Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why I Hate Prologues

Yup. That's right. I'm a prologue hater.


A multitude of reasons. But mainly: because they are HARD to do well.

I'd say 99% of the submissions I receive with a prologue don't need it. Most of the time they read (to me) like: look at me! I can write an AMAZING scene - oh, but...sorry, you have to read 100 more pages to get to it.


What a prologue should NOT be:
-background information
-from a POV other than the main character
-a false start
-an attention grabber

What a prologue SHOULD be:
-an introduction - which means the story will CONTINUE FROM THAT POINT, not 30 years later
-A preliminary act that sets the ACTION of the novel into play - NOT the action itself displaced into the first three pages
-A method to call attention to an important THEME

In ancient times, a prologue was used to describe events that took place prior to the opening scene. They could be supplementary to the text. And if you're writing the next Canterbury Tales, by all means; ancient prologue away.

But if your style is grounded by more modern methods - nix the prologue, please.


  1. I agree. The prologue (if there MUST be one)should be an introduction to chapter one...

    I tend to skip them if they are long drawn out backstories.

  2. I didn't mind them so much at first, but I do agree that it does tend to bee the same after a while so I would skip it.

    I do have a question though, let's say a WIP hits all of the things the prologue SHOULD be, but also hit one of the things it shouldn't. For example, a pov from another character :) Would it still be a horrible thing that must be deleted immediately?

  3. I started reading a book today and groaned when I saw it had a prologue. I'm not a fan either.

  4. For all that will read this and say but...but...what if mine's...:

    Think about what you're REALLY trying to accomplish with it. Don't psych yourself into thinking it meets all the SHOULD requirements; take an honest look at it. Don't be afraid to cut it. You can always bring it back *shudders* (I never got into the whole zombie thing, so...)

    Sorry to use you as an example, Jenn, but I'm wondering just WHY in the world you would NEED any POV besides your main character in the first place - WHY do you need that prologue? That sounds like a false start to me; sets up wrong expectations on voice.

  5. I like that you told me why I don't need one. Usually I just hear, I hate prologues.

  6. No problem at all! I've been debating this a lot over the past few weeks and was so glad when I saw your post. :)

    To just go over my plot briefly, it's about a con artist and the beginning starts off right at one of her heists. But I envisioned it from her victim's POV for chapter 1. The rest of the novel continues on in her POV after that heist. It could easily be changed to her POV though.

    Thanks for this post!

  7. I agree, most can be cut. But, I did just read a prologue by the lovely Libba Bray written from a different POV. I though she did a really good job using it to create tension for the main character.

  8. Many prologues that I read by unpublished or first-time authors are just intentionally cryptic, trying to draw readers in but really alienating them. They usually aren't as intriguing as you think they are!

  9. I'm 100% with you! I hate prologues. Epilogues though.... I like them.

  10. I'm not a fan of prologues. One of the books I'm reading right now, which falls under what prologues should do, sounds more like chapter one and would have worked just fine as such. In a different book I'm reading, it's from a different character and reads like an adult epic fantasy but the book is middle grade. Doesn't work for me.

    I remember prologues in the epic fantasy novels I read in high school and I didn't mind those. But for the most part, and in my writing, I prefer to avoid prologues.

  11. And it makes sense that about 99% of the time, if I see them in a manuscript I'm critiquing, I cross out the entire prologue and side note that it's unnecessary. I like it when books start with the goods. I know what to expect, and I'm not given something totally out of left field (or even just flat out boring) before I get there.

    I think people see the published ones and they think it's all right. Regardless of how many agents advise not to do them, many writers love the Exception to the Rule idea.

    Kristin Cashore, talented though she is, wrote a prologue in the book FIRE that just completely threw me off. I read it thinking, "Oh, this is interesting. I was under the assumption the MC was a girl...?" Yeah, for some reason Prologue Main Character was a boy. Prologue Main Character had nothing to do with Rest of the Story Main Character for about 75% of the book. I saw why Cashore must have thought adding it set up the rest of the novel. But for me, I just kept thinking, "So when am I going to find out what the heck that prologue was about?" It was very baffling.

    So I am a total prologue hater, too.

  12. From a readers perspective I have to agree with you here. I primarily read fantasy stories and it never seems to fail that a fantasy story will have a prologue that is cryptic, confusing and generally pointless (Yes Robert Jordan, I'm looking at YOU!)
    I wish more authors would take them out and just get on with the story they want to tell in chapter 1.


  13. Nabokov's Lolita: in that special 1 percent of novels with essential prologues. Ironically, most students assigned this book skip the prologue, assuming it's just boring editorial matter.

  14. The prologue conversation always fascinates me. It seems like agents universally hate prologues, yet they keep showing up in books--esp PR and UF. Does that mean editors like them?

    Prologues don't really bother me...UNLESS they're a scene from 3/4 of the way into the book masquerading as a prologue. Those I find silly.

    Example of a prologue that worked well for me in recent years: the one in The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong (based on your criteria, Natalie, you wouldn't like it, because it takes place several years before the rest of the book).

