Don't include a prologue in your story

#1
This isn't meant as a call out post, nor as something that's set in stone. This is our personal take on it based on what we've seen and is an attempt to help.

Chapter 1 should be the start of your story, and if there's a prologue then that usually means that:

1: The author doesn't know any other way to provide the information inside the story itself, so they separate it before the story starts.
2: The author decided to use it for exposition.
3: The author's starting their story in the wrong point in time, so they have to go back and cover some stuff.

There are for sure are other reasons, and some might be good, but these tend to be the biggest three we've come across, and each of them pose a problem.

For reason #:
1: That says something about the author and how well they can deliver information inside the story. if they feel they have to cut parts of it out to put outside of the story because they can't find a way to tell it in the actual story, then that's not a good look.
2: They don't need exposition at the start, and it's probably going to be skipped entirely by a lot of people if that's the case.
3: If even chapter 1 has the wrong order of events, then what about chapter 8? Or 13? Or 21 where the order will matter even more as the story goes on?

It's far more a matter of perception as well. You can have a good reason for a prologue, but the moment we see 'prologue' in a chapter list our mind goes to one of these three outcomes, and we skip over them at this point to go right to chapter 1.

Again, this isn't meant as a call out post. Just some advice to think about.

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#3
I have never read a prologue. I know that sounds crazy, but when I see the word at the head of the chapter, I just skip it. 

The thing is, I can't think of a single instance in which my skipping of the prologue made the story more or less enjoyable. This just confirms my theory that prologues are useless, and stories should just start at the beginning (which is actually en media res).

Sometimes authors get sneaky and just call their prologue "Chapter One". I always regret reading it by time I get to the real story in chapter two.

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#5
A counterpoint for your consideration. Series with prologues:

The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan
Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson
Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson
Harry Potter (it's called "Chapter 1", but it meets all the typical definitions of a prologue, occurring 10 years before the events of Chapter 2, and with a different PoV than the rest of the story)
The Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (this one probably doesn't match the current definition of prologue, because it's just world-building and no narrative)

These are some of the most popular and most successful fantasy series of all time. Having prologues certainly didn't hurt them, and I would argue that these prologues all improved the stories by separating out distant events with non-standard points of view, while still relaying important or interesting info and following the "show, don't tell" rule.

I would say the advice should be "Don't include a prologue in your story unless it makes your story better." You should understand the purpose of a prologue. Don't add one just because you think you need it. Determine whether it's necessary, helpful, and/or interesting.

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#6
I don't particularly mind prologues, but I do think that most prologues I see are much too long. One of my favorites (though not in a book) is in the Lord of the Rings movie where Galadriel narrates how Smeagol finds the ring before we skip to Frodo and the Shire. It sets up that this is a story told by a character, and also sets up a sense of building expectation for people not already familiar with the works. 

It's also only a few sentances and a few moments long. Perfect length :D 

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#7
I like the prologues in Fifth Element and Valerian; the first movie has this like 15 minute opening scene completely disconnected from the rest of the movie, but with crucial build-up and context to the rest of the movie to come. Valerian goes even further, with TWO prologues, and then a cold-open action sequence, and the three total at almost 30 minutes of the movie; you COULD cut them, but definitely shouldn't.

Almost single MCU movie has a prologue, too; out of the ~25 so far, only two of them don't have one, if I remember correctly.

In books, people don't like prologues because they're usually bad, but I think they can occasionally be done extremely well when you think of the way movies do it. It's just you gotta call it Chapter 1 these days because nobody will click on a Chapter 0 lol

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#8

Thedude3445 Wrote: I like the prologues in Fifth Element and Valerian; the first movie has this like 15 minute opening scene completely disconnected from the rest of the movie, but with crucial build-up and context to the rest of the movie to come. Valerian goes even further, with TWO prologues, and then a cold-open action sequence, and the three total at almost 30 minutes of the movie; you COULD cut them, but definitely shouldn't.

Almost single MCU movie has a prologue, too; out of the ~25 so far, only two of them don't have one, if I remember correctly.

In books, people don't like prologues because they're usually bad, but I think they can occasionally be done extremely well when you think of the way movies do it. It's just you gotta call it Chapter 1 these days because nobody will click on a Chapter 0 lol

the opening of the valerian film is the best
optimistic science fiction really stands the test
watching all those species shaking hands just gave me chills
as far as prologues go, the valerian films' kills
DrakanPopcorn

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#9
I've been in the prologues are bad crowd for a long time and I still stand by that. Most prologues are simply a barrier of entry for a reader before he can get to the good stuff - chapter 1. When I read prologue I tend to skip it, but when it came to writing my own projects I realized that I want to write prologues too, so they can't be all that bad, right?

In my opinion it comes down to what calibre of a writer you are. If you are a Mark Lawrence for example you can craft a prologue that is exciting, lyrically beautiful and absolutely relevant to the rest of the story. It elevates the book as a whole. If you aren't, you can't and therefore shouldn't try to write a prologue, unless! You use a simple trick.

