To Use a Prologue or Not by Jeanne Harrell
A prologue can be compared somewhat to the opening remarks in a trial. A lawyer faces the jury to explain how he will conduct his part of the trial, what evidence and items of discovery will be admitted. The beginnings of ancient books were important because the author would give some indication of the book’s contents, and define the subject to be discussed.
In today’s novels, prologues are often not used well or at all. Apparently, editors hate them, writers are confused how to use them and readers simply skip ahead to start the novel. In a novel by J.A. Jance, ace crime fiction writer, I found myself impatient with the poor victim’s story in the prologue and hurried on to chapter one to see what the protagonist was up to. Later I felt guilty at my lack of concern and read the prologue because I should. That’s not a good reason to read a prologue.
J.K. Rowling didn’t bother with prologues. It was full-speed ahead into her latest Harry Potter story; she had much to say and wanted to get right with it. Sara Blaedel, Danish crime writer, will use a prologue to set up a story and make you come back later to check certain startling details and say, “Aha! That’s what she meant.”
It seems to be the rule of thumb with prologues to not use one if it’s for: a) a massive information dump or b) if it has nothing to do with the main story. As a mystery and romance writer, the latter in that rule resonates the most with me. The spy novel I’m currently working on has a prologue I questioned from day one. Why did I write it? The scene had actually happened to me, sparking the idea for the book. Does it have anything to do with the plot? No.
There’s my answer, so I cut it.
It’s interesting that writers are turning away from prologues more often than not these days, but movies and television shows use them religiously. Older shows like Columbo and Murder, She Wrote always began with a murder but no suspects. Newer shows like CSI and Law and Order do much of the same. Even a comedy like Trainwreck gives the viewer an idea in the beginning why Amy Schumer’s character is out of control.
So if you’re set on using a prologue, make sure it has relevance. If not, it’s an effort in futility and a possible reason for a reader to put down your book. And that will never do.
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Happy reading from Jeanne Harrell!