I think everyone is familiar with a prologue in long prose; in comics (or screenplays) a prologue arrives as a scene, or in comics (or animated series script), an entire issue or episode.
The most effective prologue is not having one.
Computer says; a prologue is a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work. In other words, a prologue sets up the story that’s about to unfold. Since the first act is, well first, it makes sense to say more specifically, a prologue sets up the first act.
If you follow this site, and know basic story structure, you already know ACT 1 is the act where all the major pieces are introduced, or in other words, the act where everything gets setup…
A prologue is thus a setup, for the setup.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
OK, OK, I hear some of you devil advocates in the back grumbling, “so what’s the problem with that?”
Well, allow me to channel my inner Cosa Nostra, and answer your question with a question, “Why not have a setup for the setup that sets things up?”
But really, why even stop there?
Prologues are awesome, so let’s deliver awesome in spades to our reader with a setup for the setup for the setup for the setup for the setup that sets things up.
If this sounds ridiculous, good for you, your brain is working.
However, I’m not using the ludicrous idea for comical effect, hopefully, it illustrates something important. At some point with prologue leading into prologue into prologue, you’re gonna start to feel that the ACTUAL active story suffers from a serious case of stage fright.
You’d probably even say something like, “OK, I get it, get on with the story already.”
And there in lies the rub, because the truth of the matter is, most people say that with most prologues.
But famous author uses prologues and sells a million books and famous movie used a prologue.
<You know I hate that argument, don’t push my buttons kid.>
In all seriousness, when it comes to writing a prologue, deliberately try not to. If you can open and get into your narrative without one, you almost certainly don’t need it.
Tips for an Effective Prologue
So you decided you absolutely can’t get into your narrative without one. Or you just decided to ignore my advice and do one anyway. Good on ya mate.
Either way, here are some tips to help you milk it for all it’s worth.
1) Why the Prologue? Its Special Purpose.
Ha, you thought I was gonna let you off the hook for ignoring my advice? Gets in best wizardly stance and grabs broom. YOU SHALL NOT PASS!
So before you start, I want you to stop and ask yourself, what are you doing in the prologue that you can’t do in the context of the story itself?
9 times outta 10, writers fall back on their prologues as exposition dumps–these are the worst–do not do this. In fact, somebody was just asking me the other day if they should do a prologue in their novel about superheroes, explaining how superheroes are accepted within society. This is a perfect example of something that can (and should) be done in the active story.
Flame guy, stops a bunch of robbers from robbing a bank. The people on the street react. You just showed how superheroes are accepted in the society of your novel; no prologue needed.
If you’re gonna run a prologue be inspired by Steve Martin and find it’s Special Purpose. Some thing that injects narrative drive into the active story.
So the first rule of the effective prologue is that it contains extremely relevant, dare I say critical (be it information or execution, more on that in a second), that for one or more reasons, is more efficient or more effective to appear separately before the story.
Now here’s the catch 22 prologue people don’t like to talk about;
It’s actually something I already touched on; Many folks simply skip prologues.
So you need to make the prologue highly relevant with key material you can’t inject elsewhere in the story, but if your reader doesn’t read the prologue, you just sabotaged your own story.
I myself am guilty of skipping many a prologues.
If I’m reading a new author I know nothing about, he hasn’t earned my trust yet, so I like to jump right in the story and see what we’re working with. Also, if I’m reading a book in a genre that’s not really my thing, or from an author I know is long-winded or writes to some aspect I’m not a fan of, forget it. Let me get in and get this over with…
The ONLY trick I know to truly bypass this catch 22 is to change the label of your prologue from prologue to Chapter 1, or in other words, don’t use one. Otherwise a prologue is always a roll of the dice, no matter how well executed.
2) Drama first, Information Second.
Most of the time, the special purpose of your prologue will like be relaying information. Whether its a few critical details, something you might see in a horror or psychological thriller, or a ton of details, something more akin to a sweeping sci-fi epic, as mentioned above always avoid the exposition dump.
( Exposition dumps suck anywhere in a novel, but at the beginning, it’s like deliberately trying to disengage and derail your reader.)
We can avoid exposition dumps, even when delivering information, by focusing on drama first and the information you want to relay, second.
A great way to do this, is to wrap the information in a subtextual package.
For example, let’s say you’re doing a story about some super rich guy who develops robots to hunt and kill super-powered people (borrowing from classic X-men here). For some reason, you can’t reveal the villains wealth in the story–or perhaps it’s more important to show where the wealth came from–either way, the point is, revealing this wealth behind the villain is the Special Purpose of the prologue you want to write.