Keep the prologue under 500 words. Make it very short, succinct and absolutely relevant to what comes afterward. If not chapter 1, then the rest of the story. A prologue can be a powerful tool for dramatic tension, telling the reader something the characters don't know to show that something bad is going to happen soon in a way that woudn't be possible if you followed only the characters perspective.

Even then, 500 words is far too long for a pure worldbuilding session and if the story is just as strong if you skip it, you probably should cut it out. I'm a reader first and foremost and my experience with prologues was that they're writers little darlings, but readers tend to hate them. 

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#10

IvyVeritas Wrote: A counterpoint for your consideration. Series with prologues:

The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan
Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson
Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson
Harry Potter (it's called "Chapter 1", but it meets all the typical definitions of a prologue, occurring 10 years before the events of Chapter 2, and with a different PoV than the rest of the story)
The Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (this one probably doesn't match the current definition of prologue, because it's just world-building and no narrative)

These are some of the most popular and most successful fantasy series of all time. Having prologues certainly didn't hurt them, and I would argue that these prologues all improved the stories by separating out distant events with non-standard points of view, while still relaying important or interesting info and following the "show, don't tell" rule.

I would say the advice should be "Don't include a prologue in your story unless it makes your story better." You should understand the purpose of a prologue. Don't add one just because you think you need it. Determine whether it's necessary, helpful, and/or interesting.
You do bring up a good counter point, and we do actually agree with you. Perhaps we should change how we view prologues and start giving them a chance. Maybe in our free time we'll go through random prologues we find and see if we can find any good ones. Thank you for the post!

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#11
I have talked before about using prologues to introduce events that are disconnected or events that are the catalyst to events, but giving the reader no context. Instead of saying X is a peaceful kingdom [insert infodump here]. Just show the town get wrecked or kingdom by a demon army, give questions, but no answers, and then cut to chapter 1 with Sir Jeffery the normal night not tied to these events.

Anime, Comics, Graphic Novels, are really good at this type of prologue setting up inciting events that were not setup by the main protagonist. They can be used as a narrative tool if done right. 

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#12

IvyVeritas Wrote: The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (this one probably doesn't match the current definition of prologue, because it's just world-building and no narrative)
I was so upset reading this. I was like: I read the Wikipedia page for hobbits! Arrrgggghhhh. Not saying that I don't spend an obscene amount of time reading random stuff on Wikipedia or anything, I was just trying to read a story in that particular moment in time.


But yeah. I always check out prologues for that rare gem that doesn't bore me and I almost always regret it. The few times that I have been pleasantly surprised makes it worthwhile, but typically I would characterize those as Chapter 1's mislabeled....

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#13

eric_river Wrote: the opening of the valerian film is the best
optimistic science fiction really stands the test
watching all those species shaking hands just gave me chills
as far as prologues go, the valerian films' kills
DrakanPopcorn


Isn't it?! I love it so much. Everyone should watch it, even if they don't watch the rest of the movie, because it's great inspiration for how to do a prologue well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6oTziHKM_c&ab_channel=Spiral

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#14

JeneClyde Wrote: I have talked before about using prologues to introduce events that are disconnected or events that are the catalyst to events, but giving the reader no context. Instead of saying X is a peaceful kingdom [insert infodump here]. Just show the town get wrecked or kingdom by a demon army, give questions, but no answers, and then cut to chapter 1 with Sir Jeffery the normal night not tied to these events.

Anime, Comics, Graphic Novels, are really good at this type of prologue setting up inciting events that were not setup by the main protagonist. They can be used as a narrative tool if done right.

most memorable in Madoka Magicka

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#15

Sake Wrote:
JeneClyde Wrote: I have talked before about using prologues to introduce events that are disconnected or events that are the catalyst to events, but giving the reader no context. Instead of saying X is a peaceful kingdom [insert infodump here]. Just show the town get wrecked or kingdom by a demon army, give questions, but no answers, and then cut to chapter 1 with Sir Jeffery the normal night not tied to these events.

Anime, Comics, Graphic Novels, are really good at this type of prologue setting up inciting events that were not setup by the main protagonist. They can be used as a narrative tool if done right.

most memorable in Madoka Magicka


Oh yeah absolutely. I use Prologues as;

what's going on
where is this going 
how is this connected

Rather than;
this is what happened 
this is how it happened
this is why

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#16
As with every other piece of advice for writers, it's essentially "don't abuse this."

If you go into a project with "I need to do a prologue," chances are you don't. If you're inexperienced, you'll run into a lot of the trappings mentioned elsewhere in this thread. 

That being said, it's like anything else, where if you actually know how to do a prologue and it can add to your story, then you do it. In my recent work I've used a prologue twice, both times to introduce the antagonist of the story in an established series. I keep them short and to-the-point, as their purpose isn't to exposition dump, but to introduce character and conflict. These were consciously done to serve a purpose and I walked away happy with them, where I'd usually be in the "ugh, no prologue" camp.

