If you’ve been following the writing community for awhile, you’ve probably heard the advice that writers shouldn’t include prologues in their manuscripts. But why is this advice so common? What’s wrong with prologues? Is it ever okay to include one?
In my experience editing manuscripts, prologues often don’t work. The book needs to start where the story starts, and prologues, by definition, precede the beginning of the story. This doesn’t mean the prologues can never work—I’ve certainly read several that I liked. But more often than not, the prologue is unnecessary.
So, how do you know if your prologue is working? Here are some of the most common problems to look out for in prologues:
- Starting at the beginning of the protagonist’s life
I’ve seen many prologues that start by showing the protagonist as a young child, or even by showing their birth. Most of the time, you don’t need to start so soon. There are some cases where these kinds of openings work—Harry Potter being the obvious example—but they’ve been overdone, and most likely you don’t need this scene as much as you might think. Even if something important does happen here that the reader needs to see, they don’t care about it yet—they don’t know who this character is in the present, so why would they care about their childhood? If you need to share details about the protagonist’s past, include them later in the story, after you’ve given the reader a reason to want to know more about them.
- Not featuring the protagonist
I’ve seen a lot of prologues that feature characters other than the protagonist. In fact, I saw one in the sub pile earlier this week that featured three characters who aren’t even present in the rest of the book. The problem here is that it’s confusing to the reader, who doesn’t know who the protagonist is supposed to be. Readers often find it misleading and jarring if the narrative suddenly switches to a different character. Again, this something that can sometimes work; I just finished reading Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, which features a prologue like this and makes it work. But more often than not, you’re misleading your readers by starting with a character other than your protagonist.
You’ll almost never want to start a book with exposition, in a prologue or otherwise. Exposition is usually a sign that you’re telling instead of showing—you’re explaining the world, character, or story to the reader before the story begins, instead of showing it to them through the story itself. Exposition isn’t an effective hook, and it isn’t going to engage a reader in your story. Try sprinkling that information throughout the story instead.
- False starts
I often see prologues that start with an exciting, action-packed scene, leave off at a cliffhanger…and then the first chapter is slow and doesn’t have much to do with the prologue. I understand why writers are tempted to do this—you want to hook the reader right away. But if your first chapter is slow and won’t hook the reader by itself? That’s a sign that you need to rework your first chapter, not that you need a prologue. The problem with false starts is that readers see them as a bait-and-switch tactic (because they are). Once readers realize that the real first chapter is slow, they won’t be inclined to keep reading. You might be engaging readers temporarily with the prologue, but you’re not earning their interest long-term.
- Starting with your antagonist
I’ve also seen a number of prologues that start with the antagonist doing something evil. In addition to confusing readers by not starting with the protagonist, these types of prologues are overdone. Additionally, they don’t tend to work well. We don’t need to see your antagonist doing something evil yet, because we don’t know why we should care yet. Give your reader characters they can root for, and then show them the evil thing the antagonist is doing that threatens that.
There are many other problems with prologues, but these are the ones that I see most often. If you’re still not sure whether to keep your prologue, ask yourself if there is any other way to convey that information. Can you include those details in your first chapter instead? Should that flashback to your protagonist’s childhood come later? Is your first chapter starting in the right place? If you must include a prologue, my advice is to keep it interesting and make it important. If you can cut your prologue without affecting anything in your story, you probably don’t need it.
What do you think? Do you like prologues? When do they work well, and when don’t they work? Let me know in the comments!
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