Prologue Done Right

I’ve read a lot of good books this year, but my favorite is Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray. I was so taken with that story that I picked up another of her books: Out of the Easy. At that point, I went looking for her on Twitter so I could go all fan-girl on her. Her writing is that good. And one of the things that impressed me the most was her deft handling of her prologue in Out of the Easy.

We all know that Satan 1) tempted Adam and Eve, and 2) created the prologue. Thus, it should be avoided at all costs. But Sepetys’ prologue works beautifully, not only because of how she does it, but why. If you’re thinking of utilizing a prologue in your novel, consider the why and the how of this successful example.

WHAT

First off, a prologue can be defined as a separate introductory section to a literary work. It normally happens well before the start of the actual story and contains information that has bearing on the current story.

WHY THIS PARTICULAR PROLOGUE WORKS:

It includes the story’s main character. Many unsuccessful prologues are ones that reveal an ancient curse or prophecy or war that has direct impact on the current story. The prologue goes so far back in time that the characters in that opening are totally different from the ones that make up the rest of the story. Readers become attached to the characters in the prologue, turn the page to start chapter one, and are all, “Wait. What happened to King Roland Nicholas Augustine Xavier William XXIII and his nefarious wizard? Who are all these new people?”

Sepetys’ opening works because it spotlights the main character of her story, just ten years prior. Readers connect with Jo, so when the next chapter picks up many years later, they’re still invested in her and continue reading to see what happens to her.

It serves a purpose. *SPOILER ALERT* Out of the Easy opens with the main character’s mother interviewing for a position at a New Orleans brothel. The outcome of this initial meeting with the infamous madame Willie will have a huge impact on seven-year-old Jo’s life. The story ends with Willie’s death, an event that is also life changing for Jo. That opening, along with the ending, serves as a bookend, setting up a symmetrical story structure that is satisfying to readers.

There needs to be a purpose for your prologue beyond conveying information. If it exists simply to show the reader important events that happened years before, you don’t have a prologue. You have backstory. Like all backstory, it should be revealed through the current storyline, not set apart in a big chunk—particularly at the very beginning of your story.

The prologue draws the reader in. This prologue works because the content is intriguing. I mean, the main character’s mother is a prostitute interviewing for a position at a brothel, and she brings her seven-year-old daughter to the interview. The scenario by itself is enough to develop reader empathy for this poor girl. But through Sepetys’ masterful writing, we see the mother’s abuse and empty promises, and the hardness of the madame who will be taking an authoritative role in the main character’s life. This prologue  serves the purpose of creating empathy, of immediately drawing readers in and making them care about Jo’s plight.

HOW DOES SEPETYS MAKE HER PROLOGUE WORK?

No labels. There’s no heading to indicate that you’re reading a prologue. It simply starts with “Chapter One”. I think this is genius. We’ve all heard how wary editors and agents are of prologues, because they’re so often either not necessary to the story or aren’t written well. That’s not to say that prologues are an automatic reject, but they do make the gatekeepers nervous—especially if you’re an unknown writer. Why start out with a strike against your manuscript? If your prologue includes your main character (as it should), treat it as part of her story and avoid negative associations by setting it apart with a “prologue” heading.

A smooth temporal transition. One of the reasons prologues often don’t work is because they’re clunky. You’ve got that opening scene, which often includes characters that will never again be seen in the story. Then the next chapter starts with a new cast and a big subheading that reads FIFTY YEARS LATER or “May 2, 1975″—an indicator that there has been a big jump in time. It’s jarring.

Sepetys negates this by including the temporal references within the context of the story in a way that is completely natural. The prologue ends with this line: That was ten years ago. She never did buy me that doll. Then, the opening of the next chapter: They thought I couldn’t hear their whispers, their snickers. I had heard them for ten years. The author doesn’t rely on clumsy headers and abrupt section breaks that readers have to integrate into their knowledge of the story; instead, she utilizes strong writing to convey the temporal shift in a way that makes a seamless transition.

So, if you’re considering writing a prologue into your story, take these points into consideration:

  • Does it include your main character? If not, then you probably don’t need to include it, and you definitely want to think twice about opening your story with it.
  • Does it serve a purpose beyond conveying information? If your only reason for including it is to let readers know what happened a hundred or twenty or two years ago, then, again, you probably don’t need a prologue. Find some other way of including that information in the story.
  • Does it draw readers in? Whether you start with a first chapter or a prologue, that opening scene has to hook readers. Period. Make sure that yours does.

