Should a Book Have a Prologue?

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Jennifer DelamereA history fan and travel enthusiast, Jennifer Delamere writes sweet historical romance with plenty of joy and sizzle. Her debut novel An Heiress at Heart was a finalist for the Romance Writers of America RITA® award. Her follow-up novel, A Lady Most Lovely, earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Jennifer loves reading histories, biographies, and travelogues, which she mines for the vivid details to bring to life the people and places in her books. Please visit Jennifer at her web site or on Twitter and Facebook.

The question of prologues recently spurred a lively and illuminating discussion among FHL members.

As a new writer I’d often heard that editors and agents hate prologues, so I didn’t include one in my first novel. However, I incorporated a few “flashback” scenes to provide information I felt was vital. The book sold, and then my editor told me to cut the flashbacks and put in a prologue instead!

Clearly, then, there are times when a prologue is warranted. So when are those times? What purpose can a prologue serve?

One important function is to act as a “teaser” to gain the reader’s interest. As a reader, I can easily recall times when I’ve been so delighted and intrigued by the prologue that I couldn’t wait to dive into the rest of the book. In the series I’m currently developing, I include a prologue to give the reader a glimpse of characters who are not in the first book but who will have large roles later on.

Marta Perry had a similar experience. Her editor felt a prologue would be useful to orient the reader to the thread that would run through the series.

Sunni Jeffers noted an instance where she used a prologue because it showed an important part of the character’s formation and motivation. Her editor agreed the book would be missing a critical element without it.

Rebecca DeMarino had a prologue removed by the editor, but she’ll be offering it as a freebie on her website prior to the book’s release. (It’s being offered with the publisher’s approval, and they stylized it for her as well.) She feels it gives insight into the hero in a way the story can’t. This is a great way to use prologue material—as promotion to spur book sales.

How long should a prologue be? Gina Welborn remembers skipping one that was chapter length. She noted that later she went back and read the skipped prologue, but learned no new plot or characterization element. “Since then, if the book’s prologue is no more than three pages long, I’ll probably read it. If it’s longer than that, I’m skipping straight to chapter one.”

An author with a long prologue might decide to label it “Chapter One,” and then begin Chapter Two with a heading to show time has passed (for example, “Seven Years Later”). But even then, the important key is to be sure it’s necessary to the story.

Laurie Alice Eakes stressed there should be a strong purpose for a prologue, stating, “Unless no other way to get the information out exists, don’t do it.” DiAnn Mills adds, “I believe the measuring stick is to determine if a prologue is backstory or a critical part of the plot.”

So, should a book have a prologue? As we have seen, this is not a yes-or-no question. If you’re considering a prologue for your book, be sure to ask yourself what its purpose will be, whether it’s truly needed, and how it will impact the reader’s experience.

Let’s Chat: How do you feel about prologues, either as a reader or a writer (or both)? Have you used them in your books?

 

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Comments

  1. Great post! What an interesting question. As a reader, I love prologues that are short, highly dramatic and end in a cliff hanger. The best ones seem to focus on a single event that changes the heroine’s (or hero’s) life and is the driving force for the rest of the story. As an author, I have yet to use one, perhaps because I write light, funny contemporaries. It seems to me that the process of writing a prologue is very useful to an author no matter what genre, even if that prologue is not ultimately used. Conflict can be so slippery, and having a fully formed scene pointing straight to the ‘why’ would be valuable.

  2. I’m indifferent about prologues. I do feel that they should be short, only a few pages. If they’re longer than that, then the prologue should be labeled as Chapter One and then show the passing of time for Chapter Two – as mentioned in the blog post.

    For one of my novels, I submitted it with the prologue. After the publisher offered contract, they told me I needed to delete it, so, I did!

  3. I like prologues if they impart relevant information, and if they are interesting. What I don’t like is a riveting prologue followed by Chapter 1 that is not as interesting. I like the prologue to be a taste of what’s to come. Great post.

  4. These are all great points! Laura, I like what you said about the epilogue focusing on an event that changes the heroine’s (or hero’s) life and is the driving force for the rest of the story. I think that’s a great description of a really effective prologue. I don’t see any reason why one can’t have a prologue in lighter stories, because there must have been some event that really shaped the hero or heroine and/or brought on the circumstances of the present story. I guess the key would be to nail down what that event was.

  5. I think it depends on the tone and theme of the book. I’ve never used a prologue for my historical novels, but for a romantic suspense coming out this fall, I used a two page prologue as a cliff hanger. My publisher loves it; we’ll see how readers respond.

  6. Dora Wagner says:

    I prefer to have a prologue, if it will help me understand the story that will be unfolded. Beverly Lewis usually has a prologue that really entices me to find out how the story ends. I think they can be most helpful, especially, where there is a great deal of back ground that needs to be understood, prior to delving into the book. In those cases, it may be more helpful to have a back story novella to introduce the background and then write the full novel to carry it on.

  7. Anna Taylor Sweringen says:

    I like the chapter one/chapter two with a heading idea. Most of the time I find stories with prologues could have filtered the information in as backstory throughout the novel…but it must have been the right choice if the novel was published, right?

  8. Jennifer, great post! I really liked your prologue in An Heiress at Heart, and I’m happy to read prologues if they add value to the story..

  9. Anna, perhaps those prologues were focused more on pulling the reader into the story right away, even if the info could have been filtered in later. I don’t know that a prologue was the right choice simply because it was published. Ultimately it always seems to be judgment call.

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