Prologues kill novels

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The title of this entry is a bit of a spoiler, so it will be no surprise to you that I have a very low opinion of prologues. In fact, my opinion is so low that I’ve been known to close a book and not read it if it starts with a prologue.

Years ago I came to the conclusion that not a single novel I’d ever read had been improved by the prologue it started with. I later confirmed this by skipping prologues and only reading them after I’d finished the rest of the book and – without exception – I found the prologues to be unnecessary. Since then I haven’t found a single novel that I ruined or rendered unreadable by skipping the prologue.

Later, when I began to write, my relationship with books changed (sadly, in most cases, not for the better – but that’s for a later post). I began to analyse the mechanics of prologues and found, in most cases, the author had included one just to prop up shoddy writing. There seem to be two scenarios that convince an author that a prologue is not actually a hideous wordy pustule but something like a good idea.

One: Apparently, sometimes an author feels it’s so important to state a vital piece of information, up front, that they’ll add a prologue just for that purpose. Such prologues often appear as nothing more than info dumps, which are a kind of literary cancer anyway (so why you’d do this as the first thing anyone would read is beyond me). This either shows poor planning or the author’s lack of faith that their own writing is understandable, or worse, they don’t credit the reader with the gumption to understand what they’ve written in the main text.

Two: More often, an author seems to feel the need to include a prologue simply to make their book begin at a more interesting point in the story. If the author recognises the first half or their book is dull and in need of perking up, then as a potential reader, I’m not going to be fooled by an action filled prologue they’ve just tacked on the front to try and disguise the fact.

Neither gives me any confidence that the writer knows what they’re doing, and that’s why I will close the book and read no further.

However, I have made the odd exception, usually when I’ve been persuaded by a friend, as with the Belgariad series of fantasy books by David Eddings, and the Millennium trilogy by Larson. In both cases I was coerced into reading beyond the prologue and I was glad for it, but I would still maintain that these examples would have been just as enjoyable without the prologues.

There may be good prologues out there, I wouldn’t know because I’ve been avoiding them. I’ve heard that the Harry Potter books have well written prologues, that they serve as abridged summaries to ease the reader into the new book?

But these examples do not convince me to change my opinion, life is too short, and reading time is too precious. Unless I have persuasive evidence to the contrary, if I see a prologue I will automatically assume that the text that follows is not worth reading.

In the future, my reader will no doubt criticise my writing for many things, but my inappropriate use of prologues will not be one of them.

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2 comments

  1. pseudonymous

    I agree for the most part. I always skip the spoilers to the story. Sometimes the historical background added to an old book is helpful to understand what it’s been through, like Ulysses by Joyce

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