A writing peer had an interesting novel idea a few years ago that combined virtual reality with psychological therapy and analysis. He was planning to explain how it all worked in the prologue.
This meant an info dump. At the very beginning of the book. One of the cardinal sins of writing.
I mentioned this guy’s project in a previous article, Exposition Done Right, so I’ll summarize the rest: I told him prologues suck and shouldn’t be used, least of all for info dumps. I told him to begin the story by dropping us into the action, before revealing that it was all a VR therapy session. That would be a much more engaging way to introduce us to the central plot device and the world of the story as a whole. He then decided to make the story into an epic poem instead, at which point I gave him up as a lost cause. But I digress.
The point is, if you’re thinking about using a prologue in your story, don’t.
Not unless you know EXACTLY what you’re doing with it.
I’ve seen prologues boil down to two types:
1 – The Dreaded Star Wars Info Dump.
This is where the author opens his epic with a sprawling wall of exposition to explain backstory, setting, politics, and other stuff we already don’t care about. Like, at all.
2 – The Edgelord Intro.
A usually character-driven scene that has little or no bearing on the rest of the story, inserted as a dramatic introduction to the larger story. Maybe it’s used to introduce the villain we don’t know or care about yet, or some plot or character element that will come into play much later. Maybe it’s just there to set the tone.
I’m positive there are others, but these are the two that come to mind immediately. It’s irrelevant how many styles of prologues there are. The point remains that they are almost always not needed. Even in GCC’s Creative Writing Club, when we shared our work for peer review, I had to suffer through one terrible and unnecessary prologue chapter after another. Indeed, sometimes several! One guy bored us to tears until he finally shared Chapter 3, which bit right into the action and introduced some engaging characters and situations off the bat. We all promptly told him to open the story on that chapter and scrap literally everything leading up to it.
That’s usually my answer to prologues. Don’t open with a prologue at all. Open with a really strong chapter in the midst of the action.
Again, unless you know EXACTLY what you’re doing. There IS a way to do prologues right, and I think I know how.
The best use for a prologue, is planting the central plot device in the reader’s brain from the outset. I’ve done this in two different ways: Establish the Main Threat, and Establish the Central Relationship.
Normally I would use examples from books I’ve read in addition to sharing how I do it myself, but I can’t think of a single book I’ve read in thirty-odd years that uses a prologue at all (which tells me just how unnecessary prologues are). I’ve only ever seen prologues used in the work of indie authors and authors of fan fiction. At the risk of looking like an arrogant jerk, I’ll just demonstrate how I use prologues myself.
Model A – Establish the Main Threat
My upcoming novel, Last of the Ghost Lions, opens with a prologue that actually serves a purpose: establishing the main threat of the story.
It seemed the shooting would go on forever.
Juno hadn’t moved from her corner of the ration bank lobby for the past hour, curled into a ball so tight that every muscle and joint in her body whined in agony. Her head was bleeding and glass chips clung to her hair. Several other people were huddled in various nooks and crannies around the bank, too scared to utter a sound. The bullet-riddled curtains blocked everyone’s view of the carnage in the streets outside.
In her arms was a sobbing child of about five years — Aldo, son of the woman who lived across the street from Juno. The boy would sometimes run up to say hello before Juno left for work, giggling like the precocious star of a wholesome cartoon.
His mother was now a smearing of limbs and entrails two blocks away. It dawned on Juno that she didn’t know the woman’s name.
She was shaking so badly she almost dropped the boy. During nuclear winter it was always cold, but not enough to give violent shivers to an ex-soldier dressed head to toe in synthetic wool. Her panicked breaths came in spectral white wisps.
Just outside, bedlam still wracked Lithas District. All the gunfire and screams had melded together into unholy white noise, along with the inhuman hum of the robotic drone rolling down the street, targeting and firing at anything that moved. Its hideous flanging voice echoed throughout the city, cackling and cursing its victims in a barely intelligible foreign dialect. It sounded like the god of war on holiday.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. The attack began mid-morning on Bread Day, when every Bifrost citizen received her universal basic rations for the month. The streets of Lithas District had been packed with civilians collecting their shares from the bank, paid in the form of ration bars to use for sustenance, paying off debts, or trading for real food for their families.
Now those streets were paved with corpses. Juno had almost tripped over a body on her way into the bank, splayed across the sidewalk ten feet from the entrance, half the head blown clean off. The half that remained belonged to a barista who had served her coffee the previous morning.
Once the drone is destroyed, Juno proceeds on a mission to find it’s creators and bring them to swift frontier justice before they create more. This mission comprises the rest of the story, but the prologue wasn’t a waste of space. Now whether Juno is fighting for her life in lengthy flashbacks, sneaking around a heavily guarded harbor, or lying deathly ill in a small, helpless podunk town, the opening scenes are never far from her memory, nor ours. With every new obstacle Juno faces, every brutal confrontation she survives, and every sneering villain she meets, we’re reminded of what’s at stake: the countless innocent lives butchered for no reason, and the many more lives that will be wasted if she should fail her mission. We’ve seen what one drone is capable of already. We’ve witnessed the horror of it first hand alongside our heroine.
The hospital was a kaleidoscope of nightmares. A young college student Juno frequently saw at her favorite cafe had to be led through the hall by a nurse, spattered with someone else’s blood and hopelessly lost in a thousand-yard stare. A middle-aged man with only half his limbs was wheeled through the crowded waiting room, howling in agony. On every floor of the building children wailed for the parents and siblings they would never see again. When Juno was first brought in, the sights, smells, and sounds plunged her back into the war. She had wept all the way to her tiny white bed.
