Death of a Prologue

book-2435583_960_720The prologue was once a hallmark of fantasy books, but it’s going out of style.

For a long time, I expected them as a matter of course. Years ago, I would have been hard pressed to think of a fantasy author who didn’t have prologues in their books. Then things changed.

I started seeing writing instructors and lecturers berate prologues. Prologues were called lazy and sloppy. Having grown up with prologues, I really didn’t get it. After all, if it’s good enough for George R.R. Martin, Christopher Paolini, and Morgan Rhodes, it’s good enough for me. Yet these instructors remained unswayed.

I never understood why until I began reading bad prologues.

Read through a bad prologue.

Bad prologues are all about exposition. They either A) give away far too much with over-dramatic descriptions and dialogue; and/or B) make no sense and end in a cliff hanger. After reading enough crappy books, I realized lots of writers use them in place of story development.

NOTHING should take the place of story development.

People fall into the trap of wanting their book to have the same “look” they’ve seen and loved elsewhere. They don’t stop to think maybe they should worry about story first instead of section headings.

Prologues are great when they’re needed.

If the prologue explains something that otherwise wouldn’t be explained, great. If it moves the story forward, great.

The prologue to A Game of Thrones sets up the dynamics of the Night’s Watch and the Whitewalkers. The prologue to Falling Kingdoms explains the magic system and Lucia’s origins. Eragon uses a prologue to explain how Saphira’s egg ended up in the Spine and who Arya is. All those prologues serve a purpose that would otherwise leave a hole in the story. All of them were needed.

Most prologues, I’ve realized, are not.

In general, I’ve stopped using prologues in my own writing just because I prefer to stay as close to a single perspective and time period as possible. I enjoy the challenge of explaining complex worlds and past events through a single lens (harder than it sounds).

But some stories demand prologues.

Every so often, there comes a story that just needs one. It can save exposition and reader questions later. As with the three examples I named, sometimes it’s necessary. Story comes first and if the story wants a prologue, the story should get it!

Do you think prologues are a thing of the past? Should they be?

6 Comments

  1. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a prologue. Unless they’re one big info dump, I enjoy them. Like in Eragon, it’s a scene that gives you some action and context for something to come later.
    Of the two prologues I’ve written, one got scrapped in re-writes since it didn’t do anything for the story. Epilogues on the other hand… LOVE those. 🙂

    1. Totally agree. I haven’t written one I liked lately, either. But totally there for the epilogues. As writer and reader!

  2. Totally agree, Elisabeth! Unfortunately, I feel like I forced WORLD OF THE BEAST’s prologue even though it turned out okay and worked well.
    For THE WARLOCK’S AWAKENING, I wasn’t going to have a prologue because of **THIS**. But, I told myself if it isn’t necessary then DO NOT ADD/FORCE IT.
    But then (yes, there is a but), after writing almost all of my rough draft, I had a thought, and I wrote a third person short to explain something (I didn’t intend it to be the prologue or even part of the book–just for myself and a little bit extra for readers wanting more). After I showed it to my grandma and sister, who read everything I write in it’s rough form to help guide me where I should go, they told me they felt like it should be PART of the book itself and not something extra for readers to find on my website…. So I rewrote it a few more times and placed it as my prologue. And you know what? It fits very nicely, and is a better opening to the story than my previous beginning.
    Anyway… Yeah, a prologue isn’t necessary to a story. Only write one when it fits and adds to the story.

    1. Which is exactly how it should be! Prologues contribute, they aren’t a check mark. (Can’t want to read WA, btw.)

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