Episode 82: Prologues are like traffic cones

On February 15, 2020, Kasie was in Charlotte signing books so we recorded the show early. Here are the notes:

Topic: To Prologue or Not to Prologue


  • What is a prologue?
  • Benefits and Drawbacks of Prologues
  • Types of prologues
  • How to write a prologue
  • How to decide if you need one?
woman in yellow jacket holding a traffic cone
Photo by keli Santos on Pexels.com

Segment 1

You might love your prologue, but it’s a traffic cone. It tells the reader to wait, take notice of something that is NOT the story before the story begins. In this episode we debate whether this means the writer doesn’t trust the reader or whether the writer needed the prologue to keep himself/herself on track and in the end, it should be chunked before the book is published.

According to Wikipedia:

A prologue or prolog is an opening to a story that establishes the context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information.

The Ancient Greek prólogos included the modern meaning of prologue, but was of wider significance, more like the meaning of preface. The importance, therefore, of the prologue in Greek drama was very great; it sometimes almost took the place of a romance, to which, or to an episode in which, the play itself succeeded.

Strengths of a Prologue – From Writers’ Digest:

 Fear not, writers. Prologues aren’t all bad. In fact, they come in handy in a number of scenarios:

  1. To provide a “quick-and-dirty” glimpse of important background information without the need of flashbacks, dialogue, or memories that interrupt the action later on in the book.
  2. Hook the reader into the action right away while having the readers asking questions relevant to the central plot—and therefore eager to learn those answers in the opening chapters.
  3. Offer information the reader couldn’t otherwise glean from the plot (such as a break from the point-of-view narration or from a different character’s perspective).
  4. Introduce the antagonist—providing background motives that either humanizes the character or exhibits his/her evil intentions. This angle can be handy if the protagonist doesn’t meet the antagonist until later on in the book.
  5. Introduce a philosophy or religious belief important to the plot/setting.
  6. Foreshadow future events, thereby creating suspense for the reader and get them asking questions (and eagerly reading on).

Segment 2

Types of Prologue – From Kathy Temean and the Writing and Illustrating blog

  • “future protagonist”
    • shows the hero or heroine sometime after the main part of the plot has taken place and is written in the same point-of-view and style as the rest of the novel.
  • “past protagonist”
    • generally used when the protagonist has a defining moment in his past which must be known to the reader, in order for the reader to understand this character. Example: Bruce Wayne’s tragic witness of his parents’ death.
  • “different POV”
    • describes a certain event from a point-of-view different than the main characters of the plot. This event may occur in the same time-frame as the plot, or years before or after. It must have a relevance, which will affect the plot substantially in some way. A different POV prologue should be written in third-person, even if the novel is in first-person.
  • “background”
    • found in the science-fiction and fantasy genre, where the settings may differ so wildly from our own world, that without a proper explanation the reader might get lost.
    • Of all types of prologue, this one is the most risky: On one hand, you cannot require the reader to wade through an essay of history (or future-history) as soon as he picks up the novel. On the other hand, you cannot throw him into deep space and expect him to start flying.

Segment 3

Where to Begin? When, Where and How to Write a Prologue – from WritingWorld.com

Ask yourself three questions:

  • Do you really need a prologue?
  • What does your prologue do?
  • And finally, Does it get the job done right?

To make sure your prologue works well, you can put it through a simple two-step test:

  1. try to leave it out and see if anything important is missing;
  2. then try to change its title to “Chapter One”, and check if the plot integrity is damaged. If you’ve answered both questions with a yes, then your prologue is doing a good job.

Guidelines – per WritingWorld.com

  1. be an integral part of the novel, written in the same spirit and style
  2. read like a short story in every aspect, except for its ending
  3. start with a strong and intriguing hook
  4. stand out from the body of the novel in at least one fashion: the time of the events (which should be stated both in the prologue and in the first chapter), the POV character, and so on. The reader should feel a distinct switch in his mind when he begins reading Chapter One.
  5. keep the prologue distinct by assigning it to someone outside the group of POV characters

The Great Debate: To Prologue or Not to Prologue? Per Writer’s Digest

  • Using a prologue as a place for a massive dump… information dump.
    • Paragraphs of text that provide dense (albeit important) background information are tough to digest.
  • A boring prologue (that readers want to skip to get to chapter one).
    • If your scene lacks action or purpose that propels your story, you may be falling into this danger zone.
  • A prologue that has nothing to do with the main story.
    • Prologues need to somehow propel or impact your main plot. Period.
  • Prologues that are too long.
    • The modern reader (often) prefers shorter chapters—prologues included.
  • Using the prologue to hook the reader as the sole purpose.
    • The reader is unceremoniously plunked into the action in a world they’re unfamiliar with and whose characters they don’t yet know (and love).
  • Using the prologue strictly to provide atmosphere or to do some early-on world building.
    • The setting is described with enough detail to have the readers visualizing the character’s surroundings but not too much to bog down the pace of the scene.

Examples of Prologues in Literature

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov loved to play with conventions in his very unconventional works of literature. He creates a fake foreword for his novel Lolita by an imaginary scholar named John Ray, Jr. In this prologue, Nabokov pretends that someone else has encountered the text and is now introducing it to the reader. In so doing, Nabokov provides a clever way of introducing his text and also the theme of the untrustworthy narrator.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton uses two prologue examples in his best-selling novel Jurassic Park. First comes a prologue, excerpted above, which seems very straightforward in style that presents the technological advances of the time period. This prologue reads almost like a news clipping, and yet sets up Crichton’s own authorial view on the possible dangers of scientific innovation. The second prologue is more literary in nature, describing a short scene in which someone has been bitten by a dinosaur, not knowing what this creature is.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer included a very long “general prologue” to his famous work The Canterbury Tales. In this prologue Chaucer introduces us to the theme of people going on pilgrimage, and introduces the various people he will be going on pilgrimage with. These people end up occupying different chapters in the rest of the text.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.

It has a prologue set much earlier than the main story. The book is about human beings living on Mars, with a main character who was born there and raised by aliens. But the prologue looks all the way back to the first rocket ship that ever traveled from Earth to Mars, setting the stage for all the events that happen there.

Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

“If this typewriter can’t do it…” the author is part of the prologue. In a one-page diatribe about the purchase and installation of the typewriter, the author makes his presence known. Also indicates he is, perhaps, embarking on an impossible task which is the telling of the story that is to come. What is so difficult about it? Does the mechanism on which it is told really matter?

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

She adds the climax scene to the beginning of the book in the prologue. We know what the events are hurling us toward. We can’t look away. The end of the prologue, just as we think, “Here it goes!” she lets the narrator say, “I don’t talk much about those days now…” and we’re listening to the future protagonist. So we know he survives at least.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Begins with a letter from Zelda to Scott and then her thoughts on it and her current place of residence. So we know there’s distance between them. Again, we know what we’re hurling towards. I don’t think this prologue was necessary, honestly, but it’s not terrible.

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