Prologues precede the piece in mournful verse, As undertakers walk before the hearse.David Garrick
Perhaps one of the greatest conundrums in all of writerdom is whether or not to include a prologue in your story. As Mr. Garrick said so eloquently above, the prologue is something past that precedes the story. Prologues are defined specifically as, “a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work”. In the prologue the reader is introduced to a scene or character that will enlighten them at some point during the story to some secret or understanding that they would not otherwise have gained in the beginning of the prose. Many writers today feel that the prologue is unnecessary and often useless, but is this true? Let’s explore.
Everyone likely recognizes the famous prologue to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Far from unnecessary, this prologue lays out the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets so clearly for the reader that it’s obvious from the moment that Romeo proclaims his love Juliet that the two are doomed to pay the price for their families’ strife. It’s even laid out clearly for the reader here that both Romeo and Juliet will die to end the feud, and yet the story still holds our attention to that last, bitter, end. Was Shakespeare wrong to tell us the ending before we’ve begun? I found it a much more satisfying read when the prologue is added.
There’s an interesting parallel to the question of prologues that comes in the form of an excellent supernatural crime thriller from 1998 called Fallen. The movie stars Denzel Washington as a cop hot on the trail of a serial killer. The most interesting part of the movie comes when the viewer realizes that the ending was spelled out for them in the very first line, “Let me tell you about the time I almost died.” Interesting, isn’t it, that one little world almost might make so much difference in the course of the story.
When it comes to the question of the necessity of the prologue I suppose the author must ask himself these questions:
- Is the information necessary to the reader to enhance the story?
- Does the scene matter so much that the reader needs to know it/see it/hear it at the very beginning before everything else?
- Does the prologue provide important information about the past that the reader cannot do without, and it won’t fit anywhere else in the story?
- Does the first line of your prologue act as the hook to keep the reader reading? If not– can you make it do so?
- Could your prologue just as easily be a first, or tenth, chapter?
- Does the prologue set pacing and atmosphere for the story?
Ultimately, the choice to use a prologue or not belongs solely to the author. Many factors can influence the decision to use, or not to use, the prologue. Authors who choose to use a prologue that hooks the reader, sets the scene and the atmosphere and determines the pacing for the rest of the novel can often find it a handy tool in the writer’s toolbox.