In defence of prologues

CP1N5OQW8AAIQO9These days when I’m teaching (as I was this weekend at the Get Writing conference, hi! Just look how tired I am in this picture. 9am starts are not my friend.) I usually ask people if they’ve heard some rumours about prologues. Yes, they say. We’ve heard they are bad, awful, unnecessary. We’ve heard that a prologue will make an agent hurl your book across the room with great force (or delete it with such vigour their computer keys snap right off). Don’t even mention the word prologue, in fact, unless you want to be shunned from the novel-writing community forever and sent to hang out with the poets or something.

I don’t know where this bit of writing lore came from. I imagine it’s part of the panicked pseudo-knowledge new writers swap among themselves, imagining that publishing is ruled by arcane rites and rituals. I used to think exactly the same. But I’m here to tell you it isn’t true. And a quick glance at page 1 of most current bestsellers will disprove this ‘no prologue’ rule. They are everywhere. So why not use one? They’re great!

Here are just a few good reasons to use a prologue.

  • An exciting prologue can buy you about three chapters of low-tension stuff – great if you want to establish what ‘normal’ is before the story intrudes
  • It lets you use a different voice, viewpoint, setting, tense, or time, if this is something you don’t want to do all the way through the book
  • A flash-forward prologue is the promise of exciting things to come
  • It sets the tone and mood of the book as something thrilling and gripping
  • It lets you do fun things with framing, narrative stance, and foreshadowing
  • It means that, in these days of instant gratification, low attention span, and Kindle samples, you can grab the reader right away

So is it OK to use a prologue? Of course it is. Sure, it’s a cheat and a trick and a cheap little illusion, but that’s all writing really is. Even film and TV is now using pre-credit flashforward or flashback scenes. Why? Because it works. You’ll also find that in many cases, what is marked ‘chapter one’ is actually a prologue, which shows just how ludicrous the whole ‘no prologues’ rumour is.

Sometimes, if your first chapter is very gripping in itself, you won’t need a prologue. But including one certainly doesn’t mean that an agent won’t look at your work. And don’t think prologues are only for crime fiction either. They can work in any kind of book. Just be sure to actually fulfil the promise of the prologue, as readers will be putting a mental pin in it and waiting for you to pony up the goods you offered.

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