I’m always surprised when someone tells me editors, agents and readers don’t like prologues. Many of my books have a prologue. No editor has asked me to remove one and I’ve even been specifically asked to include one. As a reader, I love them. I find them intriguing.
What do I think a prologue is? Typically, three to five pages of introductory material. Its importance often doesn’t become clear until it shows itself as a catalyst or significant background to the main story. It’s often characterised by being distanced from the opening of Chapter One in time or location so wouldn’t flow easily into Chapter One.
Are prologues necessary? I think the easiest litmus test is to take out the prologue and see if a book still makes sense. If it does then I guess it was written to “set the mood”. But if it later proves crucial to the backstory and/or will impact the main plot, it’s earning its place. In The Little Village Christmas the prologue is made up of a conversation between Ben and his mother. It’s about what he’s just lived through and why he’s in such a rocky emotional state. There were reasons for me deciding to write the scene as the prologue rather than include the information elsewhere in the book:
- I wanted the reader to know this about Ben but I didn’t want the heroine, Alexia, to. Her not knowing creates conflict between them that lasts for most of the first part of the book.
- Knowing his backstory would allow the reader to forgive his inconsistent behaviour towards Alexia in the first couple of chapters.
- I didn’t want to tell the reader everything about Ben’s past. I wanted them to know there was still lots to uncover.
- I write from at least two points of view and I like the first and last chapters to be through the eyes of the heroine, not the hero. Giving Ben the Prologue was like an aside.
I like my prologues to be:
- short, so readers aren’t wrong-footed when Chapter One begins
- self-contained, to some degree so they’re not dissatisfied by the transition to Chapter One
- comprehensible but intriguing.
The reader knows full well while reading a prologue that the real story is waiting and some people think it makes the readers start the book twice. Is this a bad thing? In The Little Village Christmas it meant readers had to first immerse themselves in Ben’s past, his old world in his old house near Swindon and then immerse themselves in Alexia’s present world in Middledip, but this could just as easily have happened in Chapters One and Two. I tried to make sure it was worth the readers’ mental energy by treating both the prologue and Chapter One like the opening of a novel in terms of energy and impact. Each were emotional and gave the readers plenty to think about.
Having a prologue gives me the chance to hook the readers in twice in other words.
My favourite prologue was in Starting Over. It was only one page and took the form of an email from Tess’s fiancé, telling her their relationship was over. A lot of readers said, ‘I just had to read on to find out what happened next!’ I counted that a success.
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