Prologues—The Kiss of Death?

This article was originally published in The Writer’s Everything, Issue #002.

Exciting prologues can be a powerful tool.

There is a sort of stigma in the writing community, especially in certain circles, when it comes to prologues. We can postulate that the premise of this pre-plot problem is, put simply, that prologues are a bait-and-switch.

Most writers agree that a novel must begin with a “hook,” something that hooks the reader’s attention and makes them want to read more. The issue comes when the beginning of your novel is, simply put, not that interesting.

To solve that issue, many writers begin their novels with a prologue, something fast-paced and exciting, to serve as the hook of the novel. However, many readers believe that this is a bit of a cheat. They think that you’re using characters and settings and time periods that may potentially never appear again to convince your reader to keep turning pages past your boring first chapter.

So the question is, are prologues truly as malevolent as some writers feel they are? Are they the kiss of death on your story?

The Power of Prologues

Like with any other suggestion, there are nuggets of wisdom found in the suggestion to avoid prologues. You do, in fact, run the risk of disappointing your readers.

What if the characters that you are following are more interesting than your main characters? In that case, your reader will be disappointed when the switch is made.

What if the characters that you are following are less interesting than your main characters? In that case, then your reader will probably be rather disappointed in the prologue anyway.

The same can be said for plot and setting. And thus, you can see the conundrum we as writers have in this regard. But I don’t think we as writers should shy away from including prologues. Prologues can, and I believe must, serve one of two purposes if we are to include them in the opening of our stories.

Setting The Tone

Picture yourself in a large theater. There’s a soda in your left hand, a bag of popcorn in your right, and above you, the lights are rapidly dimming. The musical score of the film you’re there to watch reaches a crescendo, we pan down. There’s a planet. We zoom in. The main character is with his uncle, who is walking around a pawn shop, looking through their collection of droids.

He reminds his uncle that the droid they select needs to speak Bocce. His uncle selects the appropriate droids and tells him to clean them up. He wines that he was going to go to the store to buy power converters.

Is this an interesting scene? No, not in the slightest. Yet it’s still necessary for establishing Tatooine as a setting, and Luke as a character who is going to develop in a clear arc throughout the rest of the story.

So how do you hook your viewers (readers), if the essential establishing scenes are so bland and ordinary, as they often are?

You include a prologue that sets the tone for the rest of the story. Instead of going straight to the planet, open with a tiny spaceship being pummeled by an immense Star Destroyer. Have a shootout, then have a looming dark, evil knight walk through the destruction.

Does this scene provide us with our main character? No. Does this scene provide us with our setting? No. Would the story still have been comprehensible without this prologue?

I’d argue that it would. Our knowledge of events would be stripped down, becoming equal to that of both Luke and Han, and thus, we would still learn everything as they learn it.

So what is the purpose of this opening? Simply put, it’s to set the tone. It helps us to see that this is going to be an epic space adventure, that it’s going to be a story of good versus evil, of the weak opposing the strong, and that there’s going to be a lot of exciting action scenes in the story.

If this story did not take place in space, if it did not feature good versus evil, if there wasn’t a single dogfight or laser-gun fight in the film, then the prologue of (you guessed it) Star Wars: A New Hope would have been that dreaded bait-and-switch of which we referred to earlier.

Simply put, though, there are few, if not none at all, who would have a problem with this prologue the way it was in the movie. It hooked us with a promise of what we could expect in that film, and then it made good on that promise.

Providing Backstory

You go back to that same theater the next week. Last week’s film got you really pumped up. You’re looking forward to this next epic movie. The lights dim yet again, and the logo crosses the screen, accompanied by the soft ringing of the string section of the orchestra.

Then the strange, short characters appear on the screen, drinking ale and lallygagging around. They’re shushed, and a short, old man walks up onto the podium in front of them and gives a little speech about turning one hundred and eleven years old.

Is this an interesting scene? It has the potential to be, but it’s not inherently interesting on its own.

After all, we don’t know who these characters are. We don’t know why they are the focus of this story, and we have no idea what the main conflict of the plot will be. So how do you make sure that the viewers (readers) know what’s going on, know what’s at stake, and are ready to be fully immersed in this second world?

You include a prologue that establishes the concept of this world, the struggles that the characters may be confronted with, and even background information about the characters themselves.

This is nowhere as necessary as it is in the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Of course, prologues that are nothing but pure exposition dumps can be weak and undesirable in themselves. At times, writers may choose to circumvent this issue by creating a main character who serves the function of the curious audience. However, that has the potential to be just as clunky. Not every story can have a character who is so purely ignorant of the goings-on of their world without the occasional narrative hiccup.

But a prologue done well can serve to give us the backstory and information that we need to be able to comprehend what is going on in the story, so that we can watch the film (read the book) unhindered by a lack of knowledge.

Once again, if the story of (you guessed it) The Lord of the Rings did not revolve around elves, dwarves, and humans opposing a dark lord, if the main characters weren’t hobbits, and if their characteristics were not essential to the advancement of the plot, then its opening prologues would have been bait-and-switch.

But how many people did not enjoy the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring? How many people thought it was false advertisement? Conversely, how many people would have had no idea what was going on if they were not offered the backstory to Middle-Earth, its various races, its oppressive villain, and the hobbits themselves?

There are plenty of ways to write poorly executed prologues. However, rather than vilifying prologues outright, I believe that our focus should be on identifying when they may be necessary, and what the elements of a great prologue are, so that if a prologue would be beneficial to our story, we do it the greatest justice possible.

No, prologues aren’t the kiss of death. Rather, like every other aspect of writing, they require training and finesse. So go write yourself a prologue. Find out how it affects the opening of your story. And don’t be afraid to go against the grain.

The Writer’s Everything

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