Oct 20th, 2020
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We Make Books is hosted by Rekka Jay and Kaelyn Considine; Rekka is a published author and Kaelyn is an editor and together they are going to take you through what goes into getting a book out of your head, on to paper, in to the hands of a publisher, and finally on to book store shelves.
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Episode 46: Prologues
(Advice For People Who Aren’t Famous Enough to Do Whatever They Want)
transcribed by Sara Rose (@saraeleanorrose)
R: Welcome back to another episode of We Make Books, a podcast about writing, publishing, and everything in between. I’m Rekka, I write science fiction and fantasy as RJ Theodore.
K: And I’m Kaelyn Considine, I’m the acquisitions editor for Parvus Press. And, um, Rekka, is this a prologue right now?
R: I think… it sets up the plot and probably gives away a lot of it, too. [giggles]
K: That’s a good point, yeah. So today we’re talking about prologues. What’s a prologue? What should it do? Do you need one?
R: I proposed this topic to Kaelyn because this is one of those things that I see a lot of writers asking for advice on, is like, “Is my prologue okay?” And that’s the whole question. And there’s some fundamental instinct on some people’s part to say, “No. Never do a prologue.” Where other people are like, “Prologues are great! I love a prologue.”
R: And nobody is addressing what is in the prologue, when they have these conversations broadly and speaking in generic terms. So we wanted to get a little less generic, a little more specific, a little bit—not prescriptive, but just descriptive. Here’s what a good prologue does. Compare to yours. Lay it over the top of yours like a sheet of vellum, and see if they match up!
K: Yeah. So, hope you enjoy and we’ll see you on the other side of the music.
[intro music plays]
R: Would you say the scroll in a Star Wars movie is a prologue?
K: Yeah. It’s serving prologue-like functions.
R: Would you say they’re good prologues?
R: And then it gets you to drop right into the middle of a battle or something like that.
K: It’s saving you from having to—
R: To watch Episode I!
K, laughing: Yeah.
R: Episode I through III are the prologue for Episode IV, just so we’re clear.
K: Okay. Hey, everyone, so, welcome, and I guess what we were just talking about, that’s not considered a prologue, is it?
R: Well, you’re the editor, you tell me.
K: No, it wasn’t, and we’ll get into why. And if you tried to use that as a prologue, you shouldn't—
R: Or at least wait until you’re super famous and nobody edits you.
K: Exactly, yeah. This is only relevant until you’re super famous and then you can do whatever you want.
R: So we’re talking about prologues today. It’s one of the topics that I see come up a lot between writers in various writing groups that I’m in, is this confusion over whether it’s okay or not to have a prologue. Because there’s some frequently given, offered, shoved advice that Prologues Are Bad, Don’t Do Prologues, but then people look to very famous, very successful books and series and see prologues. And want to know where the line is.
K: I think there’s this prevailing sentiment, and it’s relatively new, that you don’t need prologues. Prologues are bad. And I think this is because for a couple decades before this, we were sort of inundated with prologues. Like every book had a prologue and not every one of them, I would go so far as to say that a small percentage of them were super necessary and served the direct actual function of a prologue.
Before we get too far into this, let’s talk really quickly about the actual definition of a prologue and then what it really does as a literary device. Prologue comes from the Greek, of course it does—
R, laughing: Of course it does!
K: Prologos which means “before word” or “before the word.” This one is a theater function, essentially. It would be the person during Greek dramas and tragedies that would come out and set the scene. They’d stand on the stage, they’d tell a little bit about, “Hey, here’s what’s going on, here are our characters. Our dramatitis personae.” DId I say that right?
K, laughing: Dramatis personae. Then you go into the story.
R: A good example of this that most people are familiar with is gonna be Romeo and Juliet. It starts with a prologue.
