Prologue, to write or not to write

Prologues are a controversial subject in the writing world. There are those who say NO PROLOGUES, and others who say, I need it. What makes a good prologue?

What is a prologue

It is a short – or long –  passage that happens before the story starts. It can be something like the Star Wars opening crawl, which sets you in the world of the story, or it can be something in the past that kicks off the story.

The fantasy genre is fond of the world building prologue and that’s the one that gets us in trouble.

A good prologue

Despite the people who say that prologues are all bad, I think there are times when it works.

It works when it’s short. The Star Wars crawl for A New Hope is 1% of the running time. If your reader is flipping past the prologue, it’s too long.

It works when action happens in the prologue. If yours sounds like it’s being read by a professor, it might just be unnecessary. I recently read a prologue by a new writer who asked for advice. He had action in the prologue, a horrific turning point in the main character’s life. It worked.

What doesn’t work?

The advice I give to writers is if the reader doesn’t need the information, then you don’t need the prologue. To a reader, I always want to know, what makes you read the prologue? Is there a reason you need to know what happened a hundred years ago?

When putting a preface to a story, I often thing the author is not sure the reader will be able to follow the story. It’s an easy way of laying out the background of the story so you can get on with telling the story. The detractors will tell you to just get on with the story.

So my best advice to writers is to be cautious about the desire to give the reader something before the story starts. If your prologue is really needed, ask yourself if it’s really Chapter 1.