We’ve watched her suffer from PTSD and survivor’s guilt as a result of the tragedy. We’ve seen her neighbors in mourning, the traumatized children. Everything else that happens from Chapter 1 onward leads back to that horrific opening.
This kind of prologue also allows me to take the story on detours if I want. By establishing the main threat from the outset, I can take the reader two years into the past to develop other aspects of the plot before dragging them back into the present. If I had opened with the “two years ago” section of the book, the story would simply plod along while the reader waited for it to come to a point. With the prologue, it already has a point: clearly Juno has encountered something like this in the past, and the drone attack has awakened the memories with brutal clarity. I opened The Helios Legacy with a similar prologue, beginning first with the aftermath of a tragic train crash, then winding back the clock to show everything that led up to it. The reader has faith that I’ll bring them back to that opening drone attack or train wreck eventually, so it sits in the back of his mind while he watches the events unfold.
Model B – Establish the Central Relationship
In another novel, The Amityville Nuisance, I take a cheesier route, but it still works. The plot involves paranormal investigator Dr. Henry Holiday whose estranged ex, a feisty medusa named Lulu, drags him off to a pot luck dinner at the Amityville House, where her brother is staging another phony haunting. Once they arrive, they quickly realize there may be some real life necromancy going down that needs to be stopped before it gets out of hand. There’s also something about obnoxious Egyptian gods, and a runaway giant spider from Leng, and other occult silliness.
But at the end of the day, every story is about one simple thing. In The Amityville Nuisance, it’s about Henry and Lulu rekindling the crazy, adventurous romance they used to have before it all fell apart.
The early chapters detail Henry getting into some real occult trouble early on, shortly before Lulu barges back into his life. Opening the story that way might have gotten the ball rolling right away, but the doctor and the gorgon would be strangers to us from the outset.
So I used a prologue to add weight to the relationship. It’s a little cute, and a little sappy, and involves a young Henry as a high school sophomore having his second encounter with the girl of his dreams, who happens to have snakes for hair under a curly black wig.
After the choir show ended, the girls were allowed to mingle outside in the snow while they waited for the bus’s return. Henry was small and quick, and easily slipped away from his class and out to the bus stop, which was now a sea of skirts, curls, and gossip.
She was standing against the wall away from everyone, surrounded by an invisible barrier her classmates avoided — a barrier Henry empathized with. She held her hands together, one foot against the wall, making a figure four with her legs as she waited for the choir teacher to line everyone up.
He recognized the latent anger in her purple eyes from long ago, in seventh grade, when he’d first met the girl. A similar event, where the Our Lady Middle School Choir came to visit his school in the fall. He remembered the ivory-skinned beauty arguing with a tall blonde diva, who had grabbed at her black curls as the argument escalated to a catfight, to the delight of everyone watching.
The girl’s hair had come loose in the diva’s hand, and the green viper lashed out from underneath as if she had disturbed a nest of them, sinking its fangs into her wrist. She had been taken to the emergency room. Rumor was, if they had arrived a minute later, they would have amputated.
Henry had found the ivory skinned girl hiding in a storage closet, curled into a ball, her wig a crumpled mess by the opposite wall where she had thrown it.
The nest of green vipers she called her hair had hissed at him in unison when he came in. The term “monster” had come to mind. A plethora of images flooded his memory: pictures from textbooks on Ancient Greece, and clips from Ray Harryhausen movies.
All he saw, though, was a sad little girl looking up at him with tears in her eyes, the irises gold and scarcely human. She had taken out the contact lenses, too.
All this little slice-of-life segment does on its own is tell a brief story about two lonely kids who become sweethearts in high school. From there you can imagine that they saw a lot more of each other over the years. I then cut to adult Henry Holiday, the paranormal doc, getting neck deep in supernatural trouble. I could’ve left this section out altogether, since it doesn’t necessarily advance the plot.
What it does is establish what Lulu means to Henry, and maybe hints at what he means to her. Now whenever Lulu enters the scene and interacts with Henry, we remember that moment in the closet. We remember Henry excitedly waiting for the choir show to begin, hoping to see his dream girl again. As an author, it’s now much easier for me to convey their affection because it lingers with us from the opening scenes thanks to the prologue. I don’t have to tell the reader what Henry’s feeling whenever he looks at this lost wife-to-be, because we can already imagine that he sees that young, gorgeous singer from the bass section every time he looks at her. And maybe the reader also has an easier time believing that someone as self-centered as Lulu could care about the nerdy Henry, because we’ve seen how she reacted to their first reunion as well.
When her eyes met Henry’s, they stopped and held. She choked slightly, and it took her a moment to get back in-sync with the other girls, one of which was already giving her a dirty look.
She was smiling now. She began to bob on her feet slightly as if she couldn’t wait to get out of there. Her hands went behind her back so no one would notice them fidgeting. She kept looking Henry’s way every stanza, and she smiled every time on reflex.
She ran when she saw him and tackled him in a hug; they hit the snowy pavement as a single unit and skidded like a clumsy sled thirty feet before eventually grinding to a stop.
Whether it’s the strongest way to open the novel is up for debate. There are probably better ways. But this way plants a seed in the reader’s mind from the outset, allowing it (theoretically) to blossom from page to page.
The worst thing you can possibly do at the beginning of your story is bore the reader. Anything you can tell him in an info dump can be revealed throughout the story when it’s relevant, be it related to setting or character. Try to open your books with a bang of a first chapter, and skip the prologues altogether.
Unless you need to do a little gardening in your reader’s brain, planting those seeds to remind them how important that drone attack or special girl is to the protagonist. Any other use of a prologue is superfluous and only brings your story down.