Writing

Seven Prologues and the Problems They Cause

A Martian landscape with a domed city and an airship.

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

The Iron Throne from 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

Harry flying through an archway on his broom.

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

A teen in sunglasses walks away from an explosion, not looking back

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

Cover art for Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse.

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

A spacecraft orbiting Mars from the cover art of 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

A tilted building with The City We Became written on it, from the book's cover art.

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.

7. Wanderers

Cover art from Wanderers

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!

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Comments

  1. Adam Reynolds

    What would you say about when this is done for an epistolary novel as a means of introducing the style? Nearly all examples of this style that I can think of have some kind of introduction that generally serves to explain why the format is being used in this context, often an annotation by the “discoverer” of the original documents.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I would say that if an author chooses epistolary, it’s on them to find ways of introducing their conceit while also getting the story started. This is usually doable, but epistolary is a challenging style. If it doesn’t work for a particular story, it’s usually better to pick a different one.

  2. SunlessNick

    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.

    In light of some recent articles, I’m picturing a narrator saying, “If this was a story, the comet would be important, but!”

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hahahaha oh that would have been perfect. Now, make the comet important… or die!

      • Jeppsson

        This is like in Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter’s “the light of other days”.

        It’s a sci-fi story with a pretty cool premise: Tiny wormholes can be used to look in anywhere, and also, eventually, to look at the past. Even though you can just look, it changes society in more and more drastic sci fi ways. Also, as a constant threat in the background, there’s this asteroid that’s gonna wipe out all life on earth.

        The story suffers from not having a proper thoroughline, it sort of veers hither and thither… I disagreed with you that this was a big problem with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but I really see the problem here.

        HOWEVER.

        THE WORST THING about the novel:

        Towards the end of the book, humanity starts to evolve in new ways because of the new tech, and shows signs of… dum dum DUUUUM… turning into more of a hivemind. Then there’s this big time-jump, and one of the main characters wakes up in the far future. And sure thing, everyone is part of a cosmic hivemind now (bc obvs, bc Clarke). Also, with their new superior hivemind intelligence they just fixed the asteroid problem.

        We were frequently told it was impossible to fix, and mankind was DOOMED DOOMED DOOMED . But the new cosmic hivemind people fixed it anyway, off page, at the end of the book.

        Okay then.

  3. Circe

    Wasn’t Harry left at the Dursley’s because his mother’s blood dwelled there (Petunia) and as long as he called that place home, he would be safe until he was seventeen?

    • Cay Reet

      Technically, yes.

      Yet, this isn’t necessary about leaving Harry at the Dursleys (although this is a topic one can argue about, too). It’s about having this first chapter which is set ten or eleven years before the story starts properly. It would have been fine to leave it out and just start with Harry staying with the Dursleys at the age of eleven. After all, everything that’s told in the first chapter is retold to Harry later to catch him up on the wizarding world.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Also that justification is clearly something the author added after the fact, and it doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny when we see dangers can and do follow Harry home, to say nothing of all the other ways he might have been kept safe that don’t involve regular abuse. If nothing else, when he spends 9 months of the year at Hogwarts, any magical protections offered to him by the Dursley house is irrelevant.

    • Uly

      Given how little time is really necessary for him to spend “at home” in order for those protections to kick in, Dumbledore could’ve ponied up money for Harry and Dudley to go to a really good daycare until they started school, and then for Harry to go to a really good boarding school and summer camp as soon as he was old enough.

      Also, that’s kinda an obvious retcon, so.

      Also also, psychological trauma is still bad, and the Dursleys are definitely harming Harry and Dudley.

  4. AK

    Great article! I agree that many prologues are extraneous and could easily be removed. Do you know about any prologues which added to the story? It sounds like that requires a really skilled author and I’d love to know.

    Maybe prologues could work under certain circumstances (but it’s still not a given.)

    EG:
    – The prologue directly affects the protaganist, and gives information that could not be given any other way.
    – It is for dramatic irony, and there are so many other mysteries that explaining this one early helps the reader make sense of the plot.
    – It explains part of the mystery, but not all of it, so we still get to learn and experience novelty.
    -We get to see the characters in the prologue at a later point, and they influence the plot later on.
    -It is epic fantasy with a huge scope, and the prologue sets the tone in a way the first chapter can’t.

    Most of the time they fail for multiple reasons:
    -they are needlessly confusing info dumps
    -we form an emotional attachment to a character we’ll never see again
    -it can lessen the novelty and mystery of certain elements
    -it is simply pointless and adds nothing to the plot or anything to the reader’s understanding of the world

    I think Brandon Sanderson did a great job with his (multiple!) prologues in The Way of Kings. I loved knowing more than the protagonists about the Knights and Radiants and the magic systems, plus the expansive feel it lent the story.