It's important at the beginning of any story you're working on to think of how it flows and what you're projecting to your reader. I saw a good piece of writing advice before that said start your scene later than your initial instinct it and end it earlier than that first instinct as well. 

Tension and release. Tension and release.

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#17

IvyVeritas Wrote: A counterpoint for your consideration. Series with prologues:

The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan
Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson
Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson
Harry Potter (it's called "Chapter 1", but it meets all the typical definitions of a prologue, occurring 10 years before the events of Chapter 2, and with a different PoV than the rest of the story)
The Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (this one probably doesn't match the current definition of prologue, because it's just world-building and no narrative)

These are some of the most popular and most successful fantasy series of all time. Having prologues certainly didn't hurt them, and I would argue that these prologues all improved the stories by separating out distant events with non-standard points of view, while still relaying important or interesting info and following the "show, don't tell" rule.

I would say the advice should be "Don't include a prologue in your story unless it makes your story better." You should understand the purpose of a prologue. Don't add one just because you think you need it. Determine whether it's necessary, helpful, and/or interesting.
 
The Eye of the World's Prologue is the best chapter in the whole book. 

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#18
I resisted putting a prologue in for some time for fear of cheapening the story or spoiling certain elements. In the end I found it a decent compromise between keeping the slower-paced building of tension in my first act and offering readers a bit of action to go in on.

I just made it its own self contained little thing and tried not to lump it with lots of excess information. Hopefully its an interesting enough vignette to intrigue a reader while also demonstrating the tone of the fiction. Wouldn't hurt the story not to read it though.

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#20

IvyVeritas Wrote: A counterpoint for your consideration. Series with prologues:

The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan
Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson
Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson
Harry Potter (it's called "Chapter 1", but it meets all the typical definitions of a prologue, occurring 10 years before the events of Chapter 2, and with a different PoV than the rest of the story)
The Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (this one probably doesn't match the current definition of prologue, because it's just world-building and no narrative)


A Song of Ice and Fire as well. Game of Thrones replicated the prologue pretty well as its opening scene, if I'm not mistaken. 

But it makes me wonder what makes a good prologue? So many great stories have them. So why are prologues generally considered so bad when so many great stories do them so good?

If I had to venture a guess, I'd say it's because the non-professional writing community (and I include myself in this group) will often see a prologue a way to add "weight" to a story. Sure, you COULD have your main character learn of the ancient pantheon of gods biding their time to return during the festival in Chapter 1, but putting it in a dramatic prologue (with Christopher Lee doing the narration in your mind, don't lie) adds so much gravitas to your story. Or, well, at least that's the idea. Unfortunately, people tend to replicate the style of what's popular and successful without understand the substance. See the 1990s comic book industry for further details.

It makes me wonder, then, what makes a good prologue? And what should just be set up in Chapter 1 instead? Well, the way I see it is this. If you have a fantasy world you created, and you need to just tell a central event that puts important context on the events of the first chapter, then put in a prologue. A good prologue should be quick, punchy, set up your fictional world in only a few sentences, and should act as a seed from which everything else springs forth. It also helps to have a huge world that doesn't revolve around your main character. A basic story where a knight must retrieve the ancient crystal to save the princess from the evil dragon doesn't warrant a prologue. But the very in depth worlds of Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire do.

That's why I'd argue that two of the best prologues I've ever heard weren't even from novels, but animated TV shows and manga. They are Avatar: The Last Airbender and One Piece. We could quibble over the exact definition of prologues, but imagine these long runners were Royal Road web serials and you decided to check out their prologues before diving into Chapter One. I don't know what the bulk of prologues on this site look like, but I imagine you'd be hooked by these quick, yet descriptive prologues that set up an incredible, well developed world (both on part with LotR and ASOIAF):

Avatar:

"Water, earth, fire, air.

My grandmother used to tell me that long ago, the four nations--the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads--used to live in harmony. The world was at peace.

But then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.

Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop the ruthless firebenders. But when the world needed him the most, he vanished. Now, a hundred years later, and the Fire Nation is on the verge of winning this war.

Two years ago, my father and the men in my village left to fight the Fire Nation, leaving behind my brother and I. 

Some say the Avatar was never reborn to the Air Nomads, that the cycle was broken. But I haven't lost hope. I believe the Avatar can save the world."


One Piece:

"Wealth. Fame. Power. Gold Roger, the King of the Pirates, achieved this and everything else the world had to offer, and his dying words drove men to the sea.

'You want my treasure? You can have it! I left everything I gathered together in one place. Now you just have to find it!'

These words drove men to the Grand Line in pursuit of treasures greater than they ever dared to imagine. This was the beginning of the time know as the Great Pirate Era!"


Short and quick, all taking place before we have our first scene or are introduced to our first character. We don't get a long winded history lesson or pages and pages of exposition. You know so little about the world, yet you already know about its most important attributes and conflicts. All in a few sentences. I feel like those are the templates of what a good prologue should be. Even if this information could technically be in Chapter 1, you may have a story where certain story beats in that chapter don't make sense without that context, and it leads to a very good hook. These are the sorts of prologues that would make me want to know more.