Many writers include a prologue in their submissions to FtQ, and we evaluate both. In a recent submission, a poll asking whether or not you read prologues got these results:
- Always read them: 64%
- Read them most of the time: 27%
- Seldom read them: 5%
- Never read them: 5%
So I thought I’d take a second look at what the gatekeepers, the literary agents and editors, say about prologues. A new poll follows.
Jessica Faust, Bookends
I can tell you from conversations with colleagues that many agents hate them. Frankly, I never had much of an opinion about the prologue until I started talking to other agents about them and reading some of them more carefully.
The truth is that many writers use a prologue as a convenient way to introduce backstory without doing the work it takes to weave it into the book. Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to write a scene than to slowly unravel the information through the main plotline. I think prologues can often be predictable and lazy. Lazy for the reason I already stated; predictable because I see the same prologue over and over. Thriller writers, for example, love a prologue that introduces the killer making a kill. I’ve seen it a million times.
Kristin Nelson, Pub Rants
When reading requested sample pages, every agent I knows skips a prologue when reading the sample. The top three reasons why:
1. It’s an info dump of “must-know” backstory. A good writer incorporates these elements as the story unfolds.
2. It’s often lazy world-building (a first cousin to info dump).
3. Prologues often have a different voice and POV from the rest of the novel, so it’s not a good indicator (to an agent or editor) of how the story will unfold or how good a work it will be.
Tips from Kristin:
1. Eliminate prologues or limit them to one or two paragraphs
2. Don’t try to cheat and call a proloue chapter one. Agents and editors immediately recognize the difference.
Editors believe how you handle or mishandle “backstory” is a marker for your ability as a writer. Backstory needs to be insinuated into the narrative, obliquely, as it unfolds. And it’s devilishly hard to do. Prologues are the lazy man’s way of getting all the crap out and onto the page, so that the you can proceed to roll out the plot without any messy explanatory back tracking. Book editors call this an “info dump.”
From the editor’s side, found in a discussion thread in Bookcountry
I know an acquisitions editor who handles lots of fantasy, SF and related work. Writers can submit without an agent, so she sees work before it's gone through the careful hands of the agent. One of her top ten reasons for rejecting a work is "It had a prologue." Oh, she doesn't reject for a prologue alone, but she finds that works with a prologue are more likely to have other problems.
It seems like the FtQ readers who responded to the first poll read prologues a lot more than the pros do. Admittedly, pros and readers are looking for something different in the opening of a novel.
Let me know where you stand on reading and writing prologues.You can choose multiple answers.
© 2012 Ray Rhamey