Despite the fact that prologues are a staple among fantasy writers, prologues are often rejected in queries because they tend to slow the pace to a halt. Here’s how to write a killer prologue without killing the pacing!
A writer posted in a FB group I’m in about how to edit a prologue they had written. Their friend is an artist who did beautiful artwork for the scenes depicted in the prologue, but the writer also was told to keep the prologue less than five pages, per the current trend. She was at a loss of how to achieve keeping all of her scene while also keeping it to five pages.
In my response I feel I had the makings for a wonderful article on prologues, so here we are. And here we go.
Per Penguin’s Reference Library’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (2013), a prologue is: The opening section of a work; a kind of introduction which is part of the work and not prefatory. It was common in drama in the 17th and 18th century, when it was often in prose. Occasionally found in novels. In plays the prologue is usually a chorus.
In most stories I’ve read the prologue is a scene that takes place either in the past or in the future of the main story’s timeline.
In the best instances a prologue can be a strong hook which keeps the reader reeled into the story. In the worst instances, it’s a boring mess that halts a reader’s interest entirely!
So, what makes the difference?
1) LIMITED Purpose.
Here’s the true “meat and potatoes” of the conversation: what are you trying to achieve with this prologue? Are you giving the audience a cliff hanger in the beginning of the manuscript to get them hooked? That, in reality, is really the only reason you should use a prologue. A prologue should be used as a HOOK for the reader to latch on to your story, there is basically no other reason to have one.
If you planned on using your prologue as an information dump: DON’T!
If you planned on using your prologue just to show how cool your main character is: DON’T!
If your prologue is just an exercise in how detailed you can describe things that don’t matter to your plot: DON’T!
These are cheap tricks that your audience will see through. You are not the first author that has tried to include a prologue of droning purple prose and waxing poetic about how misunderstood your character is, thousands of books start that way, and they’re all bad.
The prologue should be used to drive the plot, period. It’s a tool to get your reader hooked on the story, so make it dramatic and DEFINITELY have something happen that is FUNDAMENTAL to your story. It needs to be fundamental to both the plot of the story and, for extra credit, vital to your main character’s (or villian’s) wound.
2) The Stakes.
Following up with the need for drama, your story’s stakes are the entire reason your audience is here! They want DRAMA, but the specific flair of drama that comes from your genre, of course! Your prologue should be carving out at least a few of the stakes while also dropping minimal information. If your audience doesn’t catch at least a whiff of conflict, they won’t stay. We’re here for the fireworks. We’re here for the conflict!
Let’s look at some examples, specifically with fantasy:
Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World did start with a prologue called Dragonsmount (I have a newer copy now that added an additional scene called “Ravens” but the old one from the 90’s did not have this, it started with Dragonsmount).
Dragonmount is a scene depicting two characters: the villain Elan Morin, who claims he is reveling in his moniker “Betrayer of Hope” and Lews Therin, a powerful warrior mage now known as The Dragon. Lews Therin realizes he’s been possessed by madness and in that fugue state he killed off his lover and their family. The villain, Elan Morin, Betrayer of Hope, tells Lews that the madness which overtook him was a curse from the Dark Lord as retribution for Lews’s service to the light. Then Elan Morin begins to torture Lews with lightening magic. Lews essentially goes Super Saiyan, turning into a burning ball of fire and melting down the entire castle until only the mountain remained. Elan Morin, Betrayer of Hope, watches this and says that the Dragon cannot escape him for long, and that their time is still to come.
In this scene alone we get the villain, tastes of how the magic system works, a taste of the mythology, a dash of trauma and despair, and a heroic character promised to return. Now that’s a prologue, and arguably the MC of the first book ISN’T EVEN IN THIS SCENE.
Another beloved example would be the opener to the Harry Potter series. The first chapter in The Sorcerer’s Stone is called The Boy Who Lived, where three magical beings (McGonagall, Hagrid and Dumbledore) leave a baby boy on his aunt’s doorstep because she’s the only family he has left and a psychopathic wizard just killed his parents (and tried to kill him, too). The boy must stay in hiding, so that he may live. So that his parent’s sacrifice wasn’t for nothing.
In this scene we get: the villain’s impending danger, the protagonist, three major characters who play major roles throughout the entire story, the knowledge that Harry is famously known as “The Boy who Lived” to an entire group of people, the backstory of why the Dudley’s don’t see Harry as their own, and the promise of something more to come with this main character.
(We even get a shout out to Sirius Black on page 14 ((where Hagrid borrowed the motorcycle)), a character who doesn’t arrive until the third book and is fundamental to the story overall!)
By comparing these two prologues we can see what a prologue should deliver: relevant characters who will return later, major discussion of/outright showing the major conflict, trauma/drama/intrigue, and some small world building tidbits. This is the formula for your prologue. If the prologue is short of this in anyway, it’s not really an intriguing prologue, it’s a random scene in the beginning of your manuscript!
So, if you’re thinking about adding in a prologue, I implore you to ask yourself why, and to ensure you make it a powerful punch! Thank you for reading! I’m escaping to the beach for the weekend! I’ll be back Monday with more writing advice!