To Prologue or Not To Prologue

Publishing trends have not favored prologues for some time. Writers who feel that a prologue is essential may opt to write one anyway and name it ‘Chapter 1’ while others still use the controversial ‘P’ word.

Consideration #1: Is It Essential?

Before including a prologue — no matter how it’s titled — ask whether or not it is actually essential information.

Consideration #2: Are There Other Options?

Is there a different way to include prologue information? Can you put this in the novel without dropping a chunk of backstory at the beginning?

Consideration #3: Querying

Will you would be required to submit the prologue when querying agents or editors? Often, submission guidelines ask for anywhere from the first 15 pages to the first three chapters of the work.

Should querying writers include the prologue?

First, writers should understand that a request for 15 pages is a request for 15 pages. A request for the first 15 pages is a request for the first 15 pages. This does not mean the first 15 pages plus a prologue,. A request for three chapters typically does not mean the prologue and Chapters 1, 2 and 3.

Always send exactly what the agent or editor requested.

A request for the first three chapters excludes the prologue if it’s called ‘prologue’. It is not technically a chapter and therefore has not been requested. You should exclude the prologue from your submission package unless it has been specifically requested when the guidelines ask for chapters.

If an editor or agent asks for the first 15 pages of your manuscript then a literal interpretation would mean you include the prologue. Those first 15 pages start with page 1 of the prologue.

While some readers may opt to skip a prologue in a published work, you’re in the querying stage. Your goal is to find professionals who believe in your story and want to help get your work published.

Will including a prologue in your submission affect your chances of securing representation or an offer of publication?

The publishing industry is highly subjective. Individual tastes vary widely, which is why there is rarely a ‘one size fits all’ answer that applies to questions like this. However, if you’re asking this question, then there are some critical things that you will want to consider.

The start of the story proper. One of the reasons that people dislike prologues is because they delay the start of the real story. The significance of information in a prologue is often not clear until much later in the manuscript, or the prologue simply expands the context so that the reader understands more about the history of a specific event, person, or problem related to the story. Either way, this means that the reader is being asked to engage with a part of the story that pays off several chapters down the road, and must then restart the read with the actual beginning of the core story.

Character connection. Without characters there is no story. Your story must present the reader with people they want to root for or that they love to loathe. Whether your character is a good person overcoming obstacles or a bad guy out for revenge, readers have to want to take that journey with your character. Readers are not going to continue with a story that follows a character that bores them.

The problem with prologues is that most do not feature the main character(s). This means submissions that include the prologue include a considerable amount of presentation that is focused on characters who aren’t even secondary; some prologues feature a death that will be significant later or include a character who will only appear again in name only. The prologue may the first part of the story that will be read by professionals reviewing your submission and you have limited your opportunity to have an agent or editor begin to take an interest in your protagonist.

This means you’ve made it that much harder for them to fall in love with your story because you’ve delayed connection with the core focus of the story.

The ‘wow’ factor. Often, hundreds of writers compete for the same publishing slot. This means that they have to find a way to set themselves apart and they have only a few pages to do it in. You want every single page of your submission to sizzle and interest the reader in the protagonist’s situation. You want them to feel compelled to keep turning the pages and take that journey with your character(s). The only way to do that is to put a cohesive section of writing in front of the reader that will engage them with the protagonist’s story right away, and you will not do this with a prologue that requires a strong shift between one set of events and the start of the actual story.

Remember, there are exceptions to every rule, but they occur a fraction of a percent of the time. This means that if you are banking on being the exception to the norm with your submission the odds are not in your favor.

Before you make the choice to include a prologue in your manuscript ask yourself the following:

1. Is this event or information crucial for the reader to understand the character or context of events in the plot? In other words, does this advance the character’s arc? Would the plot still make sense without this information?

2. Can I include this information later in a way that won’t disrupt the story?

3. Is this a darling* that needs to be killed?

Often, the information is not necessary. Many times a writer has reasons for appreciating the opportunity to include a prologue written from a different POV character’s perspective, or they simply aren’t familiar with the different techniques that can be used to include the information later in their work.

Asking those questions and answering them honestly is the first step in determining whether the prologue survives at all.

Those who are unwilling to remove or rework their prologue so that the information is presented later should consider three crucial things:

1. A prologue that may enhance the story but is not necessary can be presented to readers in a different way. It could be supplemental information provided through your author website or in a newsletter.

2. Authors look at things differently than readers do. They think about the creative storytelling aspects and their own preferences. Asking other writers their opinion does not offer the perspective of people who would be potentially buying your book. Retaining the prologue because your writers’ group likes it is not sound reasoning because they are not typical readers.

3. Being traditionally published involves editing, and your agent or editor may require you to remove or rework the prologue. If you are unwilling to make this kind of change to your work then traditional publishing may not be for you; agents and editors are professionals who have been trained to present your work as effectively as possible and it’s their job to make sure you, as a writer, have an exceptional published work. Writers who refuse to do edits earn a reputation for being difficult, and unless they sell in high volumes they are more likely to be back looking for a new agent or editor again very soon.

Pro tip: Always ensure your submission prioritizes presenting the main character(s) and hooks the reader with their journey.

  • A darling is something the writer is particularly fond of and wants to include, even if it isn’t necessary for plot or character development.