Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#22
Except once, I have never encountered a prologue as an editor that I haven't told the author to cut. That isn't to say there aren't plenty of prologues in books I've edited, including my wife's. I told my wife to cut hers, too, but she insisted she needed it. And, since the book ended with an epilogue featuring the same character, it made some sense. I still don't think it was very necessary, though plenty of people have liked it.

I don't tell you this to disparage my wife. Far from it. Sometimes the prologue is still worth it, even if your editor says otherwise. People will still read it if it's good. In my wife's case, something blows up in the prologue, and she doesn't go into any worldbuilding detail at all. So it's more exciting than most.

I'm normally death on prologues precisely because of the same titles Ivy mentioned earlier. Let's just look at Stormlight Archive. The first book has not one, not two, but three prologues. The first is a prelude to the entire series, and I am unhappy with it not because it's unnecessary, but because the payoff for that prelude will take several thousand pages. The second is labeled as a prologue, and it's a perfect example of why prologues can be good. It demonstrates backstory, it introduces vital elements of the world without infodumping it, and it's an entertaining piece of fiction in and of itself. My only gripe is that it needed a better transition to the rest of the book.

The third prologue is labeled chapter one, and is a curious study -- and what I really want to single out here. It's one that I really didn't like, because what good was it? We see the events that get Kaladin imprisoned and sold as a slave, but why didn't we get them as backstory? If we had to have the information right away, why did we get a POV that dies at the end of the chapter, and therefore by definition never shows up again? Any experienced author knows that the first characters you encounter are the most sympathetic for an audience, and wading through so many pages to finally get to a main character is bad.

Except that the more I thought about it, the more I realized it couldn't be done any other way. Kaladin, at the time of his "crime," was idealistic and loyal to a fault. He was a commoner who could have, legally, taken a magic item traditionally wielded by nobility and taken his place among those ranks. Instead, he handed it over to his lord. In return, the lord sold him into slavery, lest he tell anyone that the noble didn't win it in battle himself. The lord thought it was shameful that a darkeye soldier won it for him (though obviously he took it). It makes it a better story to not know Kaladin's own thoughts and own perspectives during that sequence. We see what happened from an objective viewpoint, with no stake in what happens next (obviously, since he died), and only then do we get to Kaladin's perspective as the honorable man who has been betrayed. More, not knowing his thoughts at the time make what happens at the end of the book far, far more powerful, when . . . eh, spoilers.

Now, I have to admit that I found it rather ironic when I found myself writing a prologue for one of my fiction projects. There was just no other way for me to do it. In my prologue, I show eight supernatural beings gather for a round of some sort of game that involves gods from various real-world mythologies. Their names are Light, Darkness, Day, Night, Ocean, Mountain, Harmony, and Solitude. There is much that isn't known. Are they the embodiment of those concepts, or named after them? Where are they meeting? Why are they acting like they're playing a game with the world? Why are they telling each other about their upcoming "moves," which consists of just naming a god like Thoth, Ishtar, Thor, or Amateratsu?

Then a ninth being shows up, which causes the others to hesitate. His name is Chaos, and he would like to make his move.

At that, it cuts to the first chapter, when the main character gets sucked into the hidden supernatural war for Earth. The prologue became necessary because there is important information that has to be delivered as quickly as possible, before the main character knows about any of it. It ties the story together by making certain events gain more meaning in the first several sequences.

Will people skip over it? Inevitably. It'll still be there later, though; and since this will eventually be a Royal Road web novel down the line (I have a few projects I want to do first), people will reference it in the comments. Assuming anyone comments, of course. It felt strange to be writing a prologue after all my professional bad attitude about them, but I realized it was truly necessary. I think it's the second prologue I've ever written, with the first being my second attempt at a novel when I was sixteen. Everything else between has avoided them.

Moving on to quoting some of the above discussion:

IvyVeritas Wrote: 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.

This is entirely correct. Prologues work best not when you use them to cover what happened first, but rather what happened outside the perspective of the main character(s) that needs to be known before anything else happens.



JeneClyde Wrote: 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

Also correct. Prologues most often fail because they are histories rather than events.

Of course, they also tend to fail because they're not entertaining stories by themselves, but most of those are histories in the first place.




TienSwitch Wrote: 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.

Yes, the good examples of successful prologues tend to make people think that prologues are okay because they're prologues, and not because of very specific attributes.

TienSwitch Wrote: 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.

[snip] 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.

And this is why these movie and TV prologues are so often better than in prose. In a book, there are few constraints; but in visual media, you have very little space to do it. That means there's a lot of pressure to (literally, even) cut to the chase. That's such an old Hollywood phrase that no one knows for certain who coined it, and dates all the way back to the silent film era. The more time you take, the more money it costs. What does the audience need to know, right now, that can't be told in the main body of the story?

