Prologue: the preface or introduction to a literary work
or an introductory or preceding event or development
“What’s past is prologue.”
William Shakespeare, The Tempest.
The first novel length book I ever wrote had no prologue. And then it did, mostly because I thought it would be interesting and maybe a little important to show the moment at which the antagonist created the world the book inhabits. I Loved (with a capital L) that prologue. It was clever. It set the creepy mood. It clarified events that occurred much later in the book. Sadly, I was alone in that perception.
Nevertheless, I thought it was a good idea. I’d read numerous books, thrillers especially, where the authors employed prologues to great effect. Most often, the prologue didn’t involve any of the main characters. The prologue was a mini story unto itself featuring different characters. These “prologue characters” are often like Star Trek’s “expendable crewmen” — the poor slobs you’ve never seen before who are forced to beam down with Kirk, Spock & crew, to serve as sacrificial lunch for the seven-headed humanoid-eating monsters. In most cases, the authors kill these folks off by the end of the prologue, while something bad happens that will lead to the rest of the story.
Those sorts of prologues work for me, so I thought, heck, why shouldn’t I write such a prologue? Of course, I featured the novel’s antagonist in the prologue, and thus didn’t kill him off.
As I began to polish my craft by attending conferences and writing classes, reading about writing, reading just to read, and of course, plain old writing, I discovered something that newbie writer’s don’t often realize. And there’s no nice way to say it.
Prologues are a writer’s crack cocaine.
Where should you start your story? The best advice I’ve read and received over and over is to start your story when everything changes. It’s at that moment when the action begins.
Would you have been immediately riveted by the Hunger Games had Suzanne Collins began the novel with the formation of Panem and the Districts? Last I checked, people cared deeply about Katniss, Gale, and Peeta. We were horrified when Katniss’s younger sister, Prim was selected for the games. And we were impressed with and immediately worried for Katniss when she assumed Prim’s place. We recognized Katniss’s heroism right then and there, and it only built. Along the way, we also discovered that Peeta, who would join her on the train to the Capital, was clearly a good person who a few years earlier likely saved a starving Katniss’s life by giving her bread at great personal cost. What would showing the creation of that dystopian society have done for your attachment to these characters? For me – nothing.
Should you start your novel with back story? This should be pretty obvious. First, if you’re going to begin with the event that changes everything, then no, don’t start with back story. But let’s say you don’t wish to begin your novel with the change, for whatever reason. You should still never start your novel with back story. Your readers aren’t spending their time reveling in your characters’ past. Picking up a new book and reading it is, for your reader, a “what have you done for me lately?” business. We care about what is going to happen, not what has happened. We want to experience everything, not be told about it.
What is a prologue if it isn’t back story?
Chapter one of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone) begins in the aftermath of the murder of Harry’s parents, when Hagrid brings baby Harry to his Aunt and Uncle. Would you have been as interested if the book began with the story of his parents’ betrayal by Peter Pettigrew, as relayed in The Prisoner of Azkaban? Think about this a moment. It’s an engaging bit of back story, especially as relayed by Sirius Black and as “seen” by Harry in later books. One of the wonderful things about the series is that we are first drawn into Harry’s life. We care about him. JK Rowling gradually shows us the back story over the course of the seven novels, and as a result, you feel Harry’s anger and feelings of betrayal. Sirius Black’s rage and frustration leaps off the page when he’s prevented from slaughtering Peter Pettigrew when he has the chance.
Prologues are addictive. For the author. They are a too-easy way of escaping the challenge of writing something better. They almost guarantee that you’re leading with back story and that you’re not focusing the reader on the real story you wanted to tell. The guy who starts every conversation with, “Remember that time…” gets tedious real quick. So as I go back and think about the novels I’ve read where I liked the prologues, I’ve begun to wonder if I’d have been just as engaged by the story without the chapter before chapter one.
Oh, and the Shakespeare quote simply means that history tends to repeat itself. I could easily twist it around to serve my purpose here, but I’ll leave it to your imagination.