7 Signs You Should Cut Your Prologue

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter may or may not have seen this last week:

Ah, the joy of the prologue debate.

The thing is, I’ve been finding more often than not, people need their prologues much less than they think they do. And it’s understandable—I mean, it’s tough to be able to look at your work objectively and decide what scenes you need and don’t need, and it can be even tougher when you’re talking about the opening of your book.

So without further ado, I thought I’d share seven signs that you may want to consider cutting your prologue.

  1. Your prologue is your main character’s birth. Listen, I know people say to start where you story starts, but we don’t mean literally. I can’t think of a time when I read a prologue recounting the protagonist’s birth that I didn’t think it wasn’t unnecessary. I promise you, we don’t need to know the details of your protagonist’s birth. We really, really don’t.

    Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, I did this with my first manuscript. And it wasn’t necessary then, either (I just didn’t know it at the time).

  2. Your prologue is all (or mostly) exposition. Nope. Don’t start your book with exposition. Why? Because you’re telling. And if you start your book off with a load of telling, then readers are immediately going to think the rest of your manuscript has tons of telling. Not only that, but exposition tends to be a really slow way to start a book and not an incredibly effective hook.

    I understand that you want to get information across—you should! But there are way more effective ways to get information across than with an expository opening. Consider sprinkling that information throughout your prose, instead—not only will it help you avoid the evils of info-dumping, but it’ll be much more interesting to read.

  3. Your prologue features not your main character. I’m not saying this never works—in fact, I’ve seen it work. However, this can be a very confusing way to open a book.

    Think about it—a reader who opens up your book, knowing little to nothing about it, is going to read the first few pages and think that the character it’s focused on is, indeed, your protagonist. When they finish the prologue and learn that the character is in fact not your protagonist, it can be a little jarring. Very jarring, if we’re being honest.

  4. Your prologue isn’t directly related to your main character. If it isn’t clear how the events that unfold in your prologue affect your main character (and thus the main plot), then your prologue is going to not only be confusing, but most will consider it unnecessary (and so should you).

  5. Your prologue is a false start. I’ve seen prologues that are full of action and mystery and intrigue…and then the first chapter is incredibly slow and has little to do with the prologue. Don’t do this.

    The reason you want to avoid false starts is it doesn’t accomplish what you think it does—sure, it might get people reading through the prologue, but once they reach the first chapter they’ll realize that the prologue was really just a bait-and-switch hook.

    I get that you want to start with an interesting hook, and you should start with an interesting hook. But the answer isn’t through a super exciting and mostly unrelated prologue–the answer is to look at your real opening (that is, your first chapter) and figuring out whether you’re starting in the right place and how to include your hook in that opening scene.

  6. Your prologue features your antagonist doing something super evil. I’m not saying this never works, but it’s so painfully overdone, especially in fantasy novels. For me, they don’t give the dramatic effect they may have when this trope first started—now I just tend to roll my eyes and think thoughts that rhyme with “melodramatic.” And that’s not how you want people reacting to your opening.

    And again, full disclosure, my first ever manuscript's prologue did this, too...yes it committed two grave sins.

  7. You’re not sure whether or not to include your prologue when querying or submitting. So this isn’t something you’ll see in your manuscript—this is actually your subconscious letting you know you don’t need your prologue.

    If your book doesn’t absolutely 100% need the prologue to be understood, then you don’t need it. Period. Which means if you’re even considering sending your query off without your prologue, then your inner writer is tapping you on the shoulder and letting you know it’s time to get the scissors.
What signs can you think of to add to the list?

Twitter-sized bites:
Do you need your prologue? Editorial intern @Ava_Jae shares 7 signs you may want to cut it. (Click to tweet
Do you have a prologue in your MS? Writer @Ava_Jae shares 7 signs that you might not need it. (Click to tweet)


Patchi said...

Great advice! First draft I committed sin # 2. Later drafts were basically #s 3-7. I cut the prologue when I rewrote the novel in first person. That's when I realized I was using it as a crutch. Now there is a much stronger scene were the MC confronts her antagonist that does what the prologue didn't. I still like the scene I took out, but I learned it doesn't belong in the novel.

Robin Red said...

I haven't written a prologue in years (thankfully). The only times I've seen it work were in books that were exceptions in their genre to begin with.

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Patchi! That's such a great point about prologues often being used as a crutch—I think you're probably right! And it's really great that you were able to strength up your MS with some careful edits. Go you! :)

Ava Jae said...

Good point. Most of the examples I can think of were also exceptions to the rule.

Braden Russell said...

Excellent post! I'm a prologue junkie, but I'm weaning myself off of them by degrees. Really, a prologue is just the hipster version of a Chapter One.

The antagonist POV prologue is one of my biggest pet peeves. Bonus poop points if the antagonist is insane. Ugh.

Do you think there's a place for a prologue? When would you use a prologue in your own writing?

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Braden! Insane antagonist prologues are...yeah. They fit under my super evil point, but you're right that they're often super crazy, too.

As for me...at this point, I would say I wouldn't use a prologue. At all. HOWEVER, I've learned to never say never (I once thought I'd never write a Sci-Fi, or a first person POV, or a dual-POV novel, and I've now done all three...at once). So. Maybe one day I'll find use for one?

Like I said in the post, I've seen prologues work. It's just extremely tough to pull off. But in the end, it depends on the manuscript.

Avid Reader said...

I have read many books where the prologue was successfully used. What I have discovered is that the prologue needs to be the tramatic incident, wrong choice, or misfortune that effects the MC through the rest of the story.(Affects worldview or causes a reaction in the MC) And this incident effects the rest of the current story. Sometimes revealing the big hurt, or betrayal as dialogue or a confession looses the impact for the reader. A scene is needed.

EX: Woman is abducted and drugged. Perpetrator puts her in a hotel room and makes it looks as if she is carrying on an illicit affair. He calls photographers. Her career is ruined and he intended to violate her.

Therefore: Ruined she leaves town. She is also afraid of man. He threatened her family if she reported him. He is prominent and powerful. During course of story she becomes involved with a new man who eventually she will have to confide in. The story dictates that she will face the perpetrator before the end of the story.

But without that prologue- where we as the reader experience the fear the prick of the needle, the abduction the whole range of emotions that accompany that terrifying experience -the impact would be lost when the victim simply recounts the event. That incident motivates her throughout the rest of the story. That's a good prologue.

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