A poorly written prologue would focus on the information first.
Open on a news crew outside the Trask building. The reporter begins here live broadcast running down a list of talking points exploiting the information you want to convey.
That’s about as exposition dumpy as you can get–the whole purpose of the scene is a vehicle to tell the reader what you want him to know.
In contrast, what if we put Trask in a courtroom. He could be on trial for a host of villainous things. The trial is heated, shocking, we’re seeing a drama unfold which isn’t putting the information we want to reveal front and center, but at some point during the hearing, the missing ten TRILLION dollars comes up. We’re not saying the dude took it, not saying he has it, but if you read between the lines that’s exactly what we’re saying in subtext.
Putting drama first and information we need to convey beneath it.
(Of course drama is a loaded word, stuffed with conflict, tension and everything else that makes a good scene good.)
This rule is particularly important when you’re dealing with really large stories that simply have a ton of information to convey, or really complex stories with dozens of moving, interconnecting parts.
3) Write Every Prologue like a Bank Robbery.
Get the fuck in and out, FAST.
At any point in fiction, you always want to write efficiently and with brevity, but for the prologue brevity is absolutely critical.
Just like the bank robbery, you want to use the prologue to get (or steal) value for your story.
You want to introduce element(s) that will inject narrative drive and energy into the story about to unfold. But also just like a bank robbery, the longer you stick around the harder it becomes to escape. This is particularly apparent when it comes to;
4) Keep your eye on the Hero.
What is one of the key goals of the first act, with regards to the protagonist?
Go on, I’ll wait.
If you’ve been reading this blog and books you just said, “Create an empathetic bond.” Good job soldier.
How do you do that? I’ll answer this one for you. In a nutshell, you show that character doing a bunch of stuff.
So, when you introduce a prologue, that doesn’t showcase the protagonist, but shows some other people doing stuff, what are you actually doing?
Come on, you can put it together!
That’s right, you’re creating an empathetic bond with somebody who ain’t him or setting up a situation where the reader is (literally) scrambling, spending mental energy, to figure out where he is.
In a worst case scenario the reader “falls in love” with the wrong character, losing faith in you as the writer, or interest in the story as a whole once chapter 1 begins. Even if they decide to stick around, you’re now working from a deficit trying to build the story with a hostile audience.
In a best case scenario the reader remains open to connecting with your protagonist, but they’re tired. You just forced them to jump through a bunch of hoops with no immediate payoff. Instead of creating an atmosphere where the reader is working with you, you’re working from a deficit again. This reader may not be hostile, like the previous, but they’re certainly disgruntled.
The solution here, is trying to stick with protagonist in the prologue.
You don’t just want a prologue that injects narrative drive in the active story, but narrative drive in the active story relevant to the story’s star player.
If you just love to go rogue, and you’re not going to showcase the protagonist, at least try to showcase characters that are relevant and come into play later on. A potential trick here, is focusing a prologue around a subplot character that does something crucial to help the protagonist at a key moment later on.
In this approach, any connection the reader makes with the support character is reaffirmed and paid off at this later point.
It can be a fun little boost to the story, but realize it doesn’t give much at the start of the story. Anytime you don’t showcase the protagonist in the prologue, you have to work double hard to hit all the “effective prologue” points.
5) The Big Hook.
A common prologue special purpose worth mentioning is establishing the macro view hook of the story.
This is particularly relevant in stories with shifting character goals, slow burns, and hard mystery underpinnings. Basically, anytime the inciting incident of the story doesn’t establish the hook of the story right off.
Establishing the big hook in the prologue is in effect letting the audience in on the core bad-assery of the story, since it’s going to take you a few chapters to build to it. In effect, it’s surface foreshadowing (as opposed to subtle or subtextual foreshadowing–which is usually what you want).
For example, off the top of my head, running with the previous bank robber analogy; imagine if you will, a prologue of a bank robbery scene. At the end of the scene it’s revealed that the bank robbers are actually cops. Chapter one introduces the burnt out, loser cop that gets mixed up in trying to solve the case.
The big hook is knowing that the criminals are actually cops and this crime is much more involved then a simple robbery. Knowing the MAF is a group of cops could inject all sorts of narrative drive into the story. Conversely, without knowing the cops are the villains, if the story just opened on the loser cop trying to solve the bank robbery, the hook might not be established till half-way through the story when all the clues fall into place.
