A 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?