Romy's Blog

To prologue or not to prologue

This next post in my series on the rules often given to aspiring authors (and when they should be broken), looks at Prologues.

Aspiring authors are often told not to write prologues, and there are a couple of very good reasons for this 'rule':

  • Many readers admit to skipping prologues and not reading them

  • Many beginner writers use the prologue to share the character's life story - which is why readers skip them

"But what's wrong with sharing the character's life story?" you might ask. "How else are readers going to know everything that happened to my character before the book starts?"

The answer is that they don't want to know. Readers are only interested in this story, this moment in time when something life-changing happens to the character. Everything else is purely on a need-to-know basis. You, the author, needs to know it, and you share little bits of that story only as and when the reader needs to know it to understand what is happening with the character right now. This is known as 'drip feeding' the back story.

If your reader cannot understand the story without knowing what happened in the past, then you either have a problem with the way your story is written - or you need a prologue.

Arguably the most famous prologue of all time is Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels. The prologue gives the story of the hero's parents. It is so well written that before the reader even reaches Chapter One, they've already been moved to tears. But (and this is the important bit!) it is not essential to read the prologue in order to understand the rest of the book. Readers can skip the prologue and still enjoy the book - but if they do read it they'll get an added insight into the book itself - and be moved to tears.

It's tempting, since many readers admit to not reading prologues, to instead write your back story as Chapter One, but you need to bear in mind that readers will feel cheated if they get invested in the main character in the first chapter, only to discover in chapter two that he or she isn't the main character after all. Readers who feel cheated are readers who don't finish books, and that's something you want to avoid at all costs.

So when should you consider breaking the 'no prologue' rule?

  • When you have information to share which is linked to, but not directly involved in, the story you're telling,

  • When you have information to share which is not crucial for the understanding of the rest of the book,

  • When you have information to share which will add value for the reader who actually bothers to read it,

  • When the information you want to share is not simply a long recitation of everything that happened to your character in their life up to the point where the story starts (also known as the author's private notes which should never be shared with readers).

As a reader, what are your thoughts on prologues - do you read them or skip them? Have you read any prologues that were so brilliant they were almost better than the book itself?

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