At writer’s conferences, on writer-help sites, from agents, “NO PROLOGUES” is decried loud and often, especially for fantasy novels; I generally disagree, especially for fantasy novels.
The word prologue is of Greek origin, from pro, “before” and logos, “word,” and is attributed to Euripides, an early playwright circa 400 BC—it has been around for awhile.
You cannot read a list of great fantasies without noticing many include prologues (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Jim Butcher’s Alera series, the Swords Trilogy—Moorcock calls it an Introduction, but it provides the classic function of a prologue—Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, Robert Jordan’s Wheels of Time series, and many more).
Granted, each of the writers mentioned already had a following and were professional, living-making writers when those books were accepted. Agents, publishers, and readers tend to offer favorite writers more latitude, but I believe that view misses the point when it comes to fantasy novels.
Within the fantasy genre, prologues have a special and unique purpose: introduce a new world before launching into the story. Done well, a prologue can set the tone of the novel, giving the reader a special glimpse at the world and specific characters (usually) as they embark on a wondrous journey. Done poorly, a prologue can be a list of people, places, even the gods of the world dished out in cumbersome backfill—a litany of information that boggles the reader’s mind, confuses and causes the book to be returned to the shelf, unread.
A prologue is a double-edged sword that, when wielded inefficiently, slices and separates the reader from the make-believe into an attempt to memorize thirty of forty names (many of them hard to pronounce in the first place, another flaw of a poorly executed prologue) that are too much to grasp in the few pages offered. In that case, I would say drop the prologue and get into the story; still, within the story, don’t overload the reader with a dozen hard-to-pronounce names—no matter how good the prose, the effect will not be the one desired.
What are we to do?
When working on my novel, The Returning, I battled using a prologue, vacillating back and forth during long conversations with myself. At times, I felt like I was talking to an idiot.
I concluded the story proved a better tale with the prologue, and for a very specific reason: the prologue introduces the “speaker” who tells the story, done in first person while the novel itself is third person.
The prologue begins like this:
My name is Joldar, the chronicler. Some refer to me as the scribe, which is accurate enough, and some say prophet, which is not.
I introduce the world, Joldar’s friend and King, a bit of history about the land done in story form without much backfill during the 500-word prologue. That’s another thing: a prologue should be succinct and certainly not rambling, filled with only pertinent information, items giving the reader a sense of the world and the people there, problems to be faced and (hopefully) overcome. The idea is to use the prologue as a spring-board to catapult the reader to Chapter 1, page 1.
Dozens of people have read The Returning’s prologue and 1st two chapters, and offered feedback. The split came in at about 60/40 for the prologue, and most of the positive reviews were from fantasy readers; many of the “get rid of the prologue” camp had little or no experience with heroic fantasy. This confirmed my suspicions that fantasy readers are more tolerant of prologues than other genre readers.
So why aren’t agents more tolerant of fantasy prologues? I believe agents have seen so many poorly executed prologues their gut reaction is to disregard them entirely. I believe they have had their fill of “The world Targon fell to ruin after the five gods of Collyn decided each of the others were wrong. Delph and Sentaurian, along with Flecto’levi shifted into the fifth realm, away from their brother, Decoman, and their sister, Euphorious, to the land of . . . .” You get the idea . . . Blah, Blah, and more Blah.
If you wish to study prologues done well, read George R. R. Martin’s beginning of The Game of Thrones, the first book of the A Song of Fire and Ice series. Not only is it a story-within-a-story that highlights a thread weaving throughout the developing series, but it is done with showing rather than telling style.
As always, study how successful writers handle individual situations to enhance your own skills.
See you on the next page,