The Prologue is Past?

One of the more famous prologues, courtesy of Star Wars.

I’m all for retiring outdated storytelling techniques.  I don’t miss the puzzle mysteries of the teens and twenties, where the characters were little more than props in complicated, contrived, often implausible mysteries.  Second person narration died with Bright Lights, Big City, and that’s fine.  And, naturally, a lot fewer people are writing epistolary novels now that a lot fewer people are writing epistles.

But it’s too soon to give up on prologues, as a recent client wanted to do.  He had a storytelling situation – a bit of critical action that took place well before the main story started – that cried out for one.  But he’d heard (probably from Elmore Leonard, who made this a rule) that prologues were forbidden.  So he took what was really a prologue and labeled it Chapter 1.  And my client’s not alone in this.  The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is essentially a mislabeled prologue.

There’s a reason writers sneak prologues into their stories under other names – they’re incredibly handy.  They’re essentially a separate, free-floating, storytelling bubble that lets you show your readers some critical information or character background that you can’t work into the main story.  Most often, this involves one isolated scene that happened in the past – as with the opening chapter of the Harry Potter book.

It may be that what you need to show your readers involves a very minor character.  If you weave them into the story, readers are going to assume they’re more important than they are.  Or, if your story is focused on one particular perspective – if the whole story is told from the point of view of a single character, for instance, or within a single setting – the set-apart nature of prologues lets you give your readers a glimpse outside that perspective.

You can also use prologues to whet your readers appetite for the main story.  Years ago, I worked on a mystery that had to establish a lot of motivations and interconnections before the first body dropped.  So the author put the discovery of the body at the bottom of a cliff in a prologue.  This let readers know what was coming, and because he didn’t reveal the identity of the body, and because there were several possible candidates for being tossed off a cliff, readers were kept on edge until the story caught up with the prologue.

Prologues are a good place to introduce a frame story, either an older version of the narrator looking back on the main story or some outside investigator explaining how they got involved.  Frame stories are another outdated technique that can still prove useful for giving a story verisimilitude or a different perspective.  They’re especially effective when followed up by an epilogue.

Finally, that separate storytelling bubble is a good place to introduce your readers to your characters apart from the rush and flow of the story.  Dick Francis does this well in Whip Hand, were we meet the main character, former jockey Sid Halley, when he has a dream of racing, then wakes to the crushing memory that he will never race again.  We still don’t know why (he’d lost a hand in a racing accident) or even who he is (a detective working in the racing community).  But that shared moment of grief bonds readers to him before the story begins.


I really have no idea why the writing world turned against prologues.  In fact, if you have any guesses, feel free to share them in the comments.  But they are far too useful for too many things to retire quite yet.