This post could have had so many titles:
Does your novel need a prologue?
… no, really, does it?
But I settled on How (not) to write a prologue because it seems unfair (and I'm probably profoundly unqualified) to impose an all-encompassing prologue ban.
If I were to impose such a ban, it wouldn't be because I hate prologues; it would be because they are so often written terribly badly and end up detracting from, instead of adding to, a text. Now, I am definitely qualified to make that statement because I produced one such terrible prologue myself a few months ago – before coming to my senses and relegating it to the scrap folder.
I think the best way to look at how to write a prologue well is to consider what they're like when written badly. So, let's start with my own prologue as an example. The idea behind it was that I wanted to set up the history of the fantasy world I’d created. I also wanted to introduce my villain and his backstory. I had a very clear image in my mind of the key event that started toppling the dominoes of my story – and I wanted to share this with the reader. After it was written, I was pretty pleased with it. It was intriguing, reasonably well written, and explained everything that needed to be explained. However, there were problems:
I became attached to characters that were not a part of the main story and it felt very strange leaving them behind.
I wanted to tell the main part of my story in the first person, and a third person narrative at the beginning jarred with this and felt uncomfortable.
There was a little too much explaining and not enough showing.
Giving the reader a snapshot of my villain's backstory seemed like a good idea but, actually, it removed the element of intrigue from the main plot. A bit like finding out Darth Vader is Luke’s father before he does – not a disaster, but not as impactful.
Using my own experience as a guide, I can offer the following tips to anyone considering using a prologue to start their story:
Be wary of introducing characters that won't appear anywhere else in your novel; if you set up a relationship between your reader and the characters who take part in your prologue, it will be very difficult for them to adjust and re-establish a connection with the new characters you present in the first chapter. This is especially true if your protagonist isn’t present in the prologue.
Don't use your prologue as a way to explain things. You might think you need to tell your reader every detail of the intricate history you've crafted for your world. But, do you? If the answer really is, ‘yes,’ – find a more creative way to inject it within your story, detail should be assimilated gradually and pieced together, not just plonked in at the beginning.
Remember that questions are part of what keeps the reader turning the page. Your story needs an element of mystery: Why did so-and-so do that? What was their motivation? What happened in X's life that made him/her act that way? What secret are they hiding? If you reveal all of this before the start of the story, there is no impetus for the reader to read!
You are not writing an essay. You don’t need to tell the reader what to expect; it’s patronising and unnecessary. Your reader is smart, they will figure it out! (I say this because I recently read a prologue that listed all of the characters that were going to appear throughout the novel. It wasn’t badly written, but it was confusing and utterly superfluous. As a reader, I would have been much more likely to continue if the author had started with an attention-grabbing hook in their first chapter.
So, if you are wondering whether your prologue is necessary, if you think it might be too clunky or that it is stopping you making an impact with your killer first chapter – delete it. This doesn't have to be a permanent deletion; just whack it in a folder where you can forget about it for a while. Then, if you want to, you can return to it at the end of your first draft.
And remember - even if you don't include your prologue in your finished draft, writing it will have helped you learn things about your story and your characters, things that you can keep in your back pocket and drop in when they are necessary. Getting rid of something you've poured your creative energy into is always difficult, but writing is never a wasted exercise!