Many agents, editors and readers hate prologues. In truth, they can be done well, but most prologues fail because they accomplish nothing a first chapter should and everything it shouldn’t. Being named something other than Chapter One does not absolve prologues of being the first impression of your novel; it still needs to be a good opener. Yet, most prologues fall somewhere on the scale of unnecessary, to downright boring.
Writers like writing prologues, but that doesn’t mean they should stay in a novel. Here are six kinds of prologues I’m tired of reading.
1. The undead darling
This kind of prologue is one that adds nothing to the story, but the writer is so proud of it that they can’t bear to kill it. It could be a beautifully written scene or rare insight into the antagonist’s mind, but if the only reason it’s there is because the writer likes it, then it’s a darling.
If it doesn’t contribute to the story in any way, it shouldn’t be there, no matter how good the writing is. Every scene should follow this rule. The prologue is no exception. If you have one of these, cut it from the manuscript and keep it somewhere else. Rework it to serve another story. Keep it as fan fiction. Frame it and hang it above your wall. Just don’t keep it in your manuscript.
This is the prologue written solely to create a specific atmosphere and put the reader in a particular mood. It makes very little sense to start a story this way, not only because mood and atmosphere development shouldn’t be their own scenes, but because a story doesn’t have the same mood or atmosphere in every scene anyway and you’ll need to reestablish these things throughout the story. Further, if you need to dedicate an entire scene to building up the mood or atmosphere, then it’s the wrong one for the story. These things shouldn’t be forced on the reader, but be established through the context and subtext of the story.
3. The barbless hook
These are the scenes that are written just to excite the reader as a taste of what’s to come, often in the form of an epic battle or other such action scene. The problem with this type of prologue is that there isn’t anything to keep the reader invested. It might hook them into this scene, but there are no barbs to keep them on that hook and navigate them through the rest of the story. However you start your story, you need to keep the reader invested enough to read beyond the beginning.
4. The climax
You know what this one is. It’s when the first thing you read is a snippet of the climax, and what follows is basically a flashback until you get caught up.
The reader doesn’t know or care about your protagonist at this point. They haven’t been compelled to see the central conflict resolved by the tension created from the beginning of the story. Flashing a climax in front of them isn’t going to get them interested. Also, it spoils the story because they know where the protagonist is going to end up.
5. The encyclopedia entry/ history lesson
One of the most prominent forms of prologue is the encyclopedia entry or history lesson, in which the writer dumps a ton of information about the world in which the story is set on the reader before the story starts because the writer thinks the reader has no hope of understanding anything without this information.
If readers wanted to read this sort of stuff, they’d read textbooks. When a reader picks up a work of fiction, they’re expecting to be told a story with characters and dialogue and conflict. Info dumps are boring. There’s almost no reason world-building can’t be done in the context of the story, i.e. by writing about the protagonist and the environment he/she lives in and things he/she is doing. Did we need a prologue in The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) to explain the 74 years prior to the beginning of the story that ultimately led to the Hunger Games? No, because Katniss and other characters explore the topic throughout the events leading up to her participation in the Games. If a piece of information can’t be revealed to the reader through the context of the story, it’s probably not that important.
6. The chapter one
This is when the prologue could literally be renamed “Chapter One” and the sky wouldn’t fall down because it’s a scene that’s directly related to the story and isn’t separated in any way. Even if it occurs two weeks before the rest of the events, it isn’t a prologue. It’s the beginning of the story and shouldn’t be separated.
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