K: Yes, exactly. Yes. Now, in literature, a prologue is an establishing device. It’s different, I want to be really clear, it’s different from a preface. Because a preface is strictly introductory. It’s an introduction to the book or to other literary work written by the author that is relevant to this. A preface is not the story. It is somebody breaking the fourth wall, so to speak, to talk directly to you.
R: When I read something that has a preface, I kind of consider it like, “Okay, the book hasn’t started yet.”
K: Yes, exactly. The prologue is starting the story. It’s establishing things in the story that you want the reader to know before they really dig into the meat of the story.
R: But what does it need to do?
K: It needs to intrigue the reader. What a prologue should be is, essentially, a self-contained short story. And a short story without an ending. That’s making the reader question things, making them wonder, “Hey, what’s going on here?” There should be an introductory beginning part. You should establish either places or characters. There should be some action, and by action I mean telling us or showing us something that has happened or is happening, and instead of concluding it like you would a normal short story, you’re kind of leaving it open after that. Or you’re leaving the end vague enough that the reader is left with questions.
R: So, just like a query letter gets you your first read from an agent—
K: That’s a really good way to put it, yeah!
R: Whatever you start your book with, whether you call it Prologue or Chapter 1, needs to draw the reader further into the story.
K: Exactly, yes.
R: So you would say a prologue that explains the history of a city without setting up some kind of question, or some kind of tension, or some kind of mystery—
K: Is probably a prologue that you don’t need. You know, there’s different ways to work that information into the story so that that’s intriguing the reader as they’re trying to piece together, “What is the history of this city?” And you gotta ask yourself, at this point, is that history important?
R: Right. If you’re following genre tropes and you’re setting your fantasy world in a European-centric palace, kingdom kind of thing, you might not need to really work that hard on that aspect of your worldbuilding.
K: Yeah, exactly. So, yeah, it’s really tempting and—we’ll get more into this later, when we talk about the Dos and Don’ts of these. But it’s really tempting to use a prologue as sort of an information dump. And here’s the thing, a prologue should give you a lot of information, but it shouldn’t just be stating all of that information straight up.
R: If you’ve spent a lot of time worldbuilding, that’s very good, but you don’t necessarily want to dump it into any part of your novel, least of all the opening pages where you’re convincing the reader that they wanna continue reading it.
K: Yeah. Two of my favorite prologues are the prologue from A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones is the first book, and then the other is Jurassic Park. So, it’s funny because I completely misremembered this. For some reason, I remember reading Jurassic Park and the prologue being the same as it is in the movie, but thankfully Rekka checked that and refreshed my memory that it is not. I’m remembering this now.
The prologue in the movie and the book kind of do the same thing in two different ways. The movie, we establish that there’s this clearly tropical location. It’s pouring, it’s nighttime, and there’s a large crate being lowered by a crane. And this guy, he has a couple conversations with people, talking about how this isn’t safe, he doesn’t trust this. He’s very tough-looking. One of the workers that’s helping lower the crate gets too close to it, something grabs him by the arm and half-drags him into the cage. And even though they try to save him, you find out that this guy is killed by a dinosaur. And the guy says, “I’m telling you, this isn’t a good idea.”
This is a really useful prologue. First, we’re establishing a character. We’re not gonna meet him again until later in the movie, but we’re establishing that he’s not happy with what’s going on here. He doesn’t think it’s safe, and he doesn’t think that this group of people has control over these dinosaurs.
Now, these are dinosaurs. Real, living, breathing dinosaurs. We’re not pulling any punches. Right at the beginning. Pretend you didn’t see the previews for this movie. Right at the beginning, we’re establishing that there are actual, living, breathing dinosaurs. But they do hide the raptor. We don’t really see all of the raptor in this.
R: You know it’s coming. You know it’s there. But you don’t see it.
K: And you know it’s definitely a dinosaur.
K: But we’ve also established the setting, which is important later in this movie. It’s a tropical island, it gets very dark, and there are these torrential downpours. And that’s an important plot device later in the movie.
