Friday, March 14, 2014

To prologue or not. That is the question.

I've seen plenty of discussions on prologues. Whether they're a good idea or not. Arguments may be made in either direction, but I'll come down firmly on the side of ... maybe.

For what it's worth, I think prologues can be useful, but I have some definite rules:
  • A prologue shouldn't run more than a couple of pages.
  • If the prologue concerns events immediately before or simultaneous to the first chapter, then it's the first chapter. Realize that a prologue reeks of literary pretentiousness, especially in a genre novel. 
  • Prologues are good for background set way before the events of the book and, if possible, with completely different characters.
  • Background information in the prologue should be difficult to deliver by a character without it sounding like a lecture.
Those are my rules, and I live by them. Here's an example of a prologue opening the first book in my Witches of Galdorheim series. First, I want to say why this is a good prologue. It's set hundreds of years before the beginning of the events in the books. It has no characters who appear in the book. It's very short. Because of the time frame and lack of character overlap, it HAD to be a prologue, not chapter one.

Now to the prologue of Bad Spelling, Book 1 of the Witches of Galdorheim series.

November, 1490—Somewhere in Germany

“They took Helena,” Edyth whispered, grabbing John’s arm the moment he walked through the doorway.
Wide-eyed, John looked at Edyth. “But she has never–”

She shushed him. “I know, I know. They’ve cast a wide net. It shan’t be long before they suspect us.”
John gazed around the one-room, thatched hut they called home. “I’m afraid ‘tis nothing else we can do. We must flee.”

Tears welled in Edyth’s eyes. “What they are doing to us, ‘tis hateful. Why cannot they just leave us be?”

He took Edyth’s shoulders, pulling her to his chest. “‘Tis not just us. The inquisitors condemn many not of the craft. They find black magic where it does not exist.”

His eyes darkened. “‘Tis the fault of that wretched Heinrich Institoris and his cursed Malleus Maleficarum. Even the Church has banned it, yet the so-called citizen courts use it to condemn any who disagree with them.”

Edyth shook her head, her face grim. “You speak the truth. ‘Tis shameful they accuse whoever dissents, be they witch or not!”

John nodded. “We shall have one last coven gathering. All true witches must leave this place soonest.”

“But where will we go, John?”

“North. So far north that no mundanes could live there. If we move away from their grasp, we can make our own way in the world.”

John dropped his hands from Edyth’s shoulders. “Come. We’ve messages to send. I do not think it wise to wait any longer.”

The witch and the warlock gathered foolscap and invisible ink. As they penned each word, it faded and disappeared from the paper. They wrote in the Old Runic language as an additional safeguard from prying eyes. Only a true witch could read it.

That very night, the ashes of the messages flew up the chimney, carried by incantation to the far corners of Europe, to all known witches and warlocks. Within the month, the trek northward began. The Wiccans reached the ends of the earth then went further. Finding a tiny island, completely removed from any other piece of land, they stopped and laid their claim. They named their island Galdorheim: Witches’ Home.

* * *
You can see I followed my own rules, and this prologue works. It's set 400 years in the past. It has no cross-over characters. It quickly explains why the witches are living on a remote arctic island. In chapter one, I can move ahead with the specific problems facing my main character, and nobody is wondering why the heck she's living on an ice-bound island. 

Go ahead. Tell me why I'm not right. Or, give me an example of how a prologue can work when it breaks my (arbitrary) rules. Don't argue against my rules. They're mine, and I'm keeping them. What are your rules? If you don't have any rules, then you'd better do a bit of soul-searching. That's the premise of jazz. Know the rules, then you can break them.

BAD SPELLING - Book 1 of The Witches of Galdorheim Series
A klutzy witch, a shaman's curse, a quest to save her family. Can Kat find her magic in time?
If you’re a witch living on a remote arctic island, and the entire island runs on magic, lacking magical skills is not just an inconvenience, it can be a matter of life and death–or, at least, a darn good reason to run away from home.  

Katrina’s spells don’t just fizzle; they backfire with spectacular results, oftentimes involving green goo.  A failure as a witch, Kat decides to run away and find her dead father’s non-magical family. But before she can, she stumbles onto why her magic is out of whack: a curse from a Siberian shaman.

The young witch, accompanied by her half-vampire brother, must travel to the Hall of the Mountain King and the farthest reaches of Siberia to regain her magic, dodging attacks by the shaman along the way.


  1. I'm with you on the length of prologues. Some take so long you wonder if the actual story is EVER going to start.

  2. I use a prologue, too.
    Yes, it must be short;
    it shouldn't incorporate the main characters;
    and it is an event immediately before the main characters appearance.
    So I use three of your above principles.

  3. I only have the one prologue. I almost did a prologue on the murder mystery, but just put a heading on the chapter "Seven years ago" and let it go at that. Otherwise, it met all my other criteria for prologue-worthy.

  4. A Prologue has to feel right - I don't add them just because such things exist. The Termite Queen does not have one. The series The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head is a special case because of the scholarly framework with which I surround the books. They are being dictated by my intelligent termite Remembrancer (Bard) to a scribe and then the anthropologist who made the first contact with the termites takes them, translates and edits them, and publishes them. It makes sense for her to add an explanatory Translator's Foreword, so you can call that a Prologue if you like. The only time I've written a true Prologue is for my WIP, The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars. I added it after the fact, to explain the crippled eagle that my "hero" sees in the zoo when he's nine years old. That eagle has a big influence on his life later, and the characters in the Prologue are intended to appear in the book some 25 years later. So it has a function, and it's a pretty compelling story in its own right!