Prologues, Good or Bad?

Why use a prologue?

I believe that if a prologue is an information dump (InfoDump) it is wrong. The reader will not read it. They want a story not an InfoDump.

But if the prologue is a scene or two, like every other scene in the story, then it is correct. It gets the reader to keep reading, which is what the author wants.

So, a prologue is a scene, complete with character with conflict in a rich setting with a twist to end the scene, and it happens years or centuries earlier then when the story begins.

A good prologue sets the date and year at the start of the prologue to show when the scene happened. And uses setting to bring the scene alive, adding the point of view (POV) protagonist’s opinion to the scene, and when the problem gets worse or is solved, the scene in the prologue ends.

The author does not continue the scene to explain anything.

Then at the beginning of Chapter 1 the author adds the new date and year, showing time has passed between the prologue and the beginning of Chapter 1.

The reader will understand “when” they are in the story.

Let the reader discover “where” the characters are through the Protagonist’s eyes seeing the setting. Describe only what the Protagonist can see, and scatter in the protagonist’s opinion of the setting.

Some readers say they “never read prologues” but never say why they don’t read prologues.

It could be because the prologue is an InfoDump and not a story.

Other readers say they “read everything, even prologues, about the author, list of published books, and follow the links at the end of the book to the author’s web site, mailing list and elsewhere.

Why they do this is because the story moved them or they fell in love with the characters or the world of the story, so they look for more stories by same author.

You can study best selling author’s books to see how they handle prologues.

One author is Clive Cussler.

He now has co-authors writing with him for each story, but his layout is the same as years ago.

His prologues tell as story of an incident about how and where ships carrying treasure sink. Or how a person hid a treasure from others.

Then at a future date in the story the treasure or sunken ship is discovered.

Examples of Good Prologues:

The Pharaoh’s Secret
By Clive Cussler and Graham Brown.

Chapter Title Centered:
City of the Dead

Abydos, Egypt
1353 B.C., the seventeenth year of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s reign

First paragraph:

The full moon cast a blue glow across the sands of Egypt, painting the dunes the color of snow and the abandoned temples of Abydos in the shades of alabaster and bone. Shadows moved beneath this stark illumination as a procession of intruders crept through the City of the Dead.

Next Chapter Title Centered:

Aboukir Bay, at the mouth of the Nile River
August 1, 1798, shortly before dusk

First Paragraph:

The sound of cannon fire thundered across the wide expanse of Aboukir Bay as flashes lit up the distant gray twilight. Geysers of white water erupted as iron projectiles fell short of their targets, but the attacking squadron of ships was closing in fast on an anchored fleet. The next barrage would not be fired in vain.

The same layout is in Medusa By Clive Cussler with Paul Kemprecos where the prologue is set in the Pacific Ocean in 1848, then the next scene is Fairhaven, Massachusetts, 1878. And chapter 1 is set in Murmansk, Russia, Present Day.

Also in Devil’s Gate by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown. The prologue is set in Santa Maria Airport, Azores island chain, 1951, then chapter 1 is set in Geneva, Switzerland, January 19, 2011.

Straight away the author anchors the reader in a time and place.

See how the author gets the reader deep in the story from the start of the prologue?

The reader wonders who or what is the “procession of intruders”?

Why are they in the “City of the Dead”?

The “cannon fire” and “iron projectiles” in The Pharaoh’s Secret automatically fills the reader’s mind with sailing ships firing cannons towards other ships.

Example of a bad prologue:

Red Star Rising
Bye Anne McCaffrey


Rukbat, in the Sagittarian sector, was a golden G-type star. It h ad five planets, two asteroid belts, and a stray planet it had attracted and held in recent millennia. When men first settled on Rukbat’s third planet and called it Pern, they had taken little notice of the stranger planet, swinging around its adopted primary in a wildly erratic orbit — until the desperate path of the wanderer brought it close to its stepsister at perihelion.

Next chapter title Centered:

Early Autumn at Fort’s Gather

Dragons in squadrons wove, and interwove sky trails, diving and climbing in wings, each precisely separated by the minimum safety distance so that occasionally the watchers thought they saw an uninterrupted line of dragons as the close order drill continued.

I think it is the author talking to the reader, not a character in the story.

Did we need to know all the facts in the prologue InfoDump about Rukbat in the Sagittarian sector?

Well, I did, and read the prologue in every book by Anne McCaffrey about Pern, even though from memory it was the same prologue text, or almost the same text in all the books about Pern.

But, a lot of readers didn’t want to know the facts of the world in which Pern was placed, so jumped to Chapter 1, instead of reading the prologue.

I stopped looking for more examples of bad prologues because I am sure you can remember, or find ones yourself at your local library, and recognise them for InfoDumps, rather then scenes telling a story.

So the reader who “never reads prologues” does not understand why the discovery of a sunken ship is relevant to story by Clive Cussler, or why the roaming planet’s gravity bought “the thread” close enough to Pern to rain down and consume everything in its path.

But the one who “reads everything” knows as soon as the ship name appears again, or the area where the main character is looking is the same area as the prologue but at a later date, understands what is at stake if the character discovers the hidden treasure, or wants to keep reading to see if it is the same treasure that was in the prologue.

Or the reader who reads prologues suddenly remembers why the dragons of Pern were created/gene altered, and reads the next chapter or scene.

The genres of the examples I used are Adventure, or Science Fiction.

No doubt, other genres treat prologues differently.

I will let you discover whether other genres use prologues, or if the prologues in the other genres are InfoDumps or normal scenes with information scattered throughout the scene.

When writing a story I will work out whether the information I need the reader to know would be better in a prologue or scattered throughout the story beginning in Chapter 1.

Do you use prologues in your stories?

Discuss why or why not in the comments.

And keep writing and having fun.


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