You may find some creative writing teachers who talk about using a scene from later in the story as a Prologue.
A lot of times these are action oriented scenes, which stop right before the climax, get back to the main story, then catch up to opening scene and finally reveal the climax. An example of this being Fight Club, where Ed Norton’s character is strapped in a chair with a gun in his mouth, buildings set with bombs to explode, talk about revolution and chaos etc.
I really don’t consider this scene juxtaposition worthy of a prologue title. I think it’s just delivering plot out of sequence (which can be fine). But ultimately, when scenes are juggled around and delivered first, their core purpose is almost always to set the big hook.
In Fight Club, the climax scene juxtaposition doesn’t give us a clear understanding of the hook, but we’re told through the visuals and dialogue, that the hook of this story sends the story off the rails big time. Revolution, weapons of mass destruction and guns in a mouth tell us, while things might start off slow here, they are headed to the land of Fast and Furious.
6) Atmospheric not Informational.
I mentioned above that there are really only two kinds of prologues (though you can and should certainly combine them), the first is informational, the second relies on the execution–not so much as the information being said, but how it’s being said.
Prologues intended primarily to set the atmosphere of the story (and writing) are really only relevant to stories that have very unique tones, moods, style and voices. Of course all these elements should appear in your writing, but when you’re going to basically showcase it in a prologue, it has to be dominant in your storytelling.
For example, our modern day bank robbery, told through an average voice with no emphasis on style or voice, doesn’t really lend itself to a prologue focused on atmosphere. In contrast, if we set our bank robbery in the 20’s, and were narrating the story like a drunk mobster, that might be worthy of an atmospheric prologue.
The inherent problem of the Atmospheric Prologue, is that it’s like wearing a crazy dress to a red carpet event. You’re purposely drawing attention to your clothes. If they look ridiculous, you look ridiculous, there’s no hiding it.
In other words, if you don’t excel writing with an engaging tone, mood, style and voice, you can be doing much more harm than good.
If you’re going to run an atmospheric prologue, be CLEVER. Think subtext. Don’t be reserved. There’s no point in putting on the crazy dress, then trying to stand in the corner.
Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of Atmospheric Prologues. Somebody like Mark Twain can pull it off in spades, but really, just get all that in purty talkin’ in the active story.
7) That Which We Call a Rose…
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.”
The reality is whatever comes first in a story is the beginning of the story, whether you call it a Prologue, Chapter 1, Scene 1, Manifesto Primero, or the Omega Intro. The name doesn’t change the function.
I can call the tires on my Jeep, wiggle woggles, they still get me from paint a to point b, need air and pop flats.
At the end of the day, no matter how or why you run your prologue it has to engage the reader. In Opening Scenes, I break down a number of essential elements, required to succeed in this goal.
If you’re gonna use a prologue, write it like it’s the only thing the reader is going to read. Make sure it’s not an anchor that drags, but a can of nitro that gives your story a major turbo-boost.
I’m gonna end with an explanation of the prologue I used in my samurai novel, Samurai Onryo.
My samurai novel originally opened up with the protagonist, Kazuo, running through the forest, badly wounded. His family slaughtered and the three warriors responsible escaping to the next village. (On the surface, the story is a supernatural revenge tale.)
During edits I realized some problems with my story.
- Much of the story hinged on these three warriors who I never really developed.
- The opening chapter(s) were heavy on everything but action. Though the overall story is based in action and fighting, it just wasn’t present in the beginning.
- The story revolved around two warring clans, the Swan clan and Dragon clan. The protagonists backstory was tied to the relationship between these clans, yet I never really revealed the clan conflict until later in the story.
None of this sat well with me, so I decided to add a prologue.
I wrote a scene where a battalion of Swan clan soldiers gets ambushed by a battalion of Dragon clan soldiers. The three warriors who killed Kazuo’s family were showcased in the fight.
My prologue specifically addressed each of my problem areas, in effect, my prologue had three special purposes;
- The three warriors were introduced with adequate detail.
- The prologue was literally, all fast-paced combat action.
- I immediately set the stage of these two significant warrior clans.
- While my prologue did not focus on my protagonist, it focused on a jade armored samurai, Ichiro, who would reappear later in the story. His reemergence acted as a catalyst for additional events and choices by the protagonist (narrative drive).
Hopefully this breakdown shows you the strength of developing an effective prologue. And just for the record, in Samurai Onryo, I called my prologue Chapter 1. As far as I know, from everyone who’s read the book, nobody skipped it 😉 ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.