There are plenty of novels, particularly older ones, where you might see a prologue before the main story actually begins.
But what are they, and what purpose do they serve?Firstly, a prologue, or pro logos in Greek - which means ‘before words’- is a preface to the main story, or a separate introduction of sorts.
Sometimes they are only a paragraph or two long, while others could be as long as an average chapter. There is no set length to how long prologues should be, and no golden rules that govern them.In simple terms, for the prologue to be effective, it must contribute to the main plot in some way, it must provide facts and information which is relevant, otherwise it will lose impact and ultimately fail.
How useful are they?That depends on what the writer wants to convey.
Prologues are a way for writers to hint at the main story in some way because sometimes they feel they need to convey even more information than they can comfortably slot into their main story, especially if the writer wanted to explain certain things that would prove otherwise difficult to do in the main story without making the story overly long, seemingly jarring or by burdening the narrative with info dumps.
Sometimes a writer just can’t construct a chapter around certain information or facts pertinent to the story arc.
As crazy as it sounds, there may be times when background information, past events or characters might relate to the main plot, however they don’t actually need to be part of the story, so in that sense, prologues do serve a purpose by giving the writer a chance to show some aspects of the story that relate to the main plot.What are the advantages?
Prologues can act to highlight something in the past that now has a bearing on the story in the present, or it may have unknown characters that have influenced the main character somehow, but are not actually present in the main story. This is a way writers can provide the reader with clues about a character’s motivations, by providing clues in the prologue that will be apparent to the reader later in the novel.
Writers also use a prologue to show specific moments which have happened in a character’s past and that only the reader would know about. This would have a bearing on the character as the story unfolds, to which the reader is privy.Prologues can act as flashbacks by providing background detail about certain events that have happened in the past that once again have a direct bearing on the main character’s story.
They also act as plot ‘seeders’ – in other words, the prologue plants seeds of future events yet to happen in the story, which later may form a big ‘reveal’ or important plot twist.It’s also a good way to sow some simple or subtle plot twists without falling into the trap of inadvertently creating a ‘dues ex machina’ (a forced, contrived scene or set up that has no actual relation to the story, but is written simply to get the writer out of tight spot).
The use of a prologue can also be effective for setting up different points of view. For instance, the prologue can be told in a different character viewpoint to the rest of the story, or it might be the prologue is told in first person, and the rest of the story follows in third person.
Writers who have used prologues include Clive Cussler, Stephenie Meyer, Ken Follet and Charles Dickens, among many.When it comes to using a prologue, the writer has to make it as interesting and eye catching at the opening chapter. And just like the opening chapter, it has to engage the reader from the start. If it doesn’t, then the premise of the prologue will fail and the unfortunately, reader will judge the writer on that, and not the content of the rest of the story.
Another thing to consider with prologues is that if you do hint at events yet to unfold, or characters that are yet to be revealed, then any ensuing plot twists, sub plots and conflicts created by the prologue must be resolved by the end of the main story, otherwise you will disappoint the reader by leaving plot threads and questions unanswered.But the one thing that all writers should know where prologues are concerned is that they either work, or they don’t.
In part 2 we’ll look at the disadvantages of using a prologue, and why writers should carefully consider using them before using them in their novel.
Next week: Prologues – The Pros & Cons Part 2