The Problem with Prologues

I personally love prologues—when they work for the book. They’re the perfect introduction to a writer’s style and the tone or theme of a novel. But that’s where the usefulness ends.

Many agents and editors advise against writing a prologue for your manuscript because so many writers get it wrong. Too often prologues are used as a way to throw too much information too fast at the reader, or tell a narrative backstory that is crucial to the rest of the book. Sometimes the prologue doesn’t feel like a prologue at all, but should really just be labeled as Chapter 1.

If your prologue is simply giving the reader “crucial” information, your manuscript could have a problem with worldbuilding. Worldbuilding isn’t only important in speculative fiction; while a fantasy novel may have more complex worldbuilding, every novel of every genre needs to make sure the reader understands the ins and outs of the setting and the characters. This shouldn’t happen in your prologue. Instead, it should be introduced naturally in the earlier chapters of your manuscript.

If your prologue is, essentially, a backstory, your manuscript could have a pacing problem. Approximately half of the manuscripts I read start at the wrong time. If your prologue has an elaborate backstory, there’s a good chance you need to re-evaluate the starting point of your novel. Since you’ve written this type of prologue, your story probably needs to start earlier than it currently does—but check the opposite possibility as well, just in case. Shifting the beginning point can change the entire course of a novel.

If your prologue has a developmental arc—like every other chapter—then your prologue could be a chapter in disguise. If you can change the title of your prologue to Chapter 1 and have it flow seamlessly into the next chapter, then that’s what you should do.

As I mentioned earlier, some prologues really do work. The ones that stand out to me are usually at the beginning of more literary novels—these are the prologues that really can focus on style, tone, and theme. This is a personal preference and a generalization; there are obviously many prologues to many books, in many genres, that work well for the story.

Re-read the prologue to your manuscript and ask yourself these questions: Do these few pages absolutely need to be a part of the story? Can this information go anywhere else? What sets this apart from a typical chapter? Answering these questions should help you determine the purpose and the validity of your manuscript’s prologue.