Prologue Prejudice: the good, the bad, and the rejected
By David Griffin Brown
Every narrative is a promise between the writer and the reader—a promise to create a tale that's immersive, captivating, and relatable. And sometimes, that promise begins with a prologue. But prologues, like any literary device, carry their own baggage. A prevalent assumption in the publishing world is that agents and editors have an almost knee-jerk dislike for prologues. But is this assumption entirely accurate?
The answer is more nuanced than a simple yes or no. Prologues have the potential to either dazzle or disappoint, to add depth to a narrative or disrupt its initial rhythm.
Myths and Reality: Do Agents and Editors Really Hate Prologues?
The generalization that agents and editors hate prologues has emerged from a cocktail of publishing anecdotes, author forums, and rejection letters. However, like many “rules” in writing and publishing, there is more to the story than meets the eye.
In reality, what most agents and editors dislike are poorly executed prologues. A glance at bestseller lists will reveal numerous successful novels that employ prologues effectively. Consider examples like A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin or The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. In both cases, the prologues play pivotal roles in setting the tone and sparking reader curiosity.
According to a 2019 survey conducted by Reedsy, approximately 34% of traditionally published novels included prologues. Clearly the "No Prologues" mantra is not universally adhered to.
The key takeaway? If your prologue is masterfully crafted and serves a distinct purpose, it's unlikely to be the sole reason for your manuscript's rejection. But it's also important to note that a poorly conceived prologue can indeed deter agents and editors, serving as an early signal of potential narrative flaws.
The Perils of Prologues
There's no denying it: prologues can be treacherous territory. But what makes a prologue fall flat?
One of the biggest offenders is info dumping. Many authors use the prologue as an excuse to provide unnecessary backstory or to explain world-building elements, overwhelming readers before they've had a chance to engage with the characters. Your audience doesn't need to know everything upfront. A bit of mystery, unanswered questions, and gradual world-building are far more intriguing.
Another common pitfall is using a prologue to artificially heighten the stakes. Some writers craft an exciting, action-packed prologue in hopes of compensating for a first chapter that's heavy on context and low on causality. But such a jarring transition can be off-putting, not to mention that opening with high action tends to fall flat since readers are not yet invested in the characters. Your Chapter One should be able to stand on its own and not depend on the prologue to stir up all the intrigue.
Another issue is when a prologue is too vague or purposefully obfuscating. A common misconception is that cloaking the prologue in mystery will entice the reader. In reality, dropping the reader into a scene without sufficient context can lead to confusion and frustration. Teasing interest is good, but too much vagueness does not serve the reader.
When Prologues Shine
Despite these pitfalls, prologues can work wonders when done right. A well-crafted prologue can set the tone, create intrigue, and provide readers with instant immersion. But what distinguishes a successful prologue from a failed one?
Causality is a key factor. A good prologue shouldn't be a separate entity. It should feel like an integral part of the tale, not an afterthought or optional extra.
The best prologues often contain a specific action or event that kickstarts the plot or stakes. This is especially true in genres such as mystery, thrillers, and fantasy. In these cases, a prologue can act as a hook, drawing the reader in with a scene of initial causality or providing a peek at the antagonist, a major obstacle, or a threat the protagonist will face. In essence, a good prologue sets the stage without stealing the show.
Prologue vs. Chapter One: Weighing the Pros and Cons
Your opening pages are an opportunity: to introduce your characters, your narrative voice, your setting, and your story. In many ways, Chapter One carries a heavier burden than any prologue. So why divide your efforts between a prologue and a first chapter when you could concentrate on crafting an extraordinary Chapter One?
The reality is that many agents and editors are wary of prologues, given their frequent misuse. They want to dive straight into the story. When you begin with a strong first chapter, you signal that you are mindful of their preferences and focused on delivering a strong, immersive story right from the start.
If your queries are being met with silence and rejections, shake things up. See if you get a better response to a writing sample that begins with Chapter One rather than a prologue.
Call to Action
Take some time to reflect on your work. Revisit your prologue with a critical eye. If you're considering adding a prologue, ask yourself how it will serve the story.
Remember, every narrative element should cater to the reader’s experience. If you're unsure about your prologue—or any aspect of your narrative—seek feedback from a critique partner or an editor. Their fresh perspective can be invaluable.
On that note, the Darling Axe offers a free sample edit on your first 1000 words. That should be enough to give us an idea if your prologue is working or not. Swing by and arrange a blast of feedback from one of our industry experts.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.