Prologues must die

I’ve joined several different writers groups recently, trying to find one or two that are a good fit for me. I think I’ve found one, but I’m having several issues with the others. They’ve proven one thing to me, though:

For many authors, the prologue is alive and well.

Also, I see now reasons why it should die.

I never really had a problem with prologues, but I’m thinking that was because of the kind of books I read—Fantasy adventure books—often had prologues. They were usually little teasers about either the villain or a magical artifact (that might also be the villain) that would be a driving force for the plot. I liked seeing the demon rising out of the volcano or the unaware explorers unearthing the Widget of DOOM. I usually forgot about the prologue halfway through the book until the heroes discovered either demon or widget (sometimes both!) and I got to have a little ah ha moment.

These are not those kinds of books. I’m coming to understand that many writers use prologues as a history lesson, an enormous info dump for backstory that should be threaded through the narrative. I understand why editors might cringe when they just see the word PROLOGUE, especially if it has dates just below it. Do readers really want to begin a novel with a history lesson? Can they even remember it as the novel goes on?

How do you feel about prologues? Do you avoid them mercilessly? Cut them whenever you critique? And if you feel like telling me, how would you suggest I phrase my suggestion that authors cut their prologues entirely and weave the information into the narrative? Maybe I’m just too obsessed with not hurting feelings, but I remember my first novel. It was bad, and I ultimately appreciated all the tactful suggestions I got on how to change it. Any and all advice appreciated.

12 thoughts on “Prologues must die

  1. i think if they are short 1 -2 pages, full of action and set up at least several potential questions or conflicts, they serve the commercial purpose of hooking the reader.
    These days we only have a few pages, not twenty or thirty when reading was a past time, not a luxury or odd hobby. to grab that reader’s attention. The prologue, like the eye-popping commercials that flood the airwaves on the days before that movie opens.

    my gripe is with the antagonist who gets all the press yet, for the most part, does not really do much until the protagonist chases him down at the end of the story

  2. Prologues are bothersome. I don’t even like the villain viewpoint beginning unless it starts with a bad thing set in motion that we have to spend the first half the book waiting for the MC to discover and we know it’s right there, if only she’d look the right direction…

    The last prologue I read was pure backstory. Stuff the author needed to write it, but not stuff I needed to know. Certainly not stuff I needed before reading it. Then she fed it into the story too, making it even worse. And the one before that was poetic crap (sorry, but when most of the thing describes the color of autumn leaves… gah.)

    I don’t know the best way to tell people though. I’m not writerly social. I should try to join our local nanowrimo group this year out in public somewhere and try, shouldn’t I? 🙂

  3. I can appreciate a short dialogue. Some of the longer ones do tend to make me want to just turn to chapter 1 and hope for the best. But I’m with you regarding the fantasy adventure. I’ve found the prologue in fantasy stories helps to propel me into this fantasy place when it’s short or, if it is longer, done right. I almost wonder if a prologue is a staple for fantasy, particularly the first book in a series.

  4. Prologues are little punishments. They’re the vegetables you have to eat before you get cake. Unless it’s a single page, I usually wonder whether I could skip it, and not be lost at some critical juncture in the story.

    It’s a ridiculous, irrational aversion; after all, aren’t I reading the book to enjoy what the writer has crafted? Isn’t this just a part of the story? Well, yes, but I’d be entirely unperturbed if it were just a very brief, out-of-sync Chapter One.

  5. it depends on the prologue, for me… generally i try to avoid writing one, they tend to turn into infodumps (in some writer’s cases, infodumps from hell – poorly written, verbose vomitings of verbiage that make me want to gouge out my eyes with a dull spoon… but i digress)… but sometimes they’re just so enticing… i want my readers to know this stuff, but baby jeebus in a goat cart, i can’t think of a way/be bothered to work the info into the story any other way…

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