I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard or read, “Publishers don’t like prologues!” “Don’t use prologues!” I just got the final edits from the publisher for my soon-to-be-released novel, Dangerous Turf, which has a 160-word prologue, action that takes place three years before the novel opens.
The editor’s note said, “WOW! What a great hook. If I picked this up in a bookstore and read this page, I would buy it on the spot because I couldn’t stand not to know what happens. Extremely well done.”
(Read the prologue here.)
Good thing I ignored the advice of a local critique group, huh?
So what’s the deal with prologues? Should a writer use them or not? Like so many things in writing, the answer is, “It depends.” It’s better to ask when not to use a prologue.
- Don’t use a prologue to dump a huge amount of back story on the reader. This is the most common use of the prologue, and it’s deadly. Back story is like a steak. It needs to be cut into small pieces that are eaten separately from one another. In other words, slice and dice only the essential parts of your back story and sprinkle them throughout the book.
When you meet new people, do you want them to tell you everything they’ve ever done up to this point in their lives? No. You want them to tell you what they’re up to now. Hopefully, it will be interesting enough for you to want to know more about them. It’s the same with your novel’s characters. Give the reader something interesting about them, especially if it’s your protagonist, which will make the reader want to know more.
- Don’t use a prologue that really should be chapter one. If the material in the prologue can be easily inserted somewhere else, the prologue is unnecessary.
So when do you use a prologue, if at all? A Writers Digest article on prologues says, “A prologue is used when material that you want to include in the opening is out of time sequence with the rest of the story.” Bingo. That’s what I’ve done with my prologue in Dangerous Turf. My killer has a history of doing exactly what he will be doing in the book, and I wanted to bring that out. I refer to it again later on as the protagonist and her detective buddy are starting to close in on the killer.
What I’m saying is that there are few hard and fast rules in fiction writing. Some “rules” are just urban myths that get passed from one writer/editor/critic to another. Every writer has to decide for herself which is which. If a prologue works for you, makes your book better and hooks the reader, use it.