    Does anyone else have any other ideas on what makes a prologue work or not work? I’d love to hear it!

    • captain chameleon

      I have to respectfully disagree on the Way of Kings prologues.
      (Spoilers from early in the book below.)

      I found that those chapters made it so much more difficult to get into the story, and I was super frustrated by them. Especially when we finally got to a character that seemed likable that I wanted to follow…and then he died. But the first prologue from however many hundreds or thousands of years in the past just didn’t mean anything to me. The assassination chapter threw way too many names and words at me that it was hard to follow. I know a lot of fantasy fans are into that kind of thing, and to each their own, but I had to come back and reread that chapter once I was further into the book and had gotten a grasp of the world and characters.

      I would have liked to just start with the first real Kaladin chapter, personally.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        I’ll be honest, I almost stopped reading Way of Kings because “double basic lashing” sounded like placeholder text from a video game that someone forgot to swap out for the final version.

      • AK

        I respectfully agree with you — a lot of what makes a book enjoyable is highly subjective. The prologue was long and unwieldy and full of fantasy jargon, and I loved every bit of it. But enjoyment doesn’t mean the prologues were good quality or even necessary, just enjoyable to a select audience. I love the sense of being adrift in a mysterious world whose secrets will gradually reveal itself, and Brandon Sanderson definitely delivered that.

        It sounds like you prefer fantasy books which give more depth and time to all their viewpoint characters. You might enjoy Shami’s Knightmare Arcanist series, which follows Volke Savan, adopted son of a gravedigger, as he struggles to become an Arcanist and leave his island home. The world building is solid and introduces me to many mythical creatures I’d never heard of before, the main character is honourable and likable, the plot is fun and fast, and it’s free on Kindle Unlimited.

        Some problematic elements:
        -the MC is awkward with girls for no good reason
        -the author uses wendigo as mythical creatures without including any native tribes or many PoC characters
        -the arcane plague’s effects include ‘insanity’, and it’s implied this is what makes the sufferers dangerous, even though a more apt term would be ‘moral rot’ and/or ‘increased impulsivity’

        Other suggestions:
        -Books of the Raksura by Martha Wells
        -A Wizard of Earthsea (this is told in a fairy tale esque way, and so is not as high in characterisation but is a classic for good reason)
        -Pretty much anything by Terry Pratchett (you have to be able to enjoy absurdity to like his books though)

        • captain chameleon

          Yeah, I understand how some authors and their readers like the whole “throw you into it and let you sink or swim” method to introducing you to a complex fantasy world. I see how it makes it feel immersive because they aren’t presenting it as if to a reader who doesn’t understand it yet, they’re just presenting it as if it were real life.

          It doesn’t work for me because confusion takes me out of it more than it gets me into it, and I do think it’s objectively a better idea to err on the side of clarity. But we all have our preferences and that’s okay!

          Thanks for sharing your opinions and for the book rec’s I am overdue on reading some more Pratchett.

      • StyxD

        Oh, that prologue. It actually made me drop reading Brandon Sanderson completely. Maybe if it didn’t exist, I would still be enjoying his books (and really, maybe I should give him another chance).

        I found those prologue chapters as a sneak peak at the end of an earlier book by him. I quite enjoyed that book but I hoped he’d iron out some quirks of his worldbuilding that I found not so great.

        What I learned from that sneak peak of the then-new Way of Kings.

        – There’s a bunch of dunces with impossibly cool retractable swords having an angst fest. Okay, Jedi Council, but why should I care about any of that?

        – Then there’s a Zelda boss fight in fantasy novel format. (Hit the boss three times to reveal its weak point and deal damage!)

        I was already wary about how game’y some parts of Sanderson’s books felt, and decided enough was enough.

        • captain chameleon

          I have a love/hate relationship with the Way of Kings and the whole series it’s part of. The worldbuilding is really deep and cool in many ways, but with some completely nonsensical elements (some of which have been discussed on this site, i.e. that men are in charge but aren’t allowed to read. Eye roll.) Also the books are probably twice as long as they should be, stuffed to the brim with flashbacks and interludes which usually feel tangentially relevant at best.

          It definitely seems like Sanderson felt no need to listen to any editors since he knew people would read the books regardless. It’s too bad, because I think they could have been a lot better, but as it stands I’m hesitant to recommend them.

