Updated: Oct 23
It's a funny thing how many contemporary fiction writers love to include a prologue in their novels. Because the majority of readers hate reading them. Who is right? You know it: the reader is always right (even when they’re not!)
As I mainly edit works of fiction, I have observed how an increasing number of authors have a prologue in their manuscripts. It is useful to take a second look at the prologue and consider what purpose(s) it is serving in your novel's structure. The reality is many readers will skip over the prologue especially if it is a long one. What is a prologue's optimum word length? I recommend between 1,000 to 1,500 words, the lower end of the scale being preferable.
Only one of the manuscripts I’ve recently edited has a prologue which works magnificently as a way into the main story. A work of historical fiction, the book is not yet published (NYP) so I cannot give you the reference. The only strike against this prologue: it is a tad too long at 2,300 words which can be forgiven as it is well written and interesting to read. Here are the reasons why this particular historical fiction prologue works effectively:
It describes an incident in the long-ago past that grounds the story and which the reader keeps in their mind as they read the novel.
It does not introduce the novel’s main characters or the storyline.
It whets the reader’s appetite for excitement and entices them to keep reading.
A good prologue doesn’t even attempt to draw the reader into its characters or its story narrative. It exists merely to impart some important information (be it a bad-guy perspective, an event that occurs previous to the story, etc.). If the writer delivers that information as quickly and sparsely as possible, they will convey the necessary information and still leave the story itself (including its arc and natural character progression) fully intact. – K.M. Weiland - helping writers become authors website
Hereunder are some reasons for favouring a prologue-free novel:
A prologue sets up two beginnings for the reader to navigate; readers are often impatient, it can feel like extra work when all they want to do is get into the story. .
Invariably the prologue brings some queries and doubts into the reader’s top of mind, such as:
‘Why do I need to know this information before I begin Chapter one?’
‘How does this information relate to the main characters and storyline?’
In most cases, the information, the back story or incident in the prologue can be incorporated into the chapters, as and when appropriate.
This last point is illustrated by a novel manuscript I recently edited (NYP) where the author had written a long prologue (3,000 words). In collaboration with the author, one relevant scene in the prologue was moved to the beginning of Chapter 1. It is a particularly dynamic scene which will grip readers and motivate them to read on. It replaces an introspective gloomy start to the novel which probably would have had the opposite effect. The author’s comment: “It’s definitely a better book without it.”
Like every other component of a novel, a prologue should only be included for sound reasons and to achieve a clear objective. And not because it looks ‘cool’ and lots of fiction authors do it. Hereunder are three questions to ask ourselves about whether or not to create a prologue:
1. Will my prologue convey critical information which my reader needs to know before they commence reading the real beginning of my novel?
2. Will my prologue motivate the reader to keep reading, or will they skip it and go to chapter one, or will they return my novel to their bookshelf?
3. Will my prologue be memorable and intriguing for my reader? Will they keep it in their minds as the story unfolds?
In summary, a prologue can serve as a useful structural device in long form fiction. However, a prologue can also be overly long, boring, distracting and annoying. Not to the writer, of course; we wrote it and love it to bits. But to those VIPs, our readers, who are king, queen and the whole court of our creative endeavours.
What is your opinion? Are you a fan of the prologue? Do you like reading other authors' prologues? Please add your comments below.
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