16. Grand Openings Part 2: The Problem With Prologues

Author: Nola Published: about 3 years ago.
Tags: fiction, openings, beginnings, prologues Category: Writing tips

Prologues sometimes appear in novels before the true beginning in Chapter 1. They’ve gone out of fashion in recent years, but a good prologue can hook your reader and set up important information in an engaging way.

The two-paragraph prologue in Colleen Coble’s book Black Sands works well. Adele Tagama is running for her life over hardened lava. A hand falls on her shoulders, the ground shifts beneath her feet and she falls into ‘the red mouth’. Eek! What happens next? Chapter 1 begins a year later with volcanologist Annie Tagama examining cracks in lava. We don’t know the significance of the prologue at this point, but it’s clearly related to the main story. We later learn how Adele and Annie are related, what happened a year ago, and why Annie is in danger. You can read the prologue and the first two chapters here.

However, prologues can also detract from the main story. Last year I read the first book in a popular series and enjoyed the tense ending where the protagonists escaped the Nazis. However in the second book’s lengthy prologue, set ten years later, we learn that one of the characters from Book 1 has died. I felt cheated. It was as if the author had given her own spoiler. I put it back on the shelf without reading much further. I’ll probably go back to it at some point, but every time that character is mentioned, I’ll know she dies.

Beth Hill and Kristen Lamb recommend avoiding prologues when they’re:

  • Being used for information dumps.
  • Tangential to the main story.
  • Too long and delay the start of the primary story.
  • Confusing or cause division in the reader’s focus.
  • Used to introduce a different style or voice that doesn’t link back to the main narrative.
  • Used just to set the mood. Chapter 1 can do that.
  • Used as a copout for having an engaging hook in Chapter 1. No matter how riveting your prologue, Chapter 1 still needs to start with a bang.

Next time, I’ll look at reasons why you might include a prologue and give suggestions for writing one that works. In the meantime, I’d be interested in hearing your opinions. Should prologues be used or not?

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