Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#1
Hi, I'm completely new to writing, and when I started writing my story I wrote a prologue to establish a foundation for what to expect in the future. I think the prologue is fun and exciting, but it doesn't quite match the tone of the following chapters.

After posting chapters for several day's (although understandably not a large metric to go by) I find it hard trying to understand reader engagement. I expect there to be drop off after the first chapter, looking at the analytics of the prologue it seems to do reasonably well and leads people into the first chapter. Then there's a more significant drop off almost immediately afterwards.  I started wondering if a reader might have felt misled by the prologue I wrote.

I wrote a prologue to establish the universe that the story would take place in, name drop a few of the significant characters that will show up later in the story. Give an idea of how powerful people in the universe could get. My main goal was to give the reader some idea of what to expect much later in the story. 

I guess a my question should be 'Are prologues or preludes that don't contain the main character to the story bad?' or something like that.

There's the fact that its a webnovel platform and perhaps some traditional writing advice may not be as applicable to this type of audience.

Maybe I shouldn't worry too much about these things at this point, but I was curious about peoples thoughts.

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#2
First of all, it's expected to have probably a 60-90% read through rate from first to second chapter depending on how good your packaging matches the content. If it's 60%, you need to either improve the writing, the hook at the end of the chapter, or your packaging to attract the right people in the first place. If it's 90%, holy heck you're doing amazing. 70-80% numbers are more expected.

You need to account for the nature of prologues when looking at the prologue to chapter 1 numbers. The fact is, readers don't always read them or like them.

Your views look like this:
- People who click on the very first entry, see it's a prologue and click to Chapter 1 after the fact.
- People who read the prologue and either like it and want to keep reading / People who hate it but figure they always hate prologues, so they're going to give the real chapter 1 a try before floating away
- People who see it's a prologue from the get-go and click directly to Chapter 1
- People who look at just the prologue and float away.

Basically, the first two categories of behavior will lead to your prologue and chapter 1 having similar read-through rates. The latter two categories of behavior more-or-less cancel each other out, again resulting in similar read-through rates. It's at the chapter 1 to chapter 2 threshold where the actual drop-off is happening as you're observing, so use that percentage to inform you about how your story is doing, as described above.

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#3
Well, people in the forums seem to be in agreement that prologues are, overall, bad. A decent percent of people claim to skip them entirely. And I think that plays into what you're seeing.
It's not that people read the prologue, then chapter 1, then drop the story, it's that some people start on chapter one and drop it from there. Or else they presume the prologue will be different, so read both, and decide to drop at that point.
Overall, I wouldn't stress about it if I were you. You still have a decent amount of followers. Leave it in.

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#4
When I read a prologue, it's usually one of three things:

-Flash forward to the future, foreshadowing of the end.
Done well, this adds curiosity and tension. It turns the story from 'what will happen' to 'how will it happen'.
Done poorly, it makes you want to skip the entire dull boring build-up story because this is where the story should start, (I've read a lot of these) or simply ruins the story because now you know how it'll play out and it's not as interesting.

-Historical information to understand later on events, but not directly relevant at first.
Done well, this adds richness to the world and context to the story's events.
Done poorly, this bores people and turns them away from the story.

-A setup scene directly related to the first chapter, but different enough to require being set off on its own. Such as showing a murder before the investigation begins, or a formative event from the main character's life prior to the story's actual beginning.
Done well, this adds intrigue and empathy.
Done poorly, it detracts from the story's impact and can confuse readers.

But... a bad chapter 1 is just as bad as a bad prologue. Prologues have a bad rap because of too many people doing them wrong, so many people just skip them altogether. But does that really mean prologues are bad?
I don't think so.  I love a good prologue. A good prologue can add a lot to the story experience.

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#5
It's not that they're bad, it's that people do them completely wrong.  They're supposed to jumpstart a reader a little.  Give them a little easy to digest story that explains the state of the world when it's otherwise hard to do.  Almost no one does them right so people just skip them.  They are not always the right decision, they are not required.  They're just a little trick some authors use to speed up immersion.  

The problem is that everyone on RR uses them as an info dump or to give the reader some nonsensical pre-reincarnation story that has no impact on the fiction whatsoever.  

It's even worse if the author tries to make those pre-reincarnation stories impactful on the rest of the story.  There's a fiction where the protagonist suffers PTSD from his pre-reincarnation story and starts going to therapy sessions over it much later in the fiction.  Like seriously, the therapy sessions have nothing to do with the rest of the fiction and I'd skipped the pre-reincarnation story because that was bad too.  So the whole thing was just a mess to me.  