  15. I wrote a prologue in my own book. After letting some (brutally) honest people read the first draft, I cut it out entirely. It requires SOOOOOOO much more work than just that (it's my first attempt, after all), but at least that's one more thing I know NOT to do.

  16. The prologues that bug me the most are the ones that start the book off making the reader feel confused. This is the kind I see the most when I've critiqued other writer's work.

    Although I did read a book recently that I actually enjoyed the prologue. The Gardener by S.A. Bodeen. But even though I enjoyed it, I think all that info could've been worked in to the first few chapters without slowing it down. So again, probably not necessary, even if it was exciting.

  17. I hate prologues but especially the ones that give away the plot. You know what's coming and there is no real surprise at all.

    Might as well skip to the last page, read it, and move on.

  18. I wrote a prologue once. I was advised to cut it. I fought to keep it. Then I understood why I shouldn't. That was last prologue I ever wrote.

    Thanks for your opinion. I like your prologue guidelines. I agree that most prologues could be cut, and I'd say the same goes for epilogues. I mean, just add it to the story right? Why disconnect that piece of information from the rest?

  19. I liked the prologue in Jon Mayhew's recent MG novel Mortlock, even though it breaks all your rules.

    Overall, sometimes I like them, often I don't, but it does seem odd that despite my hearing everywhere how publishing people don't like them, so many novels I read lately have them.

  20. Natalie, would you share some examples of a good prologue in modern lit? Can't say I've seen one that I liked since Star Wars!

    p.s. Love the Alice in Wonderland border on your blog!
    p.p.s. I'm hosting an author introductions showcase on my blog this week and next week, in honor of a book donation to This weekend's EMHE build episode.

  21. When I was writing romance, it seemed prologues were almost a "must have." But that was back in the 90s. I did them because everyone else did them. But now that I'm older and wiser (and have read quite a few blogs from agents and editors criticizing them), I see them in novels and instantly see why they aren't necessary.

    Love the Alice in Wonderland addition!

  22. Just think if C.S. Lewis's 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe' had started with a prologue. We would have missed the mystery.

  23. I have to say I agree. If your story REALLY needs a prologue, ask yourself, "Does it REALLY REALLY need a prologue, or do I just want it to need a prologue?"

    I'd say chances are if you started writing the book with the prologue, the prologue is for your use only. Try to weave that backstory into the forward motion of the actual story.

    If you added the prologue after the book was written because it HAD to be there, it's possible, but sleep on it. Personally I end up scrapping and/or completely rewriting about the first 3-6 chapters anyway.

    As for epilogues, if the writer is still with us, I feel cheated of a sequel. But for classics, better than nothing if the characters were never revisited.


  24. I get that you don't like prologues, but off the top of my head...

    Garth Nix's Mr. Monday
    John Flannagan's first Ranger's Apprentice
    Obert Skye's first Leven Thumps
    The first Harry Potter

    and those are just the ones off the top of my head that have a prologue with a different POV.

    Yes, many writers don't do them well--just as many don't write rhyming PBs well. But to say you hate them seems a bit much. Doesn't it make it easier to filter out the books you don't like?

  25. Hi Anon,

    To me, it boils down to this: yes, there are many successful books with prologues, but a submission in the slush I have ZERO patience for. And as they ARE so difficult to do well, why would anyone want to make it easy for me to say no?

    I'd never ask an author to nix something just because; I have a client with a prologue right now, in fact, that I love. So while I could say that I "strongly dislike" them, if saying that I HATE prologues makes people take a good, hard look at their own: I HATE PROLOGUES!

    I don't have to be right; I spoke with an agent recently who passed on Across the Universe, and stands by it - just like I stand by my assessment of prologues, even if you have dozens of examples to prove me wrong. If your book really needs that prologue, and I'm not connecting with it - well then I'm not the best agent for it, am I? ;)

  26. I don't care for prologues either. I used to write them and then I realized it hindered my writing and I was often starting way before the actual action of the story. I think they can be used in some cases, but not many. Just start at chapter one :)

  27. I enjoy a good prologue as long as they are fairly short, to the point and include action. I think they are a necessity for fantasy or sci-fi books. I don’t mind the going back in time, jut as long as it relates to the story we’ll be reading about in the next 300 pages and not just some offhand inclusion that is more showy than useful.

    I’ve actually read some prologues that I enjoyed immensely and kept just to return to that beautiful scene again and again. Truly, no lies. The books remain on my keeper shelf.

  28. I so agree!
    My critique group buddy kept holding onto her prologue. Now she's finally let it go, and the book is WORLDS better. Writing a prologue is not a bad exercise. But then cut it!

  29. I agree that many of us who think our prologues meet your 'should' requirements are mistaken. Would you consider hosting a 'worst prologue' contest similar to the query contest to help us see our openings in an objective light?

  30. Haha! I hate these as a reader. Posters here are right; it can be hard to tell other writers agents don't typically like or have time for them.

  31. Good and another post from you admin :)