To Prologue or not to Prologue

The other day I went on Twitter and said, “Am I the only one who hates prologues?” I didn’t say it to be inflammatory (okay, maybe a naughty part of me did). I said it because that’s the kind of statement that would get me a ton of responses from people all over the map. It’s these kind of all-over responses that make me look at things differently. That’s why I do that kind of thing. I love seeing what people think and feel, because you all think and feel differently than I do, and you often show me how incredibly shortsighted I really am.

You are all geniuses, and I love tapping into that and learning from you.

Hate is probably too strong a word to use in regards to prologues. Prologues largely frustrate me, but well done prologues I absolutely love. My beef with prologues isn’t really anything besides the fact that I am impatient. I want to get to the actual book, and I feel like prologues are largely areas where I waste some time learning about (insert back burner character in far-flung land here) before I get to the book itself.

Prologues, however, have an important place in literature. A prologue sets the tone. It can give the reader important backstory, or even do some important magic/political/world building. If you are a Steven Erikson fan, prologues will stop your heart before you even get to the actual book. They can be incredibly important, and it is these important, heart stopping, tone-filled prologues that I love.

Then you get the prologues that are comprised of a dream sequence, a daydreaming person remembering (insert event here), or a character I’ve never heard of maliciously plotting about (insert event/person here) that you won’t hear about again until the prologue in the next book. These prologues tend to annoy me, and yes, I do skip over them almost completely. Why? Because they take up space, they are infodumpy, the back burner characters you only ever meet in every prologue don’t do anything for me. My ultimate prologue pet peeve? Prologues that are longer than fifty pages. Forcing me to slog through fifty pages of backstory, secondary characters, and obscure happenings is almost assuredly going to make me lose interest in your book.

On the one hand I recognize that prologues have a place in literature and they often help the author set tone, or fill in plot gaps. As a reader, I appreciate that. On the other hand I realize that, like anything, they can be badly done, too long, or lack finesse. I’m jaded in regards to prologues.  I tend to approach them with ambivalence and make them prove their worth to me. I skip bad prologues altogether and just head to chapter one. I hate to say it, but most time I skip a prologue, there is no real impact to the text itself. Even a well-done prologue reads more like a short stories associated with the book rather than part of the book itself.

Am I harsh? Yes.

So prologues: Love ‘em or hate ‘em? Do they have a place in literature? Or are you a prologue skipper?

As opposed to prologues, you have bullet points, or book summaries (think Bradley Beaulieu’s books). I’m an odd case for these. I used to love prologues and hate these summaries. Now I am jaded regarding prologues and every time I see a book summary, or bullet point, I want to kiss the author.

I prefer summaries for personal reasons. The cancer treatment I want through took a toll on my memory, as it does with pretty much anyone who goes through that treatment. Every time a book comes out in a series, I have to reread the whole series just to remember what is going on so I can read the most recent book. That takes a lot of time that. As a reviewer that is waaaay behind on reviewing due to cancer and surgeries, I just don’t have that kind of time.

Bullet points and summaries act as a guide rail for the reader to hold onto. They tell readers important parts of the text, without giving anything away. They help me move my sluggish, broken memories and bring me up to speed on the previous books without forcing me to reread the books. When a series releases a book every few years (which most do), these summaries are doubly important.

On the flip side, if you don’t have the fantastically crappy memory that I have, most readers will probably skip over bullet points because they actually remember the previous book and don’t need to readdress it or refresh it in their minds. Summaries might seem redundant, or indulgent of the author. They don’t add to the story like prologues do, they just help you remember the finer points.

Book summaries: Do you enjoy them or do they seem more indulgent?

Regardless of how you feel and why, I do firmly believe that, despite my personal preferences and psychological issues, prologues and book summaries both have an important place in literature. It’s the author’s job to decide which fits with their book, and usually authors make the right choice, regardless of my own ridiculous issues. There are no rules for this type of thing, and due to the fact that we are all so deliciously different, everyone will feel, and love or hate different things about pretty much everything. That’s the beauty of art. No one artist will please everyone, and everyone will take different things away from his/her art, but I have a great time discussing the various ins and outs, the many things I know I misunderstand or don’t think about, in spite of that.

