In novels, prologues are almost always a mistake, and the reason why is simple: they take place before the story starts. If the story hasn’t started, what are you even reading? That’s why prologues are usually exposition dumps, meaningless action, or, occasionally, a completely separate story sectioned off from the rest of the novel.
True as that all may be, it’s also pretty abstract, and my author clients look at me funny whenever I try to explain it. That’s why today we’re going through some concrete examples to show that no matter how good a story might be overall, the prologue is at best not helping, and more often doing active damage.
Spoiler Notice: Black Sun and The City We Became
1. A Game of Thrones
For a long time, I held up A Game of Thrones as an exception to the rule. All other prologues were bad, but this one was good and wholesome. Then I realized I was being silly. I liked the book as a whole, but was the prologue actively contributing to that? So, I dove back in to see what it was actually doing.
If it’s been a while or if George R. R. Martin was never your cup of tea, the prologue follows three Night’s Watch rangers as they travel north in search of some wildling bandits. For some reason there are only three rangers sent to deal with eight or nine wildlings, but I digress. After hiking through the frozen woods, our heroes are attacked by supernatural baddies called Others. Two of the rangers die, and we briefly see the third executed as a deserter at the start of chapter one. From there, the book starts on its complex plot of political drama in the south and supernatural terror in the north.
So, what does this prologue do to justify its page space? Not much, I’m afraid. It’s not an unpleasant read, with lots of evocative description, but we’ll get plenty of that once Jon Snow heads up to the Wall and discovers that he knows nothing. None of the rangers appear again, and their deaths have no significant effect on the plot. The prologue’s only meaningful contribution is that readers now know about the Others before any of the characters do.
Is that important? Not really. After this, the series foreshadows and reveals the Others just like it would have if the prologue never happened. And oddly, the prologue has to employ an uncharacteristic viewpoint break to get that information across. The POV character doesn’t know what the Others are, but the text still describes how “the Others made no sound.” This break isn’t necessary in the main story, as Martin has plenty of time to establish the proper terminology.
In trade for these non-benefits, the prologue delays our meeting the main characters for several pages. Worse, it’s just long enough for some readers to build attachment for the three rangers, as they display Martin’s consistently strong characterization skills. Anyone who does get attached will be disappointed when the rangers are unceremoniously killed off. A secondary cost is that by establishing the presence of supernatural monsters, the prologue also demystifies less flashy supernatural elements, like the direwolf pups our heroes find in the next couple chapters. This weakens the book’s otherwise excellent novelty value.
The prologue doesn’t ruin A Game of Thrones by any stretch, but it doesn’t provide any tangible benefit either. The rest of the book is filled to the brim with conflict, so this isn’t even a case of propping up a slow beginning. It’s just a few extra pages that could easily be cut to make the story more efficient, and it wouldn’t reduce anyone’s enjoyment.
2. The Sorcerer’s Stone
To be honest, I’d rather not talk about Harry Potter at all these days, even to critique it. But despite the author’s blatant transphobia and cultural appropriation, this series is a critical influence on generations of writers, so I can’t ignore it.
This time the prologue is sneaky because it’s labeled “chapter one,” but don’t be tricked: the whole section is backstory. The book doesn’t actually start until chapter two when Harry is a real character. Instead, this prologue follows Mr. Dursley as he balefully observes wizards celebrating Voldemort’s defeat, then switches to Dumbledore dropping baby Harry at his abusive aunt and uncle’s house despite McGonagall’s objections. Wow, that aspect of our hero’s origins has not aged well.*
Beyond bad parenting choices, the prologue’s main purposes are exposition and setting atmosphere. We get most of the story on Harry’s parents, a lot of info about the war against Voldemort, that Harry is a chosen one, where Hagrid got his motorcycle, etc. Is this important to know at the beginning? No, no it’s not. The book has to explain it all to Harry again later anyway, and there’s no significant benefit to having the info ahead of time.
The atmosphere setting is a bit more complicated. Most of this is dedicated to showing you how dingy and dull the Dursley’s world is, then contrasting it with the wondrous magical world where everyone wears flamboyant robes and cats read maps. This is very successful, but it’s also immediately repeated in the next chapter as Harry talks to snakes and makes windows disappear. I’ve heard some claims that the prologue is needed to establish that this is a story with magic in it, but that doesn’t make sense. Assuming the cover and title don’t give it away, Harry is performing magical feats before chapter two is even over, so there’s little chance of anyone being confused.
