Prologues are out of favor these days, one of the “forbidden” (by whom?) writing techniques, yet people keep asking about them because they know intuitively that the technique has enormous possibilities. Quite a few folks go ahead and use them anyway. Sometimes this works brilliantly; other times, not so much…and the problematic usages reinforce the perception that prologues are a Bad Idea.
The first and biggest mistake a lot of writers make, especially in science fiction and fantasy, is to assume that there is no way to get the reader up to speed on the story background except to provide a three-page infodump of all the presumably-critical material right at the start of the story. So the writer starts off with a history lesson or a summary of cultures, and half the people who open the book close it and put it back on the shelf, while 90% of the people who do stick with the story skip the prologue and start with Chapter One…and have no problem whatever understanding what is going on.
Too many writers think that because they know all sorts of background information, said information is absolutely necessary in order to understand the story. It hardly ever is, and even if the writer is correct and the reader ultimately does need to know the tangled history of the United Planets and how various alien races came to join, they usually don’t need to know it in order to have a basic understanding of the opening scene where Bob is trying to book a seat on the shuttle to Betelgeuse. Yes, it will make the scene much richer in nuance if the reader understands exactly why Bob doesn’t want to take a seat designed for Rigelians, even if it’s the only one left, but it’s hardly ever truly necessary. It is, in fact, often much more effective to let the reader presume that Bob is worried about the fact that seats designed for three-legged insectoids aren’t particularly comfortable for humans, and only later work in the political tension…and later still, the historical reasons behind the political tension.
My friend Lois Bujold has a thirteen-plus book series, no volume of which has a “what has gone before” prologue. Yet new readers who pick up the latest book in the series never seem to have a problem understanding and enjoying the story, even if they don’t know all the details of the Time of Isolation, the Incendiary Cat Plot, the names and relationships of every recurring character, etc., right from the start of the story. Yes, some of this is because she is really, really good at working the necessary information into the story, but some of it is also because she is well aware that not all the existing information is necessary for this particular story. And also that readers are smarter than a lot of writers think.
The second big mistake a lot of writers make is that they forget that it is not enough for a prologue to contain necessary information; it must also be interesting to the reader. Too often, even the most necessary prologue presents information in a dry, dull, or utterly predictable manner, with the result that many readers put the book down and don’t pick it up again, and many others skip the prologue entirely.
If a reader can skip the prologue and still understand and enjoy the story, you don’t need the prologue. If readers complain that they don’t understand the story, and you find out that they are consistently skipping the prologue, the author needs to either fix the prologue to make it fascinating or ditch the prologue and find some other way of getting the necessary information into the story.
Which brings me to another point: prologues are not a clever way to dump all the background information, so that the author can start the real book with a slam-bang action scene. If a book has a prologue, the prologue IS the start of the book. It doesn’t have to be full of action, any more than any other opening of a story does, but it does have to pique the reader’s interest so that they’ll keep reading. Fifteen pages of history and/or cultural and worldbuilding detail belongs in an appendix for the truly dedicated reader who is fascinated by such stuff, not at the start of the story.
A prologue is also not a clever way to start with slam-bang action when the story opens with eight chapters of ordinary life and slow character building. Sometimes, this sort of thing happens, but it only ever works if the writer is doing more with the prologue than “Gosh, I’m supposed to start with action…I know! I’ll put in a prologue with a battle scene!” (I’ll get to what else you can do in the next post.)
There’s also the scaffolding problem. There are quite a few writers whose process requires them to warm up or ease their way into a story, and some of them use a prologue for this purpose. Usually, this is not a conscious decision, which is unfortunate, because in this situation, the prologue is not part of the story, it’s part of the writer’s process.
It’s like the scaffolding that construction workers put up in order to build a skyscraper. Once the building is built or the story is complete, the scaffolding is no longer needed and should be taken down. This is obvious when it’s a building, but not always so obvious when it’s a story and the writer isn’t really aware of his/her process yet. The best test for this that I know is the one mentioned above: if your first-readers can understand and enjoy the story without the prologue, you probably don’t need it. (The “probably” is there because, very occasionally, there’s a story that works fine without a prologue, but that is much cooler if one includes the prologue. The coolness factor tops everything else.)
Next time: Some thoughts on doing a prologue right.