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#23

NovelNinja Wrote: This is entirely correct. Prologues work best not when you use them to cover what happened first, but rather what happened outside the perspective of the main character(s) that needs to be known before anything else happens.


Yes. In my case, I'm running two storylines in parallel. Those two storylines affect each other, but they don't intersect. The prologues and epilogues are the immortal storyline (gods and demons and so forth), and sometimes include historical events (as they coincide with the immortal storyline). Note that here on Royal Road, the Book 1 prologue is labeled as "Chapter 1" due to a naming issue on another site where I post, but for the ebook release, I fixed that and renamed it to "Prologue".

The bulk of the book is the mortal storyline--the main characters, who are gradually learning the secrets about themselves and the world they live in. They don't know about the immortal storyline at all, even as it starts to affect them, but some of the secrets they've learned have started to hint at it.

As the two storylines draw closer to each other, I've started sprinkling a couple of immortal scenes into the mortal chapters to keep them in sync chronologically, but there's been very little direct interaction between the two storylines.

For my first attempt at epic fantasy, I'm pretty happy with the results. I love the story the way it is, but there are some lessons I've learned -- in particular:

* Book 1 is kinda slow, serving more as an extended first act to the entire series, but not really having a significant finale of its own
* There are some flashbacks sprinkled within the first ten chapters that can be jarring to new readers (though it's hard to imagine the story without them)
* I've got too many main characters, so it can be hard to pay attention to all their individual storylines when the bulk of the group is traveling together.

But I don't regret my prologues and epilogues at all. They're doing exactly what I wanted them to do. Perhaps an editor would feel differently, but I don't know how I'd tell this particular story without prologues.

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#24

IvyVeritas Wrote:
NovelNinja Wrote: This is entirely correct. Prologues work best not when you use them to cover what happened first, but rather what happened outside the perspective of the main character(s) that needs to be known before anything else happens.


Yes. In my case, I'm running two storylines in parallel. Those two storylines affect each other, but they don't intersect. The prologues and epilogues are the immortal storyline (gods and demons and so forth), and sometimes include historical events (as they coincide with the immortal storyline). Note that here on Royal Road, the Book 1 prologue is labeled as "Chapter 1" due to a naming issue on another site where I post, but for the ebook release, I fixed that and renamed it to "Prologue".

The bulk of the book is the mortal storyline--the main characters, who are gradually learning the secrets about themselves and the world they live in. They don't know about the immortal storyline at all, even as it starts to affect them, but some of the secrets they've learned have started to hint at it.

As the two storylines draw closer to each other, I've started sprinkling a couple of immortal scenes into the mortal chapters to keep them in sync chronologically, but there's been very little direct interaction between the two storylines.

For my first attempt at epic fantasy, I'm pretty happy with the results. I love the story the way it is, but there are some lessons I've learned -- in particular:

* Book 1 is kinda slow, serving more as an extended first act to the entire series, but not really having a significant finale of its own
* There are some flashbacks sprinkled within the first ten chapters that can be jarring to new readers (though it's hard to imagine the story without them)
* I've got too many main characters, so it can be hard to pay attention to all their individual storylines when the bulk of the group is traveling together.

But I don't regret my prologues and epilogues at all. They're doing exactly what I wanted them to do. Perhaps an editor would feel differently, but I don't know how I'd tell this particular story without prologues.
You know, I've had your novel on my list to read basically since I got here, and I still haven't read it. I just fixed that by reading the first chapter (prologue). 


It's a rare prologue that makes me disappointed that the first (real) chapter doesn't follow the prologue's story. Well done. 

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#25
Besides what has been mentioned, my gripe with prologue is this. If something is a prologue rather than just chapter 1, it's because it is fundamentally different from what comes after, i.e. the rest of the story. Either in terms of setting, characters, time period, or style, the prologue is different from the main story.

I don't think it's good that the first writing encountered by your potential reader is fundamentally different from the actual story they'll be reading. It's taking unnecessary risks. You lose readers that might have enjoyed the actual story, but who disliked the prologue and never progressed to the first chapter; and you lose readers who did enjoy the prologue, but get disappointed that the following chapters are different.

Re: Don't include a prologue in your story

#26
I got to admit that I dislike most prologues. Far too often they end up just being a large worldbuilding infodump or chapter one with a different name. But that hasn't stopped me from writing one that shows events related to the story that the singular POV does not know as well as setup for later.

I did keep in mind that nowadays people will even skip the prologue and even with my very low views I can see that some do.