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’ve all heard that prologues are the devil’s playthings and 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.
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, 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’ll 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.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.