Educate me.

9 Responses

  • This is a discussion I have found myself in several times over the process of deciding whether or not I should include a prologue in my current novel. I think that a prologue can have a place in a novel if it is done well. I like to think I have, but I guess I can’t be 100% sure. There are many reasons I chose to do a prologue. The main reason is that Chapter 1 follows my antagonist, Antonius. I really wanted to introduce my protagonist, Michael, before I introduced Antonius, but I didn’t really have enough material to work with in order to turn his initial introduction into an entire chapter. Story wise, it just made sense for me to put it into a short several page prologue. I know this is more of a this is why I used a prologue instead of why I think it is ok to use a prologue, but it is the best way I could think to explain it.

    • I think that makes perfect sense, and I always enjoy getting a writer’s perspective about these things. Often seeing why an author chooses to do whatever they do enlightens me to their thinking and process, and I tend to respect and understand their books more.

      • Well, if you ever read my novel, I hope you still respect and understand it by the time you’re done reading it too. 😉

  • >>So prologues: Love ‘em or hate ‘em? Do they have a place in literature? Or are you a prologue skipper?

    I think they have a place in epic fantasy, particularly. Prologues and epilogues let a writer break POV and show things from a different angle. That’s valuable.

    >>Book summaries: Do you enjoy them or do they seem more indulgent?

    If its a big thick series I haven’t read in a year–it helps a lot to be able to catch up.

    • The whole cancer-killed-my-memory thing really has moved book summaries up on the list of important-things-a-series-needs. That, and note taking. I love epilogues.

  • I started to hate the Wheel of Time prologues, but when they’re between 60 and 100 pages, that’s just wrong. 🙂

    I’ve learned to be okay with them although I did hate them for a time. I understand their use in setting up and foreshadowing the story. And sometimes it’s just a difference between calling it a prologue and a first chapter. But in books like Leviathan Wakes, which is only told from two perspectives, the prologue needed to be a prologue. I never skip them though, but that’s more due to my OCD in having to read every word of a book to say I’ve read it … if that makes sense. 🙂

    • I’m bad with prologues. In epic fantasy, I read them almost religiously because epic fantasy pretty much requires you to. I agree about Leviathan Wakes, too. Wheel of Time… ah, I gave up on that series at Crossroads of Crap (heh…) but I do remember them being way too long. I do tend to read prologues more than I skip them, but I’m impatient. It’s a character flaw.

      And yes, sometimes it is just a difference of terms from Prologue to Chapter 1.

  • Dan J.

    I’m with you on both issues. I think prologues are generally a sign of author laziness/poor writing. Everything in a prologue would usually be better folded into the story. I particularly hate prologues that use a cliff-hanger scene that isn’t resolved until the end of the book. It’s like the author is worried that I won’t be interested enough to finish the book, so they’re trying to hook me with a cheap trick to encourage me to finish reading. I’ll grudgingly admit that there are rare exceptions where a prologue really works but they’re vastly out numbered by cases that don’t.

    I’m also quite fond of summaries at the beginning. I read a lot of books and series and even without the horrible travail of cancer treatment, I have a hard time remembering details. I’m currently reading Gail Carriger’s “Timeless,” which doesn’t have a summary and it’s been awhile since I read the previous book. I had to stop reading and jump on the web to research the plot of the previous book because I couldn’t remember details that were required to make sense of the current book. If you don’t need a summary, they’re easy to skip over. If you need one, it’s invaluable.

  • Prologues can be good, depending on how they’re done. They do allow a writer to show rather than tell later on, which is nice and can spare readers from having to sit through some potentially awkward infodumping. But they can also give away a lot of info that could be better discovered further into the story.

    Really, I think it depends on the skill of the authors and what’s happening in the prologue. I don’t mind them one way or the other, unless they’re done badly. Then I think they ought to go. But that could be said of prologues, epilogues, and certain entire chapters of books, too. :p

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