  5. CDark

    I feel that Martin’s Prologue did serve a larger purpose to the story in that it foreshadows the great cost of Ned Stark’s adherence to law, tradition and honour when he executes the defector from the Night’s Watch.
    You, as the reader, KNOW the watchman’s telling the truth about the Others, why he fled and that the warning he’s bringing is of utmost importance. Does Ned waver in his judgement considering he recognizes the man is nearly out of his mind with fear? Does he send a raven to the Watch to find out if his companions are dead (considering one is nobility, it might warrant it)? Does he even give the man a choice to be sent back rather than be executed?
    No. Stark is as glued to his concepts of honour and law as one can be. Yes, he performs the execution himself, and is shown as laudable, even noble, but it’s not. It’s a farce, the dressing up a plodding, rigid mind unable to heed the warnings it’s being given and a man who eventually meets the same fate as the one he served to the man who brought the first warning in the book.
    I think it’s an excellent example of setting up a reader to feel conflicted about the only superficially “good” character they’re going to have in the book. We wouldn’t have that conflict if we didn’t know what had led the man to desert in the first place. The execution wouldn’t have been nearly as meaningful, or laid the groundwork to question Ned’s choices and character.

    • Cay Reet

      That’s true, but there are ways to show all of this without the use of a prologue, as the story continues. It’s not a necessity to tell the story.

      • BeardedLizard

        I think another use for the prologue in the first book is simply to say to the reader: “This is a dark horror fantasy, don’t be too shocked when it comes back later”. Because most of the series features a somewhat “realistic” setting (little to no magic, mostly political and military dangers, etc.), I think it helps to avoid a huge clash when the dark fantasy element become more present. You already knew it was part of the universe, from the first pages, even if the character inhabiting the world do not think they exist.

        The audience know those things are lurking and are slooooooowly (slooooooooooooooowly) coming. Even though the characters don’t know it. It’s like a ticking bomb hidden from the cast, but visible to the audience.

        • Cay Reet

          Again, this could have been done without using three characters who don’t play a role later on and introduce those creatures long before they come back into the story.

          A viewpoint character who comes back could ‘just survive’ or the death of the characters in that first scene could have consequences later on (beyond the sole survivor being executed).

          Putting one of the many viewpoint characters who stick around for longer into the role of the survivor and not executing them (there are other punishments than just death) would have been an option.

          Putting in the whole scene later (before it becomes apparent that those ‘others’ exist, but closer to when it becomes apparent) would have made more sense for storytelling.

          Indirect suggestion by having a viewpoint character see the results of their existence is also a way to do it within the regular narrative. ‘Which creature did this?’ is a question that can stick with your readers for a long time.

          • BeardedLizard

            I agree, you make a good point. I still think the scene was usefull to have; since it introduce the supernatural elements before they became “plot-central”, but you are right that the scene could have been introduce later in the book (or even the next one, since I don’t remember anything supernatural happening in the first one). At least, after introducing some of the important characters or just by keeping the deserter alive.

    • StyxD

      I also, for a long time, thought that GoT’s prologue was definitely an example of a good prologue, but I don’t really think so anymore. I think it unfortunately fails in what it’s trying to do. I see it like this:

      – The prologue basically promises that eventually there are going to be prominent fantasy elements, and some good old good vs evil battle to save the world. This is significant, because the rest of the book is basically a huge snarl of low-action, low-fantasy court intrigues where almost everyone is some kind of bigger or lesser jerk. So if you think that’s petty and want some grander adventure, it’s gonna be there one day!

      The problem is, if you’re not invested in this court intrigue stuff, the books will bore you to tears before any of that high fantasy action stuff is paid off. So it’s almost like false advertising in a way.

      The funny thing is, when the foreshadowed fantasy elements started slowly taking over more of the plot, people who were there for courtly intrigue, like when the series properly started, were disappointed!

      – It shows the reader something that the main characters don’t know: that the Others are real, and coming to get everyone! Really soon now! All those nobles sure are going to be sorry they wasted their time on petty squabbles instead of uniting against the bigger threat!

      If you want to get all big brain about it, it sounds like a criticism of world powers that would rather engage in conflicts to amass power and wealth instead of preparing to face a huge cataclysm threatening to wipe out all life, that competent people are hopelessly trying to warn them about…

      But it soon becomes really obvious that the Others are moving at the speed of the plot. They aren’t going to airdrop on undead dragons into the king’s castle and cut short all those political plots, because that would be an unsatisfying ending. It’s like in cRPGs where you always have plenty of time to finish all your subquests before facing the supposedly world-shattering main quest.

      In light of that, yeah, the prologue is not needed. It wouldn’t be any worse if we learned about Others later in the Night’s Watch subplot, which happens anyway because John Snow didn’t know about Others (or anything else, apparently).

      The only long lasting effect of that prologue was that Martin made a tradition of starting each book with a prologue from a POV of a disposable character that always gets killed off before the book’s plot actually starts. Riveting.