K: And finally, we establish that this guy isn’t happy because he doesn’t think that they actually have control over these things the way that everyone’s insisting they do. What happens immediately? We establish that he is correct. Because even though this raptor is completely contained, it still managed to kill a guy.
K: Now, in the book—the book, Jurassic Park is very different than the movie in quite a few ways—we pick up with this group of men who are rushing through the jungle trying to get to a doctor. He’s been attacked by something and the doctor’s asking, “What happened? What happened?” And they’re being really dodgy and finally confess. They say “raptor.” Again, we’re doing the same thing, where we’re kind of establishing that there are actual dinosaurs and that they’re not really super under control. Personally, I think the movie’s a little more effective, but that one has the visual component.
R: Yeah, it has the benefit of that, for sure.
K: Yeah. Both of those prologues are kind of doing the same thing. They’re establishing that, one, dinosaurs are real. Two, they’re establishing a setting, and three, they’re establishing what is going to become the plot of the movie or book, which is: we can’t control these things, at all.
K: Be they, stop it from killing people or, in the larger thematic element, we can’t control them from their nature.
So, then, the second prologue that I always point to is from Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones, and I don’t even like to say it’s the prologue from Game of Thrones, I like to think of it as the prologue for the entire series, A Song of Ice and Fire.
R: It definitely is. As far as we know, that’s what the story’s gonna come back to.
K: And that’s exactly it. So the prologue for A Song of Ice and Fire is we pick up with three rangers of the Night’s Watch who are leaving Castle Black to go out… ranging. They’re talking about different things going on, we get to hear some of their normal day-to-day conversation, which is great because it kind of establishes a little bit of where they’re from and the world that they live in.
And they come across a really gruesome scene. It’s like body parts of wildlings that have been killed and arranged in this specific pattern. They get all freaked out and one of them keeps saying, “It’s the—” in the book, they’re called the Others, they’re talking about the others. It’s a myth, and then one of them starts running away. This is the same scene, it’s almost perfectly replicated in the book and the TV show. One of the guys escapes and is so scared of what he sees that he abandons the Night’s Watch and runs south of the Wall. And then that’s where we pick up the story next.
But this is fantastic because what George R. R. Martin is doing is setting up that there’s gonna be all this political intrigue, there’s gonna be all this stuff going on, but at the end of the day, there’s freakin’ ice zombies up there. And they don’t like humans.
What he’s done is establish, “I’m not gonna make you wonder if this is real. This is real. This is happening. Even though this seems to be going on in the background for all of the fighting, the wars, the political machinations, at the end of the day this is the real fight.”
K: And I can and have gone on at length about why Season 8 was terrible, based solely on the fact that the final conflict that they dealt with was not what they established at the beginning is the thing we all really need to be concerned about. So, hopefully in the books that’ll go differently.
But that said, that’s a good transition here, is what not to do with prologues. Because in the show, the prologue kind of faked us out. And we could go on forever about why that was, but George R. R. Martin in the book and then what the show was doing was establishing that this is the big conflict, this is the thing we’re all gonna end up fighting against for our lives. And, in the show, final boss turned out to be fucking Circe and her horny pirate.
R, laughing: Oh gosh. But the prologue is setting up the story. Which is to say, it is not separate from the story.
R: So, if you feel like your prologue is something you can insert after the fact, you know, unless your editor’s saying, “We need to set this up somehow,” don’t just assume that you go back in and write your prologue like you would write your acknowledgements, when the whole thing is done.
K: This is… this is Chekov’s Ice Zombie.
R: Definitely. Chekov’s raptor.
K: If you’re gonna put it in the story, especially to establish its importance at the beginning of all of this, then it needs to be an important, significant factor in the story. We won’t go too far down that rabbit hole because that has a lot more to do with planning and building your story—
R: Right, but I mean that’s what we’re trying to say. If you’re working a prologue into your story, it has to be planned as part of your story. I think it was Writing Excuses, the podcast, where I first heard the concept of bracketing your story elements the way you would write code. And for people who don’t write code, this doesn’t really help except to say that close the tags in the same order that you opened them.
