iLesson: The Perils of the Prologue


One of my favorite Shakespeare lines comes from the prologue of Henry V.

O for a muse of fire, to ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

But let’s face it. We’re not all Shakespeare.

Recently I read a book that I really enjoyed, but I almost didn’t make it past the (to me) problematic prologue. I’m glad I kept reading, because I thought the book was great. But by showing the MC’s backstory stupid mistake before I’d had a chance to get to know and like her was a big risk, especially when (in my humble opinion) it could have been easily covered in the main story.

It’s always tough getting the start of a book just right, but prologues in particular can be tricky, not least because there are readers who have been burned so often, they’ll put down the book at the “P” word.

Potential Pitfalls of the Prologue

  1. It is always unnecessary. (Or it would be called “Chapter One” instead of “Prologue.”)
  2. It delays the start of the real story with backstory that may be better revealed in the story.
  3. One person’s ‘teaser’ is another person’s spoiler.
  4. An exciting prologue does not excuse a boring chapter one.
  5. Cliches proliferate in prologues. (See: Death in the Prologue: main characters dies, almost dies, thinks she’s about to die, or hovers near death. See also: Car Accident Where Everyone Died But Me)*

Unnecessary, however, doesn’t mean worthless. The prologue is the sesame seeds on the hamburger bun of your story. Your burger should be well made, and the top-bun of your chapter one should be golden and toasty enough to stand on its own. But a sprinkle of sesame seeds can add a little texture and make the dish look inviting and tasty.

Here are some suggestions to keep your prologue tasty and not tacky:

  1. Make it earn it’s keep. It should reveal the character, set the tone, initiate the theme of the novel.
  2. Introduce people and things that are going to be vital to the story.
  3. Avoid cliches or give them a twist.
  4. Raise questions, not confusion. (Conversely, don’t give away all the answers, either.)
  5. Keep it short!

To prologue or not to prologue comes down to what works for each book. The first pages of your book, whatever the heading, should make the reader want to dive into the story! How you accomplish that is up to you.

*I’m not picking on any particular book or writer, just pointing out the trend. To tell a story on myself, The Splendor Falls originally started with the line “I died twice that year,” and Sylvie was going to break her leg in a car accident. Even after the change, I still have Death In the Prologue–the figurative death of her breaking her leg, the end of her dancing life. So, you know… guilty as anyone.

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