Of Prologue and Prejudice

Kill your Prologue. Get rid of it. Never even mention you had one. Why? Because whether you or millions of readers enjoy them or not, it seems that many people in the industry (literary agents, editors, publishers) HATE Prologues. So unless you know you’re going to self-publish, having a Prologue may hurt your chances of success. Are there exceptions? As with everything else in publishing—yes, there are. But this seems pretty consistent.

When I attended the Midwest Writers Conference in late July 2012, all four attending agents (all of whom were wonderful) proclaimed their disdain for Prologues. This was expected, actually. I’ve never found an article or interview in which someone claimed to “like” Prologues, but I’d already read several in which Prologues were condemned.

Here’s how much agents hate them: I pitched my novel at that same conference and the agent was very interested in it. No, really. She was. She wanted the full manuscript and we had a good, animated conversation about my premise. And then I told her that I had two versions of the book: one with a Prologue and one without. I told her that a script evaluator praised my Prologue, saying that it was “wonderful,” so I asked if she wanted that version.

I thought she was going to rescind her request for the MS on the spot.

So I back-pedaled, said I agreed that Prologues sucked—which was why I had deleted it in the first place—and ran away to a church where I prayed she would forget that part of the conversation by the time my novel appeared in her Inbox.

I don’t mind Prologues, but I have a theory about why agents and co. despise them (I wasn’t brave enough to actually ask, but read on anyway). It goes back to a very simple rule/idea I stumbled on a while back (although the phrasing here is mine):

A novel/story should start at the last possible moment it has to, and not a second (or sentence) before.

That rule exists so that your novel will hook us with something interesting. It is very good advice.

With that in mind, I understand the prejudice against Prologues. In today’s market, readers need to be hooked by the first sentence, remain hooked by that paragraph, and be salivating by the end of the page—otherwise they’ll put the book back on the shelf and buy the one next to it. This means:

Get to the conflict ASAP—on page one if possible.

And if that’s the case—if chapter one, page one begins as it should—then a Prologue is simply in the way! The Prologue is unnecessary because it is “before the story needed to begin.” By definition, the Prologue is a road bump (possibly even a roadblock since the reader may quit reading) delaying the conflict and the real story.

Here’s another reason why Prologues get a bad wrap (Full Disclosure: the “wonderful” Prologue I wrote falls into this next category—probably the best reason for me to delete it): Some Prologues are really Flash-Forwards—and that is an obvious cheat. If you start with an exciting scene but the next chapter is a week or even an hour before that hook, you cheated. It’s a gimmick that screams, “I know the beginning is slow, but look! It’ll get really exciting . . . on page 74.” Re-think the story and begin at the last moment you have to.

So the Prologue Prejudice makes sense. Even if you have a great idea for a Prologue, don’t do it as a Prologue. Figure out how to make it the opening page of chapter one (legitimately—not just changing the title from “Prologue” to “Chapter One”) or—and this can work extremely well—have the scene later in the book as a cool reveal so that we sit back and say, “Wow! That explains everything and yet I didn’t see it coming because this book is written so well!”

R.I.P. Madam Prologue. We will miss you.