agent that must read loads of poorly written work, I understand your position. It’s good advice.

    Some of my stories require prologues, most do not. Obviously, it all depends. Honestly, I can’t imagine a serious reader following such a silly rule, or any other such rule. Imagine choosing a book off the shelf, reading the jacket with interest, and then check to see if it has a prologue before purchasing. Who does that?

  20. T C Mckee said:

    I always loved prologues, never knew using them would be like painting a big L (loser) on my manuscript. My critique partners (violent prologue haters)have left me afraid of them. After removing it from my story, I understand now. To me, it just reads better without it. Thanks for the advice.

  21. Anonymous said:

    “Different writing style and POV then . . .”

    S/B “than”

    Sorry, proofreading’s part of my job.

  22. Teagan Marie said:

    A while ago I read about how prologues weren’t needed in most cases in another of your posts and decided to remove mine. It turned out to be a good decision ^.^

  23. Wade said:

    I almost always read prologues. A lot of fantasy authors write them in a different style and they include background material for setting up the world or whatever.

    But thinking about it, the very best one I’ve read is the one at the start of Guardians Of The West (Book One of The Mallorean) by David Eddings. It was really a recap of the The Belgariad, which was rather nice, ending with a wonderful little paragraph that hooks the reader beautifully into the second series.

  24. Anonymous said:

    Good points and your reasoning is solid. I think what frustrates writers, though, is that then we see some of the biggest and most successful authors on every bestseller list using prologues.

    I can think of one. She has broken every rule that we hear about – she has prologues in all her books, she uses semicolons like they are going out of style, she head-hops, etc. And all her books are bestsellers which are currently being made into films.

    I don’t understand the “I don’t read prologues” bit, but it is not a place for info dump.

    Can you give us an example of a prologue that works for you?

  25. Red Tash said:

    I wrote my prologue with the understanding that it could be skipped. When I submit chapters to anyone or anything, including the contest where I just got an honorable mention, I submit my Chapter One!

    Thanks for this post.

  26. marlene said:

    Agreed…some prologues are too long, but have read many where they are nessary like appetizers to the meal… especially works in a murder mystery where the body is first discovered (in the prologue) and then the story begins leading up to the killing.

  27. said:

    This is so interesting b/c I just added a prologue to mine yesterday! HA! I know most frown on them now so I’ll see what my publisher says . . . of course I love them when they’re done right. Mine consists of material from the past to help you understand the story and it’s very short (2pgs). I tried doing it as a flashback but felt it took the reader out of the story in that moment. It’s not crucial to read but like many said, it can always be bonus material if I have prologue haters out there. Hopefully if they don’t read it at first, they’ll go back and read it at some point b/c they’ll be curious (if I did my job well *fingers crossed*) Wonderful points on here~cheers

  28. MJ Caffrey said:

    Thanks for this short and sweet video on prologues. I don’t mind them, myself, usually buying a novel based on Kindle reviews and word of mouth.

    Me, I toyed with a prologue once and then set it aside. I do, however, like epilogues, the “happy ending” or seemingly so, which prologues another novel.

  29. Anonymous said:

    Hmm…my first chapter is from the POV of another character, but it plays out in the form of a dramatic scene, and the information we hear is crucial. This is information the main character does not learn for several chapters, so it’s not as if I can drop it in through her narration until much later in the story…and if the reader doesn’t know this information upfront, some of the stuff that happens in the first half of the book might seem ridiculous to the reader. This has gotten me very nervous.

  30. Anonymous said:

    THE BIG FAT GLARING exception to this is the mystery plot, in which the murder takes place in an alternate POV. I also feel like, in whodunnit murder stories, the prologue helps the reader gauge the oncoming level of violence and whether or not its appropriate for them.

    I totally agree on the short-but-sweet philosophy though.

  31. IZZI said:

    In the past I have generally read the prologue or the first chapter (if there is no prologue) before deciding whether to purhcase the book. Which leads me to wonder, if, for example, a prologue consists of a very short scene from the main charactor’s past (in the same POV as the rest of the MS), and there is no info dumping or any such extraneous material, would it still be acceptable, or should the scene be altered and used as a flashback somewhere else in the book (or else completely dumped)?

  32. JoBird said:

    There aren’t enough Fridays in your year. It feels like I experience one just about every week. Hopefully, you’ll find more as time progresses.

    I get a real kick out of watching these vlogs, please keep them coming, and thank you.

  33. Helen DeWitt said:

    I did have a prologue for my first book, which was in a completely different narrative style from the rest of the book (apart from an Interlude, which is probably not frowned on only because it is rare). The way this felt to me was that the prologue was the equivalent of the opening Kansas segment in the Wizard of Oz – the startling shift from black-and-white to color is integral to the film. (The brilliant color of Oz, its oddities, its surprises, its terrors, would mean less if we started with Dorothy emerging from the house – we need the dirty realism of Kansas first.) The Wizard of Oz is a very unusual film; it would make sense for prologues to be needed with comparable rarity.

  34. Cholisose said:

    It seems that prologues are often an easy thing to skip to get to the “real story.” I have known a few times where they’ve been rather interesting though, and manage to affect the overall plot in clever ways! It may be a hard sell for many agents though.