Prologues: When What Comes Before Really Belongs Inside

Elmore Leonard did not like prologues. Here is what he wrote in his rules on writing:

·  Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

We tend to agree with Leonard. As readers, we almost never read prologues and usually blow right by them to get to the story. We really aren’t interested in why the author wrote the story or why he/she is qualified to write the story. We just want to get to it. Yet, we get a lot of books from clients  that start with a preface. They often use the preface to set the stage for the story.

A preface, by the way, is defined as a piece written by the author to explain what he/she feels needs to be explained about the writing of the book so that it can be read properly and understood. A foreward is usually written by somebody else to give gravitas to the endeavor. And an introduction introduces what is covered in the book, the subject matter.

imagesA lot of our writers, whether they are writing fiction or nonfiction, start with one of these prologues, usually an introduction or preface, as if that is the beginning or, as we said, is setting the stage for the beginning. This is not an appropriate use of a preface. The beginning of the book is usually characterized as chapter one. The prologue is additional material or explanatory material. It exists independently of the meat of the book. If it doesn’t, then you, the author, are in trouble from readers like us who routinely skip prologues. And why go there it it can be avoided?

While we admit that prologues are sometimes an important component of a book, most prologues we encounter can be eliminated and the material folded into the bulk of the book where it belongs. Here are some thoughts on writing prologues:

1)      Wait and write the prologue after you  have written the rest of the book. Don’t start there and resist the temptation to begin explaining before you even begin your book.

2)      Once you have written your prologue, review it carefully to see if the material in it couldn’t go and doesn’t belong inside the book.

3)      Verbalize your reason for having a prologue. Why do you need it? Why is it necessary to the reading of the book? Be very clear why your book needs one.