So if you open your prologue and you’re talking about raptors, your book’s climax should not be about zombies.
K: Wait, what if the raptors became zombies?
R: Well, then you need to hint at the possibility of that in that prologue, I think. But yeah, if your prologue doesn’t open a question for your story to examine, then what is it doing? And if it’s not doing that, you’re probably going to hit some resistance with readers or editors or agents, in having this prologue at all.
These are really great examples. Whether you like the books or not. But they take you right into the major conflict of the book, like Kaelyn was saying. Here are dinosaurs, this book is about dinosaurs.
K: Yeah. Real, actual, breathing dinosaurs.
R:Yeah, it’s not about these characters, in particular, but it is going to be about this threat. The opening of Game of Thrones, we assume that the conclusion is going to answer the introduction of this threat. The deserter gets killed in the first chapter, where we meet Bran and the whole Stark family, but it’s not about those characters, it’s about that threat. It’s worldbuilding, but it’s also plot.
K: Yeah, this is where we get kind of into the what not to do. A prologue is not a good place to do an information dump. If you have, you know, a city and you want your prologue to be the entire history of that city… that’s probably not a good prologue to have. Because, unless there’s something about the history of that city that is a mystery, that has been lost to history, that is a point of intrigue, there’s no reason to just have an information dump. That is not what you should be doing in your prologue.
R: So if your book is about that city, and there is a mystery to the city, I hope that’s gonna come through in the plot.
R: You probably don’t need to introduce the city so much as you do the characters who are going to experience this shift in perception of what their city really is.
K: Your prologue should leave a reader intrigued, and I will just come out and say it, and not bored. There’s certainly readers out there, and certain genres have a higher representation of them, that like that. They like information, they like history. I always go back to Pillars of the Earth, it’s a Ken Follett book and it’s about a medieval city at the time of the anarchy in England. And there’s a lot of information in there. Ken Follett’s a huge researcher. He goes through, in detail, how people who could not read or write, designed and built cathedrals.
K: You know, how they engineered these things. And it’s a very interesting book. I really liked it, but I know a lot of people that had trouble getting through it because it’s pages and pages of him explaining how certain things worked.
R: Yeah, and there are people who appreciate that Tolkein goes on about the flowers in a field, when you’re supposed to be worrying about a battle, but that’s not going to be everyone.
K: Hey, those flowers are gonna get stepped on, Rekka.
R: Well, and that’s like… why are we even bothering, you know? They’re not going to impact this plot at all. So you’re making an excellent point about the genre expectations.
K: I’ll go a little more detail into this because it’s an interesting example of how to disperse this information through your book. Because even though Ken Follett is, as I said, very well-known for excessively researching any story that he writes. This is, it’s about a village, small city maybe, called Kingsbridge and it becomes the site of a bunch of characters from different backgrounds and trades and walks of life that all end up there, and the cathedral is burned to the ground.
And back in—it may have even, I apologize, I read this a long time ago—it may have just been a church. But I think it was a cathedral and in medieval Europe, in order to be considered a city, you had to have a cathedral and you had to have a seat for a bishop.
K: It’s interesting because Ken Follett has to do a lot of worldbuilding, although what he’s actually doing is historical research. But a lot of people will, obviously, not know about what day-to-day life was like in a year 1000-ish English city.
K: So he’s got a lot of information to give people about the norms of day-to-day activity and, on top of this, he’s also got a lot of tropes and misconceptions to break about how people think things were versus how they actually were.
R: Yeah, which is a problem. In historical fantasy. Yeah.
