WORDS FOR WRITERS – Do You Need That Prologue?


Question: Do you agree with Brian Klems that agents don’t like prologues? Brian says only use one if it’s “out of time sequence,” which mine is (it’s also necessary to the story). He suggests, if a writer has a prologue, changing the name to “chapter one,” even if it’s out of time sequence. Would you agree? Thanks for your input.

My first thought regarding this advice is this:

Be wary of absolutes in an industry that is entirely subjective.

No one person speaks for all hundred thousand agents that exist.

In terms of actually writing your book, my craft-related advice would be this: I want you to ask yourself two questions.

#1 – What are you saying in this prologue that you can’t say anywhere else? Step back, and examine what information, exactly, you’re looking to convey to the reader within your prologue. Why does it have to exist? Why is this information necessary for the story?

#2 – In what way does this prologue enhance the overall experience the reader has with the story. This is harder to explain, so I’ll give you an example: in Adrienne Kress’s delightful MG novel “Alex and the Ironic Gentleman”, there is a prologue that establishes the fact of a historical event between two characters, the words as they were actually said, and the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of the two participants.

This is important, because for the rest of the zany, episodic book, the characters are trying to track down their treasure, and they keep misrepresenting and misinterpreting the facts and the relationship between these historical characters. The readers know what really happened though, so every time it’s gotten wrong by the characters, the readers have a good giggle. It enhances the story.

Once you’ve nailed that down, then have a good long think. If your prologue – #1) conveys vital information to understanding the plot and character that can literally be put nowhere else in the narrative and #2) enhances the overall understanding/enjoyment/experience of the reader as they go through the book, then it’s necessary and you should keep it.

If it doesn’t do one of those things, then I would rethink where that other thing it does can be slipped into the narrative elsewhere, and ditch the prologue. If it does neither of those things, it’s likely not necessary, and again, you can ditch the prologue.

Now that you’ve decided whether your prologue is necessary at all, let’s move onto Brian’s advice about renaming it “Chapter One”.

Presumably, any agent who likes your pitch and wants to read either a partial or a full of your book, likes your book. Or at least the idea of the book they think you wrote. Also presumably, if they like your pitch, they’re willing to trust that you know how to tell your story the best way possible, and will therefore be fine with you having a prologue.

Any agent who passes on or stops reading your book simply because the first word in the manuscript is “Prologue” is likely someone who won’t be a good fit for you, anyway.

But it’s up to you to really prove in the narrative and storytelling that this prologue deserves to exist – because having a weak or unnecessary prologue on a book is pretty much assures that it’ll be passed on. (Not an absolute guarantee, but a very high percentage of likelihood.)

You can choose to rename the prologue “Chapter One” if you like – it might help to avoid knee-jerk rejections from any agent who has negative opinions of prologues, or at least keep the negative association of prologues out of their heads as then engage with your manuscript for the first time.

But likewise, it may also seem disingenuous and tricksy if it’s clearly a prologue that isn’t labelled as such, or if you sign with that agent and provide the full manuscript later, and the chapters are relabelled.

So, I put a third question to you:

#3) Is it actually “Chapter One”?

A lot of people think that just because a section of the story is told out of order, out of time, or out of reality, and that chapter is first, it has to be a prologue. But if it’s necessary and if it enhances the reader’s understanding of the narrative, and it’s still part of the same sequence of events that make up the narrative (even if it is not in order within that sequence)… that’s part of the novel.

This one is also hard to explain, so another example:

In my book Triptych, I kill the main love interest in the first paragraph and then spend the rest of the novel in the years prior to the moment that bullet leaves the barrel of the gun so you understand the full scope of the tragedy that his death is. And that also effects the reader’s understanding of the book because every time the character does something you love or makes you happy, it’s tinged with this grief and sorrow of knowing that he’s already dead.

That he’ll die. That it’s both about to happen and already happened. Just like looking back on the memory of a loved one who has passed–it’s both happy, because the moment was a happy one, and weighted by grief, because that person is gone forever.

It changes the emotional framework from which the reader engages with the narrative.

It’s still a part of the sequence of events of the novel, and so it’s a “Chapter One”, not a Prologue.

              In summary:

Ask yourself these three questions when polishing your manuscript, to make sure that your narrative is as strong as it can be and if, in the end, you decide to include a prologue, that prologue is vital, necessary, and useful to the reader experience of the manuscript. And if it’s not – scrap it in order to make sure your book is the strongest version of itself.


Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS posts here or ASK ME HERE.




JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS – Do You Need That Prologue?