This was a real eye-opener for me, seeing a prologue that worked well. And now I’m thinking that there must be others. If you know of any examples of successful prologues, I’d love to hear what they are, and why you think they worked.

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18 Responses to Prologue Done Right

  1. Pingback: To Picks Thursday 12-19-2013 | The Author Chronicles

  2. You made many wonderful points about why this prologue works so well (I skipped the spoiler). I have been wanting to read something by this author and after reading how much you love her I have to read something by her soon! Maybe I will use a Christmas gift card to get one. (I have to get at least one bookstore gift card- right?) :) Thanks for sharing!

  3. I don’t have a copy of the book, but my recollection of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book seems to bear a strong resemblance to the prologue you’re describing. It may not be labeled as a prologue, but the first Chapter of the book definitely acts like one. A riveting one.

  4. I’m interested in your take on prologues (or Chapter Ones) that flash forward into the future and then go back, like in “Wild” or “Strength in What Remains.” I’m thinking of following that path – show a poignant piece of the story, summarize a bit to give a taste of the character, then go back to where the story began.

    • I think this is commonly referred to as a Flash Forward. It’s good because it involves the main character and usually shows them in some kind of danger or difficulty, so it can be good for drawing the reader in. I’ve seen it used very effectively. I’m also considering using this technique for my WIP, but I do want to make sure it’s the best way to tell the story. Because flash forwards are used to grab the reader’s attention without following a linear story line, I think it can come across as gimmicky. So I want to make sure there’s a good reason to utilize it. :)

  5. Jemi Fraser says:

    Awesome! I’ve read a few good prologues too, but I can’t remember details at the moment. I’ll have to keep these hints in mind for the future!

  6. Anna Labno says:

    When I read the Bliss, I enjoyed the prologue. Thank you for letting me know about the new author I might enjoy.

  7. Rosi says:

    Thanks for this post. It is so informative and gives me a lot to think about . I will be picking up Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy very soon.

  8. Karen Lange says:

    Thanks so much for this wonderful advice! I appreciate your insight! :)

  9. R. E. Hunter says:

    It’s funny, I keep reading this “no agent or editor wants a prologue” advice, but almost every book I read has one. But as you say, they’re an integral part of the story. Possibly it’s because one of my favorite genres is thrillers, and the prologue usually sets up the initial mystery that is the basis for the rest of the book. To take a famous example, “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown, where the museum curator is murdered by the mysterious albino man. It puts all kinds of questions into your mind immediately that you have to find the answers to.

  10. Mart Ramirez says:

    Love hearing examples that work. Thank you for sharing! I once read from, I believe it was from a Dean Koontz writing book (or Donald Mass), that it’s best to drop the prologue entirely and add it to the first chapter as this author did. Ever since I heard that years ago it stuck with me. It’s so true. When you see the word prologue most of us automatically think backstory and adding it to chapter one propels the reader straight to the story. It’s almost psychological :-) Great post!!!

  11. Great to learn!! I have a story I may pull out again that involves a prologue and the main characters. It’s a time-travel. I shelved it because I heard that no agent/editor/publisher wanted prologues but hearing this, maybe there’s hope for it. I really don’t see any other way to explain my character’s world, who she is, why she travels through time into the present without it.

  12. Good post. It distresses me when people dismiss all prologues. They can be useful tools when done well.

  13. Jodie Renner says:

    And I would add that all of the advice above also applies to Chapter One. Don’t start chapter one in the head of any character except your main character, and stay in their point of view for the whole chapter. The last thing you want to do is get readers emotionally invested in someone who they think is the main character, the one whose story it is, only to find out at the end of the chapter that it’s a minor character — or a victim who ends up dead. I know this victim thing is done in thrillers, but I do think it’s risky. Readers are bonding with this character and rooting for him/her, ready to cheer them on through the novel, and then the character gets killed! And readers have to pick themselves up and start over again, bonding with a different character.

  14. Jodie Renner says:

    Excellent post, Becca! This is the most comprehensive, informative, and useful article I’ve read to date on Prologues! Kudos to you! I’ll be sharing this on social media and with my clients.

  15. Heather Raglin says:

    I read Between Shades of Gray a little over a year ago and loved it. I usually read fantasy or contemporary, but this book is remarkable. I’ll have to pick up her latest novel because her writing is beautiful. Thanks for the reminder about Ruta Sepetys.

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