To be completely fair, the prologue also gives a glimpse of the relief wizards feel at the news of Voldemort’s death. This celebratory atmosphere isn’t ever replicated, and it provides an interesting context to the increasingly dark storyline of Voldemort clawing his way back into power. But if that’s important, it could be established by having older characters recall how they felt or by showing triumphant pictures from that day. That might even have fostered some good contrast for Harry, who naturally has a much less pleasant association with that particular date.
Much like A Game of Thrones, this prologue is by no means unpleasant to read, but it delays the story for no real gain. The limited purpose it does serve can be easily replicated without making us wait to meet the protagonist. Hagrid’s “you’re a wizard, Harry” line might even mean more if the prologue hadn’t already told us that.
3. I Am Number Four
Moving on from prologues that are just wasting our time, I Am Number Four opens with a section that actively damages the rest of the story. First, it’s just badly written. While the rest of the story is in close first person, the prologue is in an unusually dry third-person omniscient. The main strength of omniscient narration is that it lets the narrator create their own voice, but there’s no voice to be found here. It’s almost robotic, with the text describing how one character “sprints at a speed somewhere around sixty miles per hour.” How… precise?
To make matters worse, this is an action prologue with no context to show us why we should care. Later we find out that the two characters being attacked were allies of the protagonist while their attacker is the big bad, but there’s nothing to indicate that in the text. Nor do we have much internal narration for what the characters are thinking, making it hard to even tell what’s going on. At one point, a character is standing with no enemies around, but suddenly the bad guy’s hand is around his throat. Did the bad guy teleport in? Did he sneak up without being noticed? Is the description just bad? No one knows!
Looking at chapter one, this might be one of those prologues whose purpose is to prop up a slow opening. The main character does have the immediate problem of someone coming to kill him, but before we can explore that, there’s a truly epic info dump about the hero’s backstory and this incredibly contrived protection charm that the author uses to justify the book’s plot structure. Did we need to know all of that right upfront? Probably not, but it’s there anyway, and authors have put in fight-scene prologues for less.
If the goal was indeed to ease us into the Immovable Exposition Dump, then it completely failed. Even if the fight scene had been good, the hero’s complex backstory would still have been dense and uninteresting to read all at once like that. At best, it would have made us long for a return to the prologue where things actually happened. But since the fight scene isn’t good, it doesn’t even do that.
It’s also possible that the author was trying to increase his villain’s threat level by slaughtering some side characters. This also fails, since there’s no time to establish why this is impressive. The only power we see either sacrificial lamb use is fast running, which I guess establishes that the villain has been working on his cardio. If the author had put in the work to make the villain’s victory impressive, we’d be back to the same problem as last time: Who wants to cut away from this exciting battle to hear a whiny protagonist tell us his life’s woes?
Given how the book appears to have been written primarily so it could be adapted into a screenplay, the author may very well have assumed the action would be inherently entertaining. Instead, it’s a confusing mess that disorients the reader just before running straight into a wall of backstory text. Taking the prologue out wouldn’t fix the exposition problems, but it would at least let readers face them without being confused first.
4. Black Sun
Due to Black Sun employing multiple POV characters, its prologue doesn’t actually arrive until chapter three. Chapters one and two are each a conventional beginning for one of the book’s four POV characters, so no prologue there. Chapter three introduces Naranpa the Sun Priest, but it’s disconnected from the rest of her story, which puts it in prologue territory.*
More specifically, Black Sun employs a flash forward, where it seems like Naranpa is being murdered by this evil witch. We know this is a flash forward because each chapter starts by listing the date. To make things a little more confusing, the prologue then flashes back to give us a hefty info dump about Naranpa’s impoverished past and family life before she became Sun Priest. Then it returns to the future and reminds us that Naranpa is definitely about to get murdered.
That is a jarring way to introduce a character, to say the least. We know nothing about Naranpa, but she’s already being murdered, and then we have to learn a bunch of backstory that appears completely unrelated to the murder attempt. We’re not invested in the violence, and we certainly don’t like the character enough to enjoy a dense history lesson. Granted, some of this has less to do with the chapter being a prologue and more because the novel spends its first two chapters on unrelated characters. We have to cram the Naranpa introduction because there’s no time for anything else.
Even so, the setup of Naranpa’s prologue means it has nothing significant to offer. The next time we see Naranpa, she’s dealing with a seemingly unrelated political conflict. There’s no witch in sight, nor is her backstory at all relevant. At best, there might be some extra tension from knowing that at a future time, someone will try to kill Naranpa, but that’s not much of a benefit. Naranpa’s plot already has plenty of tension, and if it didn’t, the promise of future conflict wouldn’t be enough to save it.
