#WritingTip: should I write a prologue?

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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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24 Comments

Filed under christmas, ebook, HarperCollins, Paperback, Prologue, readers, reading, Starting Over, Sue Moorcroft, The Little Village Christmas, Writers, writing, writing tip

24 responses to “#WritingTip: should I write a prologue?

  1. Thank you. I have a prologue and I keep looking at it thinking should it stay or go. This has made things clearer.

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  2. Lindsey Russell

    I love prologues as long as they are true prologues – a tease leading to an ‘ah’ moment later in the book. Unfortunately nowadays many authors use a ‘prologue’ as an information dump instead of dribbling in the facts as the story progresses.

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    • Interesting thought! I suppose that works.

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      • Lindsey Russell

        I’ve actually got ‘The Little Village Christmas’ sitting near the top of my TBRP – will try and remember to get back to you on the prologue – might let it jump the queue.

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        • That’s a coincidence, Lindsey! I hope you enjoy it and agree with my reasoning in including a prologue. 😊

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          • Lindsey Russell

            So it jumped the queue 🙂 Yes, that’s what a prologue should be – a tease OR and insight. You’ve given just enough to give a reason for Ben to behave the way he does and keeps messing up. Otherwise the reader would think he’s just a miserable git period.
            Should point out though that horses and ponies can’t hide their heads between their hocks. I used to breed Arab horses if you have equines in future stories and want to run details past me I’d be happy to oblige.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Sherry Gloag

    Very interesting. Love your idea of using an email as the prologue. I agree with Lindsey Russell, there are good and bad prologues, and on the whole I enjoy them.
    I have only done one prologue which covered a few hours before chapter one, which starts a week later.

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  4. Very interesting. I like prologues if well written (rather than formulaic) and am rather proud of my opening chapter to my latest thriller Room 15. However, my editor told me on no account to call it “Prologue”!!

    She said that many readers automatically skip over prologues, assuming that they’re not intrinsic to the story. Mine is essential, so we renamed it Chapter One – but it made me think. There’s always more to learn about readers… I wondered if you’d ever come across this yourself.

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    • I’ve experienced the opposite, Charles – my publishers have always been in favour. Maybe it’s something to do with genre? Maybe prologues have their audience just like anything else? Very interesting to hear your experiences.

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