K: So there’s worldbuilding in there that he has to establish all of this for this historical fiction book, that is taking place around real historical events. Pillars of the Earth does have a prologue, and what it’s doing is describing the Whiteship Disaster, which was a real thing that happened. The heir to the English throne was killed in a ship sinking off Whitestone and then all of this stuff happens with who inherits the throne. There’s this big war. That is the backdrop for this, but we’re watching the village.
So, what is he doing in the prologue? He’s establishing the historical background for events that actually happened, and then setting it against fictional characters. And them just trying to either live their daily lives or accomplish a certain goal, which ultimately is, get this freaking cathedral built in Kingsbridge.
R: So this case is historical fiction…
K: Fiction, yes.
R: But if this were an epic fantasy created world, you can still do this? Or would you say… you, as an editor, would you say—
K: Um, okay so, yeah—
R: I mean, I’m saying is there a double standard because oh, he did so much research! But authors do so much worldbuilding. Is it fair to say, “Well you have to establish what really happened because people don’t know, or people have a misconception,” but I think that’s true of fantasy, too. So why do some prologues that are info dumps of this size and expanse, not good versus the ones that are permissible.
K: Well, that’s interesting. Probably in fiction, everybody’s—especially in fantasy and science fiction-based fiction where everything is fictional and it’s not historically based—
K: So, in Pillars of the Earth, it’s not an information dump. You’re at a criminal trial and a hanging.
R: Okay, so, we’re just introduced that there actual characters in this. For anyone who hasn’t read it before, we don’t know that based on the earlier description. The earlier description sounded like, you know, a history textbook—
K: Yeah, okay so—
R: Here’s the important detail is that we are drawn in because we have characters and because there is something at risk.
K: Yes. The sinking of the Whiteshop has left England in chaos. Now, Ken Follett takes some liberties here with, you know, the actual history of all this, for the sake of intrigue. But we pick up with, the prologue is, this man in prison who is not quite sure why he’s in prison. And the reader is not sure why he’s in prison, but it’s very clear that he’s gonna be hanged.
And his pregnant lover shows up, curses the men who are gonna hang him, and their families, everything, and that all of his enemies will have nothing but regret and sorrow in his life. The people who are condemning this man are a priest, a knight, and a monk. And they’re accusing him of a theft that he clearly did not commit.
K: And then we pick up about ten or so years later.
R: Okay, so chapter one begins ten years after the curse laid down by this man’s lover.
K: Yes, exactly. But what we’re establishing is a conspiracy.
K: So that’s what a good prologue does. And that’s a very common device with prologues, is a time jump.
R: Right, and that’s why there is a line drawn between: this prologue is unnecessary and you didn’t start chapter one in the right place. You know? Those are two different arguments.
K: Yeah. So in the case of—it’s interesting because in the case of the two prologues that I listed that I really like, Song of Ice and Fire and Jurassic Park, there really isn’t much of a time jump. We pick up pretty much immediately after, in A Song of Ice and Fire and Jurassic, yeah.
R: A couple weeks or something, at the worst.
K: And Jurassic Park is maybe a few months, if that.
K: In Pillars of the Earth, it’s I think over a decade.
K: So, what we’ve done is established, hey, there was a conspiracy. Something happened here. Now obviously, again, this is Chekov’s pregnant woman. Obviously, this kid is going to be important somehow. Obviously, the woman is going to be important somehow.
K: You’re going to be spending this whole time speculating, “Was it her? Was it her? Is this her kid? Who was this monk, this knight, this priest?” And it’s so good at establishing this conspiracy that makes you wanna read because then you’re getting into the story and going, “How on Earth is all of this connected to this?”
R: But that brings up a good point. If you have a prologue and then a time jump, are you making a dissatisfying experience for the reader because you started them on one story and then you switched them to a new one?
K: Not if there’s a payoff.
R: Right, so that’s something to consider in your prologue construction. And, as we’ve said, Chekov’s this, Chekov’s that—you are setting up something for your main story. You’re not telling a short story that makes an interesting, “Oh, also in this world, this happened.” And establishes your worldbuilding, but doesn’t establish, also, your plot.