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#6

Mad Wrote: Well, people in the forums seem to be in agreement that prologues are, overall, bad. A decent percent of people claim to skip them entirely. And I think that plays into what you're seeing.
I disagree with that sentiment. It's not the prologues themselves that are bad but how the majority of amateur writers handle prologues on this site. That said, I won't say you absolutely need to put a prologue in your story. However, if your story can benefit from a prologue, then why not? And if the readers miss it cause they belong to some 'don't ever read prologues' crowd, that's their problem, not yours. Just know even those people probably won't skip your story just cause it begins with a prologue. They'd just skip to the first chapter. So you won't be missing out on reader-base by putting in a prologue...


If however, you're putting in an info dump because you have an overinflated opinion of your worldbuilding and think readers need to know all the little details about the history, geography, magic system, and all that malarky right from the get-go cause otherwise, they won't 'understand' your story, and call that a prologue, then I can only say you have no idea what prologues are(and heck, you probably have no idea how to write a story) and the readers are completely justified in ignoring it...

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#7

Tavi Wrote: When I read a prologue, it's usually one of three things:

-Flash forward to the future, foreshadowing of the end.
Done well, this adds curiosity and tension. It turns the story from 'what will happen' to 'how will it happen'.
Done poorly, it makes you want to skip the entire dull boring build-up story because this is where the story should start, (I've read a lot of these) or simply ruins the story because now you know how it'll play out and it's not as interesting.

-Historical information to understand later on events, but not directly relevant at first.
Done well, this adds richness to the world and context to the story's events.
Done poorly, this bores people and turns them away from the story.

-A setup scene directly related to the first chapter, but different enough to require being set off on its own. Such as showing a murder before the investigation begins, or a formative event from the main character's life prior to the story's actual beginning.
Done well, this adds intrigue and empathy.
Done poorly, it detracts from the story's impact and can confuse readers.

But... a bad chapter 1 is just as bad as a bad prologue. Prologues have a bad rap because of too many people doing them wrong, so many people just skip them altogether. But does that really mean prologues are bad?
I don't think so.  I love a good prologue. A good prologue can add a lot to the story experience.


This is a great overview. I'd like to add that a well-done prologue will communicate and make certain promises to the reader. For example, if you have a detective story and the murder scene prior to the investigation is the prologue, you've very neatly promised your reader that this is either a detective story or a crime thriller. You will know which it is because the way the prologue will written will be genre-specific (if done well) so the promises are implicit in both the content and style. It doesn't have to be a genre promise, either; it can be a plot point, a Chekov's gun, or anything else that has relevance to the story. Usually, it does set up reader's expectations in some way, even if it's something like mood or atmosphere. 

I think there is sometimes a mismatch between what the prologue promises the reader and what gets delivered. This can probably lead to you losing readers. I think the other potential mismatch is if you've made your prologue match the format found in traditional books vs. those in online novels. This is because with traditional books, once the reader has the book in their hand they will probably stick with it (or read for x number of hours). With online stories I think the expectation and reading behavior differs, in that there might not be a lot of patience for long-term payoffs (not saying there isn't at all, but it would be hard to keep track of a lot of dangling plot threads in a story that updates weekly, for example) and there might be preference for a specific type of prologue. 

With that said, I don't think your trend is all that unusual. I have steady drop-off in readership for my chapters and they've stabilized between 25-35ish per chapter. I'm thinking that the interested reader-base will keep coming and the later chapters are a better gauge of reader-interest. Then again, I've done a similar thing to you--the prologue is starts in the action for the end of Book II and start of Book III--so that might explain the similar pattern (readers feel cheated and leave). 

At the end of the day, though, I think you should write it how you want to, unless reader engagement is the most important metric for you. In that case, you could potentially change your prologue to be more in-line with the rest of your story. 

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#9
Thank you for all the advice and different perspectives. It has given me something to think about, I'll have to put aside some time to revisit what I had written as the prologue and think about it in the larger context of the story. I definitely got carried away when I wrote it, perhaps some of the writing wasn't a total waste and could come back into the story at a later point.

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#10

B.A. Wrote: I'm in the camp of "prologues aren't bad, just a lot of the times badly executed". As in, I'm not a fan of the way most fantasy works use them. The issue is more that a lot of prologues are just history dumps that, while they may play some role in the future of the writing, almost always have no bearing on the "right now" of the story.


Look at Leviathan Wakes' prologue: It follows a woman, Julie Mao, spending time jailed on a ship. Finding Julie becomes the thing that joins the two major POV characters' (Miller and Holden) arcs together. The prologue is relevant to the story from the very beginning, since it kicks off their arcs. I think this prologue is well done, it's relevance is kept throughout the entire story.