Instead, quite a lot of book goes by before Naranpa finally encounters a witch. We don’t know for sure if it’s the same one who tried to kill Naranpa in the prologue, but they have the same name at least. Unfortunately, enough time has passed* that you need a better memory than mine to remember the witch’s name at all. In fact, since nothing prologue-related has happened since the book started, it’s easy to forget the flash forward entirely.
Then the witch fades into the background even further. She isn’t very involved in Naranpa’s story; she’s just a side character that Naranpa meets along the way for a magical trinket. Then the plot moves on and we don’t see the witch again until the end, when it’s finally time for the big reveal: the witch wasn’t trying to murder Naranpa at all; she was performing a resurrection spell on account of Naranpa getting herself murdered.
If your memory is good enough to recall the flash forward by this point, then it might be a neat twist. I can’t say because I’d completely forgotten. But even for readers who do remember, this twist doesn’t justify the prologue. There was a much more effective way to get it: make it a twist for Naranpa as well. If Naranpa thought the witch was her enemy, that would have been far easier to remember.
Instead, we’re left with a narrative trick that only works if you’re paying very close attention. And for that, we delay Naranpa’s real introduction by an entire chapter in favor of boring backstory. This is especially costly in a novel where Naranpa is splitting screen time with three other POV characters, but it’s not good in any story.
5. Red Mars
With the Mars Trilogy, we have our first prologue that is definitely trying to prop up a slow beginning. Also, racism! That’s not because it’s a prologue; the story is just racist. Anyway, Red Mars starts with a flash forward. Someone named John Boone is giving a speech about Mars Politics (™) and another character, Frank Chalmers, dislikes it.* He dislikes it so much that murder is the only option.
This is where racism comes in. To accomplish his murder plans, Chalmers enlists the help of some recently arrived Arab colonists. These Arabs are portrayed as super easy to manipulate, ready to kill Boone entirely on Chalmer’s word that Boone is their political enemy and hates Islam. Outside the prologue, the Arab colonists are consistently portrayed as sexist and prone to violence, so that’s not great. In case you thought that’s just how everyone is portrayed, the book spends multiple sections lavishing praise on the Swiss colonists for being super great at just about everything.*
Racism aside, Chalmer’s intrigue ends with the charismatic Boone getting thrown out an airlock. This raises several immediate questions: Why did Chalmers do it? What was at stake in his conflict with Boone? How do the other members of their colonization team figure into it? Most importantly, what will happen next? Hopefully you don’t actually want answers to any of those questions, because the next chapter zooms back several years to when the team is on their initial voyage to Mars.
To be perfectly honest, the flash forward isn’t that exciting. There’s a lot of political exposition that we don’t understand, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s happening or what the characters’ motivations are. But that’s a pulse-pounding thriller compared to what happens next: a seemingly endless space flight where nothing happens and nothing is at stake. Instead of facing real problems, the characters have inane political arguments about whether Earth should be the boss of them. The closest thing this segment has to a conflict is that social cohesion slowly deteriorates. Since no one is trying to do anything about it, it’s as boring as anything else.
This goes on for quite a while, and our only hope for tension is that the flash forward events will arrive soon. They don’t. Once the ship reaches Mars, the story improves a little, as the crew disagrees over actual problems like whether they should press ahead with terraforming or preserve Mars’s native environment for scientific study. But by now, the flash forward is so distant that it no longer feels important. The book presses on with conflicts that have nothing to do with the events of Boone’s death. That conflict doesn’t come back around until near the end, 20 hours later if you’re listening to the audiobook.*
When Boone finally dies in the main timeline, so much time has passed that the flash forward may as well have never happened. All it does at the beginning is create some confusion by presenting conflict we have no context for, and then obscuring how boring the book’s actual opening is. What Red Mars needed was a revision to its early chapters, but instead it got this prologue. It’s like throwing a tarp over your messy garage.
6. The City We Became
The City We Became has an interesting development history, as its prologue is actually the short story The City Born Great. The only apparent difference is that the final lines have been altered so the villain isn’t entirely gone after all. This is cool because my clients are always asking me if they can use a short story as the first chapter of their novel, and now I have an example of why they shouldn’t do that.
