18. Grand Openings Part 3: The Good News on Prologues

Author: Nola Published: almost 3 years ago.
Tags: openings, prologues, introductions Category: Writing tips

In Part 2 of this series, I looked at the problem with prologues. Although the prologue has become as unfashionable as the Muffin Top, there are occasions when it can be useful. Kristen Lamb suggests two such uses.

  1. When there is a time gap between the present story and a significant event in the past. Colleen Coble’s book Alaska Twilight is a good example. The book starts with an arsonist setting fire to a house in the Alaskan wilderness, killing the couple sleeping inside. Fast forward to Chapter 1 and photographer Haley Mitchell returns to her home in Alaska where her parents died some years before. The prologue works because there’s an obvious link between the past and present. It also provides a great hook as we have an insight into the killer’s thoughts from the opening page. You can read the prologue here. (N.B. Click on the image and you’ll be able to go through to the prologue)
  2. When there’s a backstory that’s essential in setting up the plot. This is common in some Science Fiction and Fantasy novels where the action is taking place in a world very different from our own. For example, George R. R. Martin begins A Game of Thrones with a lengthy prologue that introduces us to the world of the story and sets up the conflict. You can read it here.

However, editor Beth Hill also cautions against saying too much in a prologue. As she notes, ‘a big info dump, even in a prologue, is still a big info dump’. Consider whether some of that information would be better in the main body of the novel. If it has to go in a prologue, make sure the prologue does the work it’s meant to do. For Hill, this means that ‘if a prologue works and entertains, keep it’, but if it doesn’t meet those criteria, ‘toss it’.

Lital Talmor takes this further by suggesting that the prologue is like a worker you’ve contracted to do a job. What is its job description? Does it do the work you hired it to do? She has a simple two-part test to tell whether your prologue is working: ‘Try to leave it out and see if anything important is missing; then try to change its title to “Chapter One”, and check if the plot integrity is damaged. If you’ve answered both questions with a yes, then your prologue is doing a good job.’

Have you used a prologue in your current manuscript? Try applying Talmor’s litmus test and see if your prologue survives. Do you have some examples of good and poor uses of prologues in fiction? I’d be interested to hear your opinions.

Comments read 7 comments

Comments for this post have closed.