Compare Way of Kings' prologue: It's set 4,000 years or so before chapter 1. It follows a group of men who have been stuck in an endless loop of battle finally giving up, they abandon one of their own in one of the loops. I'm not really doing that prologue justice, it's been a while since I read it, but 4,000 years is still a massive timeskip. You can start in on chapter 1 and I promise you won't be missing anything by having skipped the prologue*. It's basically a history lesson at how the Knights Radiant collapsed—but it's missing all context for why the reader should care—it's the beginning of the story, we don't know or care who the Knights Radiant are yet, and that context isn't given to the reader until the end of the book. If it takes an entire book for the prologue to have meaning, then it means the information wasn't necessary at the beginning—it would have been better dispensed throughout the book. Which WpK does—through one of the MCs having visions, but again, there's no context for the information dispensed until the end of the book

*IMHO, the 1st chapter of WoK works far better as a prologue for the series, since it's more in line with what Leviathan Wakes does, it kicks off the events of the rest of the story.


I think you make an interesting point that I'm inclined to agree with. As a fan of Brandon Sandersons work, I really enjoyed the prologue of WoK as a stand alone. But as you say, in the grand scheme of the story it wasn't relevant until much later. I think I may be guilty of doing the same thing in my own prologue.

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#11
I did pretty much the same thing as you. I wrote a prologue that added some context, did some name drops, and so on. I also noticed that there is a drop in retention on chapter one. I've been hovering around 75-85% retention after the prologue. I know some readers skip prologues so I tried to make mine nonessential. I think prologues can be good, but lots of writers do them wrong. 

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#12
Not to jump on the bandwagon, beat a dead horse, or participate in any other clichés here, but I think you might do well to avoid a prologue altogether. Sometimes I see writers add reference pages/maps/lexicons at the start of their stories after several months of success, and I usually gloss over those as a reader. If you're just starting out, I think a prologue would have to do more work than ANY other chapter type in order to justify its existence. Worldbuilding is best done on the fly so that the reader doesn't even notice it happening. Your writing should speak for itself as to what the reader can expect. If your story gets successful enough to publish, you might toss in a prologue as a treat for fans buying your book to provide a little more backstory or tease future events, but like everyone else has said, you might just want to axe it if it's not doing major legwork.

To end on another cliché, that's just my two cents.  DrakanLaugh

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#14

B.A. Wrote: I'm in the camp of "prologues aren't bad, just a lot of the times badly executed". As in, I'm not a fan of the way most fantasy works use them. The issue is more that a lot of prologues are just history dumps that, while they may play some role in the future of the writing, almost always have no bearing on the "right now" of the story.


Look at Leviathan Wakes' prologue: It follows a woman, Julie Mao, spending time jailed on a ship. Finding Julie becomes the thing that joins the two major POV characters' (Miller and Holden) arcs together. The prologue is relevant to the story from the very beginning, since it kicks off their arcs. I think this prologue is well done, it's relevance is kept throughout the entire story.

Compare Way of Kings' prologue: It's set 4,000 years or so before chapter 1. It follows a group of men who have been stuck in an endless loop of battle finally giving up, they abandon one of their own in one of the loops. I'm not really doing that prologue justice, it's been a while since I read it, but 4,000 years is still a massive timeskip. You can start in on chapter 1 and I promise you won't be missing anything by having skipped the prologue*. It's basically a history lesson at how the Knights Radiant collapsed—but it's missing all context for why the reader should care—it's the beginning of the story, we don't know or care who the Knights Radiant are yet, and that context isn't given to the reader until the end of the book. If it takes an entire book for the prologue to have meaning, then it means the information wasn't necessary at the beginning—it would have been better dispensed throughout the book. Which WpK does—through one of the MCs having visions, but again, there's no context for the information dispensed until the end of the book

*IMHO, the 1st chapter of WoK works far better as a prologue for the series, since it's more in line with what Leviathan Wakes does, it kicks off the events of the rest of the story.
I don't think prologues need to be relevant from the get-go. After all, we read stories for entertainment, and if a prologue is entertaining, and is connected(especially when it's a driving force) to the plot, I'm fine with it no matter how late it comes into play... 


The Wrote: I did pretty much the same thing as you. I wrote a prologue that added some context, did some name drops, and so on. I also noticed that there is a drop in retention on chapter one. I've been hovering around 75-85% retention after the prologue. I know some readers skip prologues so I tried to make mine nonessential. I think prologues can be good, but lots of writers do them wrong.
I don't really agree with that approach. Imo, if you're writing a prologue, though it doesn't need to be, it's better to make it an essential part of the story. And if the readers skipped that part and missed something essential, that's on them, not me...


razscrivens Wrote: Not to jump on the bandwagon, beat a dead horse, or participate in any other clichés here, but I think you might do well to avoid a prologue altogether. Sometimes I see writers add reference pages/maps/lexicons at the start of their stories after several months of success, and I usually gloss over those as a reader. If you're just starting out, I think a prologue would have to do more work than ANY other chapter type in order to justify its existence. Worldbuilding is best done on the fly so that the reader doesn't even notice it happening. Your writing should speak for itself as to what the reader can expect. If your story gets successful enough to publish, you might toss in a prologue as a treat for fans buying your book to provide a little more backstory or tease future events, but like everyone else has said, you might just want to axe it if it's not doing major legwork.

