Monday, May 27, 2013



One of my how-to writing books asks: Should I use a prologue in my novel? The author responds with an emphatic Don't!

Prologues often occur at a time before the main action. They explain some history important to the novel. They might take the form of a letter, a will, a newspaper article. Sometimes they are told as narrative, sometimes as a scene.  Prologues can also be a scene or bit of dramatic action that occurs later in the story. These prologues are like teasers. They make you want to read the book to get to that part. Occasionally a prologue is set after the conclusion of the novel, and then the entire novel is a flashback.

Why don't they always work? 

Most readers quickly forget what was in the prologue.

Or they skip it altogether. They want to get into the "real" story.

For a prologue to be successful, it must have at least a promise of conflict. It must be memorable. And short. And it cannot be critical that the reader remember everything that was in it. Because he probably won't.

A prologue packed with tension does not mean that chapter one can be slow and dull. When you write a prologue, you are really writing two opening scenes to your novel and each one must hook the reader with conflict.

My daughter devours long dense highly detailed fantasy novels. They almost always have prologues. Curious, I surveyed the shelves of children's books in my study. Among dozens of books, I found very few prologues. Four to be exact.

One of my favourite series for kids is the Charlie Bone fantasy series by Jenny Nimo. Each book starts with a prologue, explaining the backstory of the Red King. The prologues are written as narrative, some quite complicated,  and I skip them all. In my opinion, it would have been much better to weave that information into the stories, which are charming and fast paced.

A Hare in the Elephant's Trunk (Jan. L. Coates) and Greener Grass (Caroline Pignat) both contain prologues that take place later than the beginning of the novel. In A Hare in the Elephant's Trunk, the prologue is a scene when Jacob, a Sudanese boy, is in a refuge camp in Kenya in 1992; chapter one begins in 1987. In the prologue in Greener Grass, Kit Byrne remembers a happier time before the Great Famine in Ireland. Both these prologues are beautifully written and both fulfill that promise of conflict.

The prologue in Maggie de Vries' novel, Hunger Journeys, is a short scene, plucked out of the middle of the novel, when Lena and Sofie are hiding from the German soldiers. It's dramatic and makes you want to read the book.

So prologues do work but they must be done skilfully.

Some advice from James Smith in The Writer's Little Helper . . .

Perhaps the most common amateur problem in writing fiction is the tendency to rely too much on setup. Which is what a prologue most often is. Get on with the story.


No Ordinary Day by Deborah Ellis

Deborah Ellis is best known for her Breadwinner Trilogy which takes place in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  No Ordinary Day is the moving story of Valli, an Indian orphan who discovers she has leprosy. A bonus - royalties from the sales of the book will be donated to The Leprosy Mission.


What if . . .  you witnessed a crime? What did you see? Are you in danger? What will you do?



1 comment:

  1. Interesting - I actually love prologues when I'm reading, and I do wonder as I continue past the prologue at what point it enters the chronological story. I can't even remember now why or at what point I decided HARE had to start that way. But I've always been happy with it:)