Beginning writers love prologues. My first novel had one. I’ll bet yours does too.
And why not? Prologues are the quickest way to set the scene and establish the mood and tone of your novel. They allow us to snuggle into a fictional world and get comfy before the action takes over, like listening to the overture of a symphony. We’ve read lots of good novels with prologues.
Although maybe we kind of skimmed them. Or skipped them. At least until after we got into the story. Or never read them at all. A recent poll of my writers’ group found only one person who actually reads the prologue first. What about you? Be honest.
Here are some reasons why prologues aren’t such a great idea.
1) People skip them. (See above.)
2) The reader has to start the story twice. Just as she’s getting into the story, she’s hurled to another time or place, often with a whole new set of characters. This is annoying. Annoy a reader at your peril.
3) When an agent asks for the first chapter, you’ve got a major dilemma. Send the actual chapter one—where the plot starts—or that gorgeous, poetic prologue?
4) Agents hates them, Precious, they HATES them. Here are some recent tweets on the subject:
From Colleen Lindsay:
“In pages that accompany queries, I have only once found an attached prologue to be necessary to the story.”
From Jenny Bent:
“At least 50% of prologues that I see in sample material don't work and aren't necessary. Make sure there's a real reason to use one.”
From Ginger Clark:
“Prologues: I am, personally, not a fan. I think they either give away too much, or ramp up tension in a kind of "cheating" manner.”
And in an article for Writer’s Digest earlier this year, Chuck Sambuchino quoted two agents who gave their opinions even more bluntly.
From Andrea Brown:
“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
From Laurie McLean:
“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give backstory chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”
Even the usually ultra-tactful Nathan Bransford blogged this:
“A prologue is 3-5 pages of introductory material that is written while the author is procrastinating from writing a more difficult section of the book.”
“But I spent like, months on it!” you wail. “It explains everything. My book NEEDS that prologue.
Does it really? Try removing it. Read chapter one. Does it make sense? Could you dribble in that backstory from the prologue into the story later—while the actual plot is going on?
Here’s what I’ve finally figured out. The prologue isn’t the overture: it’s the tuning-up—a warm-up for the WRITER. Like a character sketch, it belongs in your book journal—not the finished project.
So go ahead and write one to get your writing juices flowing. Use it to get to know your book’s basic elements. It can be mined later for character sketches, backstory and world building.
But EDIT IT OUT of the final draft.
Yes, I know it hurts. But you want agents and editors to fall in love with your work. So why—as Miss Snark was wont to say—shoot yourself in the font?
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Cutting out the prologue will make your novel stronger, too.
And it might just get you some literary representation.