To Prologue or Not to Prologue

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Carrie De Simas

© Rudy De Simas

Carrie De Simas

Editor in Chief @ GoneWithTheWord

A prologue is the portion of the book that comes before the actual story begins. But is this necessary? Will it hurt your chances at publication if you use one?

In publishing years past, the prologue made regular appearances in commercial fiction. Today, many publishers consider prologues to be a lazy style of writing. Is a prologue something a new writer can consider? Or should writers avoid them completely?

The benefits of a prologue is that it allows you to begin the story twice. Murder mysteries will often employ this type of opening so that the villain’s grisly work is displayed as an action scene instead of an exposition scene. This allows the writer to define the stakes and then start the book again with the hero.

The downside of a prologue is that the information contained therein is often backstory. Editors­­—and often readers—want these historical details to be woven through the body of the manuscript rather than presented in a lump at the beginning.

So what is an author to do? Basically, the answer is: whatever is needed to make your story the best it can be.

Take, for example, the International Bestseller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  This opens with a prologue that lasts more than a hundred pages. The talk amongst the industry folk went something like “it’s a fabulous book—if you can make it past the first hundred pages…”

Most agents and editors will tell you not to write a prologue, especially one like Larson’s that is so obviously an information dump. But Larson’s estate isn’t hurting because of his having done so. In the end, what matters is the story being told. If the story is good enough, a writer can get away with any kind of rule breaking.

On the other side of the prologue debate is the Artemis Fowl trilogy by Eoin Colfer which also begins with a  prologue that sets the tone of the book, provides a framework of understanding of the over-arching events and main character and introduces the narrator. All of this within a couple of tightly written pages. It sets the tension and suspense right from the start.

Kelley Armstrong is also famous for her prologues. Hers are short, tightly written and provide a taste of the conflict, tension and stakes. Basically, they hook the reader.

Each story must be told in the right way. Sometimes this requires a prologue. If there is any way to cut the prologue by weaving the information through the manuscript, then do it that way. If the prologue is the most effective way to tell the story, build tension, develop plot or character—then do it. Just do it well.

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