K: Exactly. So, the Dos and Don’ts of prologues. And I know we’ve kind of wound about here a little bit, but this is not a place to dump information. As I think we’ve established.
R: Even though that might be what you’re trying to do, is actually communicate a lot of setting right away, you aren’t dumping it.
K: You can! Yeah, there are ways to do it. I always say, my—and this is not, this isn’t like a Golden, Always Do This Rule but one of the good metrics I have with a prologue is: Do you need to establish things before the story starts that you want the readers to know, that maybe the characters that we’re going to meet right off the bat don’t know? All three of the prologues that I’ve talked about here do that.
Jurassic Park establishes there are real dinosaurs and they’re hurting people and they can’t be controlled, which the characters going into Jurassic Park certainly don’t know that the dinosaurs are real until they get there.
R: And they certainly don’t know that they’re just gonna get out. Soon as it rains.
K: Yeah. Song of Ice and Fire, the characters don’t know—probably don’t want to know—that the Others are real and that they’re like actual, supernatural forces running around north of the Wall. And in Pillars of the Earth, we’re establishing that this guy was killed to cover something up. We don’t know what yet, but there was a conspiracy against him to cover something up and that is then going to become part of the story, as well.
R: When do you call it Chapter One and when do you call it a prologue?
K: When the story starts, Rekka. [laughs]
R: No, but I mean, like—Why is… why is the—
K: No, I’m kidding. I’m kidding.
R: —the injured Costa Rican person from Jurassic Park, why is that scene not chapter one?
K: Well, so here’s something interesting that we see in all of these prologues. None of the people in these are really the main, main characters of the story.
R: Unless they appear in utero.
K: Unless they appear in utero, yes. You know, in the case of Jurassic Park, I can’t remember the guy who was basically the park ranger. He’s a significant character, but we don’t meet him again until later on. In A Song of Ice and Fire, you know, we meet the runaway ranger again because he needs to be executed for fleeing the Night’s Watch.
K: And he is able to convey some information to the other characters and then he’s done his job so we execute him.
R, amused: As we do.
K: Kill your darlings, Rekka.
R: And anyone else.
K: And anyone else who is not necessary to your story.
K: And in Pillars of the Earth, um, the pregnant woman of course does show up again, but again, we don’t meet her until much later in the story. So I think, when your story starts is when it’s the characters who are going to be living through and acting out most of the story.
K: This is why I say, you know, with prologues, a good metric for them is, establishing things that you want the reader to know, but the characters of the book don’t know. So if it’s the main characters, then obviously they’re gonna know it.
K: The people you’re following are the ones typically trying to figure something out, find something, do something, find someone, et cetera. So if they are in the prologue, then they might know this. Maybe they’re in the prologue as a baby and then there’s a time jump, you know.
K: I think… the beginning of Harry Potter, that was a prologue.
R: Chapter One, The Boy Who Lived.
K: Oh, okay. So it’s not a prologue. It’s chapter one. So here’s a good example of maybe you don’t need a prologue.
R: But from what we’ve just discussed, it actually might qualify as a prologue.
K: I would say that’s a prologue. Yes, you’re in this position of, do you just take your prologue and make it chapter one because you don’t want people yelling at you about a prologue?
R: But that is valid! Like, there are people who are so incensed by the concept of a prologue in a book that all they care about is the word prologue at the heading of the text. And if you change it to chapter one, they don’t even bat an eyelash about it. Here’s one of the things that I was gonna ask you, real quick, because I know we have to wrap up, but why might your prologue not be working?
One, the thing you can’t control, is that it just pisses off the reader. The word prologue.
K: Yeah, that is absolutely something you can’t control. If you have an editor, an agent, a reader, that just doesn’t like prologues for whatever reason—
R: A prologue hurt them one time.