Short stories have a lot less time than novels do, so their worldbuilding and plotting have to be much more compact. That’s certainly the case in this short story. Within a couple dozen pages, we learn about how cities come alive, pick someone to be their avatar, and then do battle against an eldritch enemy for their own survival. We also learn that these battles are fought using the cultural tropes as weapons, so the city might use ruthless stock brokers as a sword, and a well-known botanical garden as a shield. Finally, we see New York kick the crap out of its enemy. The story should be over, but it’s not, because there’s a whole novel left to go.
This prologue features the villain getting thoroughly defeated before the main story has even started, which is the opposite of what you want for a threatening enemy.* Worse, it’s a built-in spoiler. In chapter one, we see our new protagonist struggling to figure out why he’s lost his memory, and also why he seems to have nascent magical powers. Normally, this would be a fascinating mystery, but thanks to the prologue, we already know the answer: he’s become the embodiment of Manhattan. We also know exactly how his powers work because we just got a big info dump about them in the prologue.
In exchange for defanging the villain and spoiling a great mystery, what does this prologue give us? Almost nothing. The prologue’s main character doesn’t appear again until the very end, and ironically the rest of the book does a much better job of building attachment for him by having the other characters find and analyze his art. Likewise, the main story has plenty of time to teach us about awakened cities and their magic, since the new protagonists have to discover it all for themselves anyway. Unfortunately, the prologue strikes again here, as the heroes learn by getting magical info dumps from their new city senses. I can’t be sure, but this feels like a reaction to everything being explained in the prologue. Why have the characters investigate something readers already know? Just pop the information into their heads and move on.
Even without any other changes, The City We Became is better if you don’t read the prologue. That way, you can start with the important characters faster, and you get at least a little excitement from the opening mystery before it’s solved via supernatural exposition. Also, you won’t have just watched the bad guy get thoroughly defeated. With a more thorough revision, we could remove the characters’ municipal info dumps and watch them figure things out the old-fashioned way, since the prologue won’t be around to lay out the entire premise.
At barely two pages, the prologue of Wanderers is easily the shortest on this list, but it’s also the weirdest. It details how a Japanese astronomer discovered a big comet that would soon pass Earth close enough to be seen with the naked eye. Then it has a weird paragraph that confuses asexuality with not wanting to have children, before mentioning that the astronomer died shortly after.
This is the first section we see, and it’s even labeled “The Comet.” At this point, natural questions arise. How will this comet affect the story? Is it a herald of magic returning to the world? Is it really an alien starship? Is it going to seed the atmosphere with deadly gas like an old B movie? And what’s up with the astronomer’s sudden death? How will that figure into the plot?
If you were thinking any of this, then I have a fun surprise: the comet has nothing to do with the story. The plot is very complicated, but the short version is that as an apocalyptic plague consumes the world, our heroes escort those few who are immune to a sheltered location where they’ll be safe. I’m leaving a lot out, but we don’t have all day.
Regardless, none of this has anything to do with the comet. There’s a rogue AI, techno-zombies, and even time travel, but none of them are related to any comet. So why does the prologue put the comet front and center? I have no idea. In the rest of the story, characters do occasionally mention the comet. One villain uses it to whip up hatred against the protagonists by claiming the comet is a biblical omen, but he could have used any random occurrence and his audience would have eaten it up.
It’s possible the author meant this as a subversion. Perhaps we were supposed to assume the comet was important, and then be surprised when it wasn’t? If that’s the case, it’s a complete failure. Subversions only work if they replace what you thought would happen with something just as interesting, hopefully more so. Nothing is replaced here, the comet is just never important.
If the comet is just a convenient excuse for the villain to rile up his followers, then putting it in the prologue is misleading. A story’s early passages set audience expectations, and this prologue is setting all the wrong ones. You might as well start Lord of the Rings with Gandalf finding the apocalyptic ruins of New York City, only for him to occasionally mention how tall the buildings were while the fellowship travels to Mordor.
In total fairness, the prologue does accurately set one expectation: that the book will sometimes wander off on irrelevant tangents. This happens a lot, from excerpts of random social media posts to entire interludes that show a random rich guy dying of the plague. This is one of the book’s major problems, but hey, at least the prologue warned us!
At best, a prologue is some extra text that doesn’t hurt the story but doesn’t provide any benefit either. It only gets worse from there, with prologues either boring readers with info dumps or confusing them with random gunfights. This problem can’t be fixed because a prologue takes place before the story starts. If the story hasn’t started yet, then there’s no story for the audience to enjoy. On the bright side, taking the prologue out is almost always a painless procedure, since any function it might serve is inevitably duplicated later in the book. Plus, a lower word count means you pay less for editing. Think of the savings!
Need an editor? We’re at your service.