After giving some feedback to Marje (find her on the delightfully quirky blog site Kyrosmagica) about the prologue to her current WIP, she suggested I write a post on the subject.  I suspect my enthusiasm for prologues came across quite strongly.

To be fair, I think that enthusiasm stems from a misspent childhood. (Sadly, when I say misspent, I mean my life revolved around the TV rather than getting up to any more interesting shenanigans.)

You see, a lot of the TV shows of the 60s and 70s opened with a scene to set up the rest of the programme. That set-up might be a crime being committed, a pursuit (surprisingly often in the case of The Avengers), or even an incident unrelated to the rest of the story, but demonstrating the hero’s abilities.

The bottom line, though, is that prologues are basically pre-title sequences.

I was talking to another author a couple of years ago who’d read Ravens Gathering and felt I should get rid of the prologue.  I can’t recall her exact argument, but the sense I had was that prologues were no longer considered either necessary or (for want of a better word) fashionable.  Never having been noted for my fashion sense, this wasn’t an argument I was ever going to agree with.  What matters to me is whether it works.

So here’s what I think a prologue can do:

  1. Introduce a significant character
  2. Create a question in the reader’s mind – e.g. I wonder what was really happening in that scene?
  3. Set the tone or theme for the rest of the story

I don’t mean they need to do all of them, but at least one.

Let’s look back at some examples from the TV of my childhood.

Every episode of The Saint introduced Simon Templar.  There would often be an opening monologue, sometimes action, then the inevitable halo.

A lesser known series, Department S has fallen off the radar for a lot of people, though more will remember its spin-off Jason King. While the production values of the programme would be laughed at now, the openings were always very good at drawing you in.  Watch this one up to the titles and I dare you not to be left wondering “How did that happen?”

Also drawing you in, but really setting the tone for what happens next was this short prelude to an episode of The Sweeney.

I’ve picked on those examples because you can watch them in a couple of minutes (unless they really worked and you were dragged into watching the whole episodes). Do you see what I mean, though?  They’re a hook.

And, if you use a prologue in the same way, unlike the first chapter, they don’t have to be directly part of the narrative. What I mean by that is that the prologue doesn’t have to fit sequentially into the timeline of the rest of the book.  Events there can take place:

  1. At some point in the dim and distant past – an event that foreshadows what will happen in the story
  2. At the climax to the story, but shown as a preview – a teaser, if you like, of what’s to come,
  3. At a significant turning point in the story, which may well be part way in – again a preview/teaser

To the reader, it won’t always be clear which applies – that’s part of the mystery that they’re looking forward to unfolding.

Obviously, these are my interpretations of what prologues need to do for the story. Their ultimate aim, though, is to leave the reader wanting to read more.  If they don’t do that, they shouldn’t be there.

So when you’re deciding on the next book to read, look at the sample on Amazon or, if you’re still supporting bookshops, pick up a hard copy. If it has a prologue, read it, and ask yourself if it fits into any of the criteria I’ve mentioned.  If it doesn’t, but it still hooks you in, let me know.  I’m not claiming this is an exhaustive list, so I’ll be happy to add to it.

If anyone wants to give me feedback on my own prologue, follow this link and click on “look inside” for a free sample.

And, if you’re writing a prologue yourself, ask yourself whether it meets the criteria. But consider something else as well: how would the ending blend into theme music and a title sequence?