The Importance of the Prologue


Over the last few days, I have been outlining heavily for my NaNoWriMo entry this year. I’ve spoken a bit about how One Fate For Failure took a very long time for me to complete and the reason for that is due to my reluctance to spend too much time outlining and instead allow my boundless creativity to take me in new and exciting directions.

Of course what happened was I would write myself into a corner and would have to toss aside dozens of pages and rebuild from scratch. That’s why when the book first came about it was about someone named Alyssa who couldn’t be any more dissimilar from Maddie as a character if I tried and the title was No Fate For Failure which in retrospect makes very little sense at all. The point is that I put a great deal of faith in my ability to write extemporaneously and I have come to understand that I am not the sort of writer who can pull off such a feat.

Luckily, my renewed dedication to the world of outlining has borne some nutritious fruit. I am often waffling back and forth on the way I structure my narratives. One of the things I have debated with myself over time and time again is the very concept of the prologue. When is it appropriate to use one? Is it cheating to include it? From the meager research I’ve done into the concept, the prologue is derived from Euripedes and the purpose was to replace a perfunctory, exposition-heavy first act.

Looking at the type of novels I have written, and examining the stories I have tried to tell, I cannot really look at a single one and argue against not only the inclusion of but the necessity of a prologue. In A Dark Tomorrow I utilized a vignette to set the mood and tone of the piece, introducing a character and the setting. I could have utilized this space in order to do some world building in order to eliminate some more exposition heavy chapters in the middle of the book, but as a rookie novelist I made many mistakes in that particular story. I am still insanely proud of it because, hey, it’s my first novel and its like my child that I can never truly stay mad at.

With The Song Before Nightfall, I wanted to make sure that readers had an understanding of the geography and history of the fantasy world I had created. This was doubly important because I didn’t shill out the money necessary to have a graphically inclined person draft a map of the locations that would be included in the narrative. There is no clearly drawn illustration of Adacia and the surrounding kingdoms the way there was for Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or Martin’s realms in A Song of Ice and Fire. I had to utilize my words in order to set the stage. To do this within the context of the narrative would take forever. It would have ballooned massively out of control. That is not something I wanted to happen.

One Fate For Failure does not have a prologue. The thing jumps right in. I made a conscious choice to do this in order to work within the conventions of the genre. Now, the first chapter acts like a prologue in the same fashion that most of the pre-credits sequences for a James Bond film do, but I don’t consider it to be a prologue in same way that I do the first few pages of The Song Before Nightfall.

What is my point you may ask? Well, for anyone wondering whether they need a prologue to begin their story, you really have to ask yourself some questions;

  1. Can this information be worked organically into the narrative?
    • Sometimes it truly is better to hit the ground running, and a prologue can feel unintentionally inhibiting to a reader. If the prologue you have crafted doesn’t give them a sense of understanding, it likely needs to be rethought or excised.
    • Remember, a prologue serves the purpose of replacing what would normally serve as a first act. Depending on the type of story you’re writing, a prologue can enhance the feeling of entering the narrative in medias res, even if it truly is the beginning of the arc you’re wishing to tell.
  2. Does it fit with the genre of writing I am working in?
    • Some genres just work better without a prologue. Sometimes you want to be careful not to give too much away. The piece I am currently working on absolutely requires a prologue in my opinion because the reader may need the historical context to understand the story. Working in historical fiction, readers will often need that context in order to feel comfortable with the story you are attempting to tell.
  3. Does it MATTER?
    • This is the big one. Is it a big ol’ waste of space or does it contribute something. I am a firm believer that it is better to have a shorter final product than have a bloated end product that suffers at the expense of appearing bulkier. I know people want to get their money’s worth but always remember that every decision you make should be done in service of the narrative.

The big deal here is really context. Does what you are offering up in the prologue provide necessary context for your reader? Do they gain something from that information? If not, then why are you bothering to include it? When you are writing it is important to keep your audience engaged. Nobody will come back to read your next book if they felt you wasted their time with your last effort.

You spend a lot of time writing, make sure you make it worth their’s to read it.


One thought on “The Importance of the Prologue

  1. Pingback: A Sample From An Untitled Upcoming Project | The J. Goodson Blog

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