To end on another cliché, that's just my two cents.  DrakanLaugh
Well, this I kinda agree with and kinda not. But I won't say don't do prologues because you're a new writer. Rather, don't write them if you don't understand what prologues are. Dumping your worldbuilding is the worst way to do a prologue. In fact, I'd argue that's not a prologue but an infodump chapter. That said, you don't need to be 'successful' to write a prologue. You can write them, just don't make them boring. As for necessity, stories themselves are largely unnecessary for our survival. We read them to be entertained. So if a prologue is entertaining, then why not...



This isn't an advert or anything, but you could check out the prologue of my book(in the signature). It isn't named 'prologue' and there are many errors to make up but I feel, as a concept of prologues, it's sound...

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#15
I Wrote: That said, you don't need to be 'successful' to write a prologue.
Oh no, I definitely didn't mean to imply that at all. And I agree that stories are not an immediate survival necessity (for most people)--but what I was trying to say was that everything in a story should have a purpose that it serves in that story. My main takeaway is that I feel prologues should justify their existence, and it's difficult for many to do that. I could not write a prologue for either story of mine that either A) didn't spoil the story or B) added anything useful without being an infodump.

I can say from experience as a reader that if I'm checking out a story for the first time, and it has maybe five or six chapters and one of them is "Prologue"... I'm skeptical of that. If your story stands on its own and you later want to add in a prologue for your readers' enjoyment, I can see why authors would do that. But I certainly agree you don't need to be successful, financially or viewers-wise, in order to write a good prologue. I just think it's very difficult to write a good one, and you're more likely to get away with it if you're already established vs if you're trying to curry favor with new readers.

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#16

Raz Wrote:
I Wrote: That said, you don't need to be 'successful' to write a prologue.
Oh no, I definitely didn't mean to imply that at all. And I agree that stories are not an immediate survival necessity (for most people)--but what I was trying to say was that everything in a story should have a purpose that it serves in that story. My main takeaway is that I feel prologues should justify their existence, and it's difficult for many to do that. I could not write a prologue for either story of mine that either A) didn't spoil the story or B) added anything useful without being an infodump.

I can say from experience as a reader that if I'm checking out a story for the first time, and it has maybe five or six chapters and one of them is "Prologue"... I'm skeptical of that. If your story stands on its own and you later want to add in a prologue for your readers' enjoyment, I can see why authors would do that. But I certainly agree you don't need to be successful, financially or viewers-wise, in order to write a good prologue. I just think it's very difficult to write a good one, and you're more likely to get away with it if you're already established vs if you're trying to curry favor with new readers.
Those are sentiments I agree with...

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#18

Fundamentally Prologues should serve as something, as a sort of precursor to the story, to establish something within the world or narrative before the main event begins. Historical prologues like The Wheel of Time's 1st book (The Eye of the World) is a good example - if you read it, it showcases the fall of Lews Therin Telamon, a historical figure to the setting, which informs the reader of the setting's war against Shai'tan and how the Dragon brought ruin to the world of TWoT. It does not have to be chronologically before the main story or after it, as long as you can make it as an introduction and foreshadowing of the greater theme and narrative to the story. 


Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#19
Almost anything can be done well enough to make it enjoyable where the norm, or personal belief, is that the certain thing is terrible. 
I generally like Prologues but I have noticed a big rise in prologues that have nothing to do with the actual story or its characters, some are just random scenes from years before/after the story with no correlation, those are the ones I hate.
You can have a good prologue that sets up the world, it doesn't need to feature the protagonist/s, but it has to have some form of connection to work well.
One story I read had a prologue that was actually setting up a different fiction the author wanted to write, and have it separately in the author notes but then had a vote to make it its own fiction. Neither that story of the spin-off is continuing to my knowledge.

Re: Are prologues bad? Do readers feel misled?

#20
My book, the Human Meatball, couldn't exist without it's Prologue.

It sets the scene and the story type (a BootCamp for supers) introduces the protagonist, offers a minimum of exposition so that the world isn't just an action sequence, and helps explain a lot of why the protagonist is the way he is.

It happens two years before chapter 1, which immediately launches into an action sequence, and I felt a Prologue was far better for it than a chapter.

I don't know if it works, though, since after 4 chapters it has a grand total of 4 followers, but that may just be how new it is. I know I personally won't even read a book that has only 4 chapters, because I don't want to have a vested interest in something that might never again advance. 4 chapters is not a track record, it's an idea.

If it helps, the retention after the prologue is damned near 100%