The Use and Misuse of Prologues

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

It seems vaguely appropriate to talk about prologues in the first month of the year.

If you’re a fantasy reader, odds are you’ve read a prologue. They’re a standard part of the architecture in epic fantasy, and also crop up in other types. But they aren’t as common as they used to be, because it seems that a lot of people just skip over them automatically, or refuse on principle to read any book that has one.

Probably because a lot of them suck.

“Epic fantasy prologue” is far too often code for “boring infodump.” Is it any wonder that readers start flinching away from them? But I don’t think it’s fair to make a blanket rule of ignoring all prologues — much less all books with prologues — because they can be used effectively. To illustrate, let’s look at the prologue to a widely-known book that could have very easily gone the infodump route: The Eye of the World, the first book of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

The infodump version would have told you that however many thousands of years ago, ambitious magic-users accidentally cracked open the prison of the Dark One, and there was a war, and all the male magic-users went crazy and destroyed half of the world, and then Lews Therin Telamon killed himself, Dragon Reborn, etc, etc, snore.

Jordan had the sense not to do that. Instead, he gives you this: Lews Therin wandering, insane and lost, through his wrecked house, calling for his wife. His enemy showing up and trying to talk to him, but it’s no fun hurting a guy who’s crazy, so he forces Lews Therin to be temporarily sane. Lews Therin realizing the body he just stepped over belongs to his wife. Horror. Rage. Suicide.

End scene.

That’s a scene. That’s characters, conflict, tension — uh-oh, what do you want to bet that body on the floor is . . . . That’s infinitely more interesting than something out of a badly-written history book.

Writers infodump in their prologues because they don’t know how to integrate that information into the body of their narrative, or they’re afraid readers won’t pick up on it there. (Or the info’s irrelevant, but they can’t let go of it.) That’s one way to go wrong. The other is when the prologue is indistinguishable from the rest of the book, and you wonder why it isn’t just labeled “Chapter One.” I’ve heard writers talk before about turning a prologue into Chapter One, or Chapter One into a prologue, and I usually think they must have labeled it wrong into the first place. Because in my mind, those are two very different beasts.

A prologue should be set off from the rest of the narrative somehow. It takes place some time beforehand, or maybe you’re trying the delicate trick of giving us the end of the book first. Maybe it has a different pov character. It shows something important to the main narrative, something you could give to us later on, but it will be more interesting if we see it happen.

It shows. We see. Because for the love of little fishies, give me an actual scene, give me compelling characters and their conflicts just like you would in the rest of the book, or don’t give me a prologue in the first place.