To Prologue or Not?

A look at whether writers should use the traditional prologue before the opening chapter.

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Prologues are one of those things that seem to be a good idea in the moment, and then their usefulness seems to wane over time. They’re also one of the more hotly debated topic in literature.

I hate prologues. As a reader, I simply will not read one because, for all intents and purposes, the writer tells me not to. If you’re using chapters traditionally then, by labelling something a prologue, you’re telling me that the content isn’t important enough to be a chapter. If it is important, why isn’t it included in the novel proper?

As a writer, I can see the benefit of a prologue. There’s content that is somewhat important to the overarching story but doesn’t quite fit into the rest of the book. I could see why information like that might want to be conveyed to the reader through a prologue. But then I still fall back to the I wouldn’t read a prologue argument and any usefulness that I might have been able to see dissipates.

One of the more common uses for a prologue is to establish something from a different point of view. Your protagonist is telling the main story from first-person but you want to include an incident in their past, or you want to show somebody else’s perspective to establish something. If you’re only going to be jumping time or perspective for that one section, you may not want it to be one of the chapters—doing something like that only once in a book isn’t particularly consistent. Having said that, why can’t you relay that information to the reader differently? Why can’t the main character discover the information from the past on their own, with the reader? Why can’t they find out about other events through their own perspective?

The crux of my dislike for prologues comes down to a couple of things. Firstly, if the information isn’t important enough to be a chapter, then why should I care enough to read it? Secondly, if it is important but differs from your usual style or structure, then there are better ways to convey that to the reader.

I’m certainly not saying that you should forgo having a prologue if you want one. It’s your writing, after all. But, it’s quite a common thing for people to skip the beginning of a book until they find ‘Chapter One.’ So, is it worth having a prologue if very few people are going to actually read it, or should you just start with a proper chapter?

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David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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