K: Yeah, and this is where there are certain things you’re just never gonna change people’s mind on. I think that’s kind of narrow-minded because as I’ve talked about at length here, there are some really outstanding prologues that exist out in the world.
R: Some people just really like rules and they don’t really consider the subtleties of them.
K: Exactly, yeah. There are no absolutes in writing, to be sure. That said, if somebody comes to you and says, “Hey, I don’t like prologues. You don’t need this.” Well, there’s two things that could be going on here. Either you gotta make an argument for why this is a genuine prologue and something that you wanna have and is necessary to your story, or you’ve gotta take a step back and go, “Does this person not like prologues or is this just not working?”
R: Yeah. It might be behoove you to consider how much weight your prologue is pulling before you make the decision to keep it. And maybe, as you’re editing, really lean into what it can do for your story. As opposed to just setting the scene, the way it does in Shakespeare.
K: So how do you know is your prologue necessary? Well, look, I’m not saying this to be hurtful to authors, at all, but like… authors frequently end up in a position in these books where they can’t see the trees through the forest. You lose a little bit of the self-awareness about your book because you’re so ingrained in it.
K: You spent so much time with the book and with these characters and with the way you envisioned this. Do you need a prologue or are you insisting you need one and everyone’s telling you no? Well—
R: I mean, did you write a prologue because lots of books you loved had prologues and you think you just call the first chapter “Prologue” or that you always start with something, but you don’t know what it is that makes it functional?
K: Yeah, so this may be, honestly, this may be where your editor or your beta readers come in and say, “You don’t need this.” And have a discussion about it!
R: And if someone says that—yeah.
K: Yeah, absolutely have a discussion about it. Say, “Oh, well, I think because this, and I think it’s establishing this. I think this is intriguing,” and if they’re saying, “Well, you think that it’s doing that, but it’s not actually doing that.” Then—
R: Also, I felt this way as I started to read Chapter One as a result of having come out of the prologue.
R: That transition has to be not as jarring as possible. You really don’t want the person to have to start the book over at that point.
K: Yes. And I, you know, I’ve had discussions with authors about this. There have been books I’ve read where I’ve actually thought this could’ve used a prologue. You could’ve put something in here to lay the groundwork a little bit because I am a third of the way through this and I am very confused.
This is, at this point, if you’ve got multiple people telling you, “Hey, you don’t really need this prologue,” it’s probably time to consider whether or not you really need this prologue.
R: And if you really feel that you want one because there’s something you’re trying to accomplish, that’s a good hint that you’re not accomplishing it.
K: Yes, exactly. So, if you really want the prologue, then you gotta come up with a way to make the prologue work and, if you can’t, then you probably don’t need one.
R: Consider your genre, too. You may have a totally functional prologue, but your genre doesn’t want it. You know?
K: Yes, yes.
R: If you’re a romance reader, you don’t wanna hear about some other story from ten years prior. You wanna get right into the characters and watch their character arcs progress. If you are into really fast-paced military science fiction, you probably don’t wanna prologue except for, like, maybe a paragraph just setting up the powers at play. Maybe.
K: There really is this backlash against them because I think for a number of years, every story was coming up with a prologue and it was like, “Do you really need this?” And it’s funny because I remember being in elementary school and reading classes and talking about this and saying, “You start with your prologue.”
K: I thought for a while, like, okay you just have a prologue. Cool.
R: I mean, if you have a prologue, you should start with it. But you don’t necessarily have to have one.
K: I mean, don’t stick it in the middle of the book for no reason. [laughs] Do we really have anything else to say about prologues here? Except, you know, they’re only necessary until they’re not?
R: Um, or they’re not necessary until they are?
K: Yeah, yeah.
R: If you look around your genre and you see a lot of prologues, then that might be a permission slip to consider one. But you also want to see what those prologues are doing. I mean, if you are writing to release books, you definitely need to be reading in your genre to understand what else is out there.
