Prologues: Why not just Chapter 1?
All right, so everyone on Twitter’s been talking about whether authors should include prologues at the beginning of their stories. Because I can’t resist talking more than 280 characters about certain subjects, I thought it apt for the Book Builder’s Blog to tackle the prologue question!
First, let’s consider some of the reasons publishers, agents, and readers might avoid a prologue.
Lacks the main character, only sets up setting. I’m looking at you, Wheel of Time (though of course, avid readers of that series know it’s a much more important scene than it originally appears). Not all prologues do this, but many do, and readers might make an assumption about a prologue and just skip it.
Tells a story that doesn’t impact the rest of the book. In some instances, they trick readers into thinking the story is about one thing, then redirecting them toward something else entirely. Remember, you’re trying to hook readers (whether consumers or agents) at the beginning of your story!
Too lengthy, given its lack of payoff. Remember, especially for debut authors, every page increases your risk to a publisher. Cutting a prologue may reduce your word count by 3 to 5,000 words, which may in turn decrease the cost of printing your novel. And if a reader does start with your prologue, yet knows that it won’t connect to Chapter 1, they may just put your book down before they get to your true hook.
So we’ve considered a few potential reasons why prologues might turn some people off. Now let’s consider why a prologue might be a good thing!
Introduces characters relevant later in the story that readers should know immediately. If you’re writing a multi-layered plot that builds over the course of the tale, yet you want your readers to know of a character right from the start, a prologue might be for you. But it needs to be short!
Establishes the true conflict of Good vs. Evil. This is particularly true in Epic Fantasy. I’m thinking about the Prologue to Game of Thrones; it sets the true tone for the entire novel and series, and continuously illustrates why everyone south of the Wall is fighting silly war games.
Communicates information that your character doesn’t know. Think about the first few pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. it immediately establishes that Harry is “special” in a way most other boys aren’t, introduces three integral “parental” figures into Harry’s life, and it shows readers that this world isn’t normal! All things Harry doesn’t know when he wakes up in his first chapter as a ten-year old.
There are plenty of other reasons why you might include a prologue (or not), but those are just a few. Now I’m going to inject my own thoughts on the matter into the conversation.
I used to love writing prologues. I adored the idea of throwing a wonderful piece of worldbuilding into the story to draw people into the setting. And I’ll probably end up writing a book that does include a prologue that I find brilliant and I hope everyone else does too.
But for now, I avoid them. Why? Because in my experience, a well-written Chapter 1 is always going to work better than a prologue. Very few of us can write like J. K. Rowling or George R. R. Martin. We’re fighting for our readers right now, trying to convince them that we’re worth reading. We have precious few pages to hook them; why waste them on a character they won’t meet for two hundred or more pages?
Does that mean you should eliminate the content of your prologue? Absolutely not! Just think closely about its purpose. Think closely about whether it really needs to be the first pages read by someone who buys your book.
I made this choice recently with my WIP. I had included a prologue that established the setting and principle conflict of the longer series. It showed a General talking with his staff, discussing war plans and larger issues of the world. My first chapter then introduces readers to one of the two main characters, a young girl arriving in a frontier town after a long caravan journey across the desert.
One of those two chapters is much more important than the other, and a lot less boring.
So what did I do?
I took the prologue and turned it into an interlude. I’m sure many of you have read books utilizing this tool. Authors like Brandon Sanderson and Chuck Wendig use them to varying success (personally, I like how both implement the tool). Interludes include content within your story that connects with your main plot but doesn’t deserve a place in the main narrative . . . yet. Often, the characters in interludes show up later in the series!
And that’s how I’m using my interludes. I introduce characters (and concepts) that become important later. The interludes introduce the readers to them so they know a bit about their motivations, so when they enter the story later, readers know exactly who they are. More importantly, the events of these interludes still directly intersect with the narrative of my two main characters without distracting readers at the very beginning of the story.
And so I challenge all authors! When you’re writing your next prologue, ask: even if this piece is some of my best writing, does it hook my readers? Is it the “true” Chapter 1? Or could I use this writing as something else instead, like an interlude?
So that’s my contribution to the prologue debate. Hope you enjoyed this latest edition of the Book Builder’s Blog!