A lot of those know-it-alls out there who give advice to writers on the craft — you know, the ones who don’t actually write novels, but instead just write articles for writing magazines or maybe books about how to write novels — they often say you shouldn’t use a prologue. It cheats your readers.
I agree. Well, most of the time.
That’s why I had decided there was NO WAY I was going to force my readers to suffer through some prologue before they got into my story.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you resolve not to do something that you end up having to do that very thing? It’s that whole never-say-never thing.
When I started thinking my novel genuinely needed a prologue to help make sense of the story, I was dismayed.
I wondered, is it because I lack creativity? Talent? Why am I not able to get this story to work without using a blasted prologue?
Finally, I began to wonder if there were any exceptions to the Rule of Prologue Use. (Yes, I just made that up.)
Turns out, old Mr. Google yielded quite a few results. The first item, aptly entitled “The Prologue – When to Use One, How to Write One,” had some good information about what a prologue should accomplish:
A prologue should reveal significant facts that contribute to our understanding of the plot. It should be vivid and entertaining in its own right (who wants to read a boring prologue, no matter how much of the background it explains?) It should make us want to read on.”
Author Kristen Lamb has a helpful piece called “7 Deadly Sins of Prologues” on her blog. It’s worth reading, because it explains the reasons you shouldn’t prologue, and then provides a few reasons why you should prologue. I won’t give everything in her article away here, but I will put my own spin on a few of the no-nos.
- Do not use a prologue as a way of dumping a massive amount of information on your reader.
- Do not use a prologue if it doesn’t directly tie in to the main story. How can you tell if it does or doesn’t? If you can remove the prologue and the story still makes sense, then the prologue does not belong.
- Do not just copy a scene verbatim from later in the book and call it a prologue. That’s lame. There can be good reasons for using action that takes place later in the book in a prologue, but you shouldn’t use the same passage word-for-word. Choose a different angle on that later event, and make sure you have a really good reason for doing this.
In my view, all of the reasons not to prologue can be summed up thusly: A prologue should also not be used to convey information that could just as easily be worked into the novel elsewhere, or that would function adequately as Chapter 1.
In the case of my novel, The Smuggler’s Gambit, my copy editor helped me make a decision about what I should ultimately do. He has had a lot of experience working with novels, both traditionally published and indie, so I felt confident that he was giving me sound advice.
Since The Smuggler’s Gambit is the first novel in a series, it necessarily spends a lot of time early on introducing characters, the relationships between them, and circumstances that will impact the series as a whole. It does not, on its own, start with a whiz-bang moment right off the bat. It was suggested to me that I use a portion of a scene from a critical event later in the book—when the hero, Adam, gets marooned on an island by two hired thugs—and let that be the prologue. That way, when Chapter One begins with Adam leaving for a party—and all seems well with the world—the reader will be wondering, “Wait, I want to know how this Adam guy ends up getting kidnapped those goons, and why?”
I should mention that even though I am using a scene from later in the book as my prologue, I am not using that exact same scene verbatim later in the book.
Are you using a prologue in your book? Why, or why not? I’d love to read your comments below.