I put the question up yesterday and had some interesting responses. I'm going to share one that was posted on my Facebook, where this blog exports to, because it's not visible over here on Blogger. It's from a reader, not an author, and a woman who I consider an "educated reader".

Shannon says: "As a reader, I can skim through a prologue and decide if I want to take time to read a book."

This relates indirectly to what I want to talk about. Keep this thought in mind, as you read what I was taught.

Before we begin, it should be mentioned that many people advise, and subscribe to the theory that prologues should be avoided. I am not one of them. I love prologues. Both in my stories and in other people's stories. There is a trick, however, to using and crafting them effectively.

First and foremost, as a couple of you said, a prologue should be short. 4-5 pages as an average. I think this is pretty well-accepted, as most authors are aware there is a significant number of readers who just skim past the prologue and start with chapter 1.

Second, it should set the tone of what is being written about through the course of a book.

Third, it should absolutely be engaging. Think hooks, authors. A prologue has to have stronger hooks than even the first chapter because of the tendancy to have them overlooked. If it doesn't start with a bang, chances increase it will get skimmed. If it ends with a bang... odds increase you've now spurred a reader into the longer first chapter.

But the purpose, ie when to use it or when not to, is what I was driving at here, and what is it supposed to achieve overall.

A prologue should directly relate to the plot (most often the conflict) that is about to occur in the next however many pages. It will often be a glimpse of the past events in the character(s) lives. That does not translate into a heavy back-story dump. It is (I stress this) a glimpse. Some key event that happens to set the stage for what will be the journey the reader will travel.

Let's take for example a scenario where the overall romance is going to be between a never-been married heroine and a widower cop, whose former wife died in a home break-in while he was on duty and answering the call to break up a bar fight. (Can we say guilt?) Let's add into the mix that she's seven months pregnant with their first child.

Well, to give the reader an effective bond with how difficult this might be for the hero to overcome, we can use the technique of weaving her death into his backstory. But how much more powerful is it if the event is shown from the wife's point of view, as she's being stabbed on her bed, looking at her photograph of her husband in uniform, and thinking about their child, while trying to fight for her life? We don't even have to be in the hero's point of view to bond with his grief. We are already grieving for her.

Assuming the prologue ends without full revelation of whether she lives or dies -- let's say the prologue stops as she fades into unconciousness -- if effective interest is sparked and effective hooks are employed, someone is turning that page to Chapter 1 to find out what happened.

Let's toss this up a little bit and make it a romantic suspense. We'll change our hero to make him a detective. We'll put the prologue in the killer's point of view, and HE notices the picture beside this pregnant woman's bed. We know she dies. Let's end our prologue with the lines: "He glanced at the photograph of the decorated captain and his bride and smirked. One down, three to go."

Volia! Stage set.

But we don't know why the killer is doing this in either scenario, nor should we in the prologue. If we're working with the second scenario we have no idea who the other two might be -- three more women, three more men? Is this guy going to be a threat to our hero or our heroine? The prologue sets the stage, tone, and drops a hint as to what is to come.

A prologue does NOT answer the questions. In fact, it should generate questions a reader wants to know the answers to. It should not detail out the conflict. It should set a level of suspense/intrigue/drama to kick-start a story.

This plays right into what Shannon said. By reading this passage she's read essentially an excerpt from the book in the sense she now has a feel for how the author writes. Are the killings going to be gory? Is that killer believable? Is she compelled to discover the answers? Is the writing itself engaging or is it over-complicated, or conversely, over-simplified?

Moreover, if she's not interested in the prologue, she's probably not going to be interested in the rest of the plot.

I want to go back to what a prologue does not do...

It should be understood that the prologue does not tell the story because it isn't a back-story dump. It should be absolutely understood that there are a whole bunch of things coming down the pipe that explain the questions, and the author may or may not choose to reveal them all in Chapter 1.

Chapter 1 is the beginning of the book, of the forward-moving plot. There will still be unanswered questions, there will still be unresolved issues, just as there would be in a novel without a prologue. In fact, in the second example, the killer's motivations aren't going to be known until either his victims figure out his motives, or the author reveals the motives in his POV. (A choice dependant on the overall plot arc).

A reader should not expect to have everything spelled out by the end of chapter 1, and an author should not feel compelled to spell out the prologue by the end of chapter 1.

That's not the purpose of a prologue, and those who expect the prologue to explain all the unknowns are looking at the prologe as exactly what it shouldn't be: a dumping of back-story that can be achieved in the novel itself.

So, in sum:

What a prologue should be: Short, engaging (ie: action), intriguing, and an indication of what is to come or what the character(s) must combat either externally or internally.

Typical uses of a prologue:
1. To show a past event (briefly!) that poses emotional turmoil for one or both of the characters
2. To show a past event that sets up an external conflict (the first shots that start a war)
3. To explain a complicated aspect of the story through action, not summation, that relates to the plot or subplot (such as the prediction of a prophecy)
4. To show motivation of primary or key secondary characters (villians fit here often).

The key here is use of show. A prologue shows and engages. Back-story tells, no matter where it occurs, and although necessary, is flat.

Guage for yourself:

He knelt before the frail old woman and bowed his head. This was what he'd fought for, what he'd taken life for.
Bony fingers touched the crown of his head. Her voice rasped above the moans of the men who lay dying in the dirt. "Go, warrior. To the east you are called. Do not make the mistake of believing the war is over. Your battle has just begun. The woman who knows the ancient words that will heal you, bathes in your father's blood."


Three years ago, after a monumental battle, he'd knelt before an oracle rumored to hold the cure for his disease. She'd told him while his squadron lay dying on the ground, that the only one who could heal him had killed his father.



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