And not just old stuff. Like, read books in the last five and ten years. Make sure that you’re getting the latest view of the genre landscape and not just the quote unquote “classics” that are getting to the point where they’re a hundred years old or more, at this point.
K: And for those of you going, “Well my book is my book and that’s just what it is.” Cool. Have fun not selling as much of it as you could.
R, laughing: Well, I mean, your book may be your book and it might be what it is. And you might have done a successful prologue, but consider whether other books in that genre have them. If you never see another prologue and you’re setting up a prologue that belongs in a different genre, then maybe rewrite the whole universe you’ve created to create something in a different genre. If you really want that prologue. If that prologue is more important to you than meeting the genre expectations, switch genres.
But we didn’t touch on some very classic, prologue-y kind of things and I just thought it’d be fun to list a couple before we go. Is that you got like mystery, detective murder stories. Like the easy parallel is like a Law & Order episode. There’s always somebody discovering the body.
R: And then you cut to the detectives circling the body. Then the pithy one-liner, then the credits. So—
K: I mean, it’s not an episode of Law & Order without the pithy one-liner.
R: Yeah. But that genre is full of books which are procedural! They follow a very specific pattern, they are not about character development, they are not about being drawn into worldbuilding. They are about: here’s a question, by the end of the book we answer it. If your prologue is something like that, it might belong in that story. And then epic fantasy. We’ve mentioned two epic fantasies, pretty much.
R: Is that you are setting up a whole world and, in theory, your reader has arrived because they are just pumped for 800 pages of your story, with the expectation they’re gonna be there awhile and they want to get their footing. But they still need to be compelled through the book, you know? So be kind to them and build it into your story. Don’t make it an accessory. And don’t defend it to the death, if you’re being told by multiple people that it’s not working.
K: Yeah. And look, if the prologue—again, I’ll just go back to if the prologue’s not working and you can’t make it work, then you probably don’t need a prologue. Not every book needs one. Most don’t.
R: The example I’d give is City of Lies by Sam Hawke, it is about a city. It is about a political system. It is about all these different parties and peoples clashing and yet it goes straight into the main character. There’s no pause. You learn about the city through the characters and that is, I think, can be more effective than a prologue in a case where it is about the connection of those characters to their city.
K: Yeah, so.
R: So, your prologue may be necessary, it may not be. Definitely get some opinions and definitely give it thought and see what it can do to actually move your story along before you just commit to the concept of a prologue. Or before you reject it outright!
K: Yeah, exactly. Yep. I’m trying to think of any instances I’ve ever heard where somebody was told, “Hey, you need a prologue.”
R: I mean, I do know several other writers who were told by their editors, after they sold the book, “Hey, we’d like to put a prologue in here.” And then go to town! You know. And probably that editor, since they’re asking for it, is going to tell you what they want it to accomplish. Which is different than just you guessing at what you need.
K: Huh,yeah. Anyway! So that’s prologues. Do you need one? We’re not sure. Figure it out.
R: We’re so helpful. That’ll be ten bucks, folks.
K: Do you need one? Maybe! What’s your book like? So anyway, thanks for listening. As always, hope this was helpful—
R: In some way!
K: —even though more and more—yeah we typically end these episodes with: Question? I don’t know, maybe! Figure it out.
R: Well, you can find us on Twitter @wmbcast or Instagram, also @wmbcast. If this was helpful and you do want to throw us that ten bucks or whatever, you can also find us on Patreon.com/wmbcast. And send us your questions or leave a question on social media somewhere and we will answer it in a future episode. If you need more clarification like, “Okay, you said this, but what if—” we might answer it on social media in replies, or we might it’s a whole topic for the future.
But either way—
K: Oh, we have done whole episodes of just questions people sent us online.
R: So send us your questions, please! We love to hear from you and we will be back in two weeks, either with your question or something else we thought of! Thanks everyone.
K: Thanks everyone.
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