  6. Uly

    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.*

    It’s worse than that. IIRC (and I do, since I read that book more times than I care to remember – albeit, this was before we knew about JKR) her objection was not “They’re terrible parents, and terrible people, and they’re not going to become better parents for Harry’s sake” but “They’re the most muggle kind of muggle ever”.

    Which, no matter how you slice it, is a really awful thing for a “good guy” to say.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yep that is also very bad!

    • Darian

      Yeah, for all those books try to set up the good guys as being pro-Muggle, they are mostly talk. The Ministry and the Order, including main characters, treat Muggles like children at best, routinely alter their memories without consent, and provide only haphazard protection, if any, vs. Death Eaters, dementors, mischief-makers, etc. And there are no strong Muggle characters whatsoever. They all are evil, weak, insignificant, victims, or soon dead. All the magical characters seem to think Muggles are inferior and need to be managed. Hermione unilaterally Obliviates her own parents and alters their memories instead of trying to work out a respectful way of keeping them safe. I have only read the main series, I don’t know if that gets any better in more recent installments, but if that’s what Rowling thinks of Muggles…

      I have a ~600 word prologue in my (Harry Potter fanfiction) draft because the original characters in it are important and the scene is meant to set up an important conflict for later (this issue with Muggles I was just going off about) but I’m trying to avoid multiple POV and the main character cannot possibly be present for that scene. I suppose another character can just tell them about it later; perhaps that would be less confusing and it could still be an entertaining scene. And they would be able to explain the problem better in case the reader doesn’t pick up on it from the scene alone.

  7. Esq

    IMO the best prologues in fantasy and science fiction are the ones where the author basically gives you an excerpt from that world’s equivalent of a holy book or some sort of classic text like The Histories or The Twelve Cesars. When the prologue takes this form, the reader gets a flavor of the world that they are in and what is at stake in the story but nothing that will point out any story flaws. The main problem with this sort of prologue is that many authors aren’t really good at imitating something that sounds like a holy book or something from antiquity.

  8. SunlessNick

    The best prologues I’ve seen was about setting context, and written in the style of an article. Specifically that of CJ Cherryh’s Rimrunners, which described the recent political history of a region of space called the Hinder Stars – it lets you know where the main character is, and why her chances of getting out of grinding poverty are low. It’s an exposition dump, but brief because it was written in a style that’s *expected* to be an exposition dump, and it didn’t come with a character to get attached to.

    I remember one from an alternate history urban fantasy where the supernatural was revealed in 1911. The prologue was a historian giving their educated guesses on things that might have happened if this reveal had not – which also serves to give the reader a rundown on how the history has changed.

    Crime and horror books can usually get away with it, at least in part because their genres signal that the main character in a prologue will not be long for this world, so the reader is less likely to get involved with them.

    • Cay Reet

      The first Artemis Fowl book begins with a scientific/psychological report, which serves to give us a heads-up that whatever is happening is worth one.

  9. Arix

    I’ve been reading the Wings of Fire series lately. They’re pretty bad with their prologues and epilogues, usually just featuring a side scene unrelated to the rest of the book, but the first one was the worst.

    So it details this prophecy about five young dragons born on the same night who are going to save the world. The prologue shows one of these eggs being destroyed, so the Good Guys need to scramble to get a hasty, last minute replacement. So naturally, this very deliberately NOT chosen one will be our viewpoint character, right?

    Nope. Our viewpoint character is just one of the actual chosen ones. The not-chosen one doesn’t get her own viewpoint until the third book.

  10. Maria

    Eh, gimme a well written prologue and let it waste my time. I enjoy that. The HP prologue is still the bit I remember best of the whole series. And the GoT one sounds great – and um… isn’t “get attached to characters and suffer when they immediately die” the whole point of the first books anyway? I mean, I understand that “be a good writer” isn’t helpful and “be an efficient writer” works a lor better, but… if someone gets to the point where they can be good, let them not settle for “efficient”.

  11. Alverant

    So what’s the difference between a prologue and an introduction?

  12. Dallas Taylor

    Not sure you’re doing yourself any favors including the prologue to Game of Thrones (the book) in your otherwise reasonable defense of your anti-preference. If there’s an overarching theme/meaning to the series as a whole, it’s that all these jackass nobles are busy chasing power and an increasingly meaningless prize (the Iron Throne) while world-ending calamity threatens in a lovely metaphor for climate change.

    Being that it establishes the terms and stakes for the whole series, and not just the first book, I’d argue it absolutely needs to be there, regardless of whether it fits ideally with the arc of the first installment.

    As always, OMMV.

  13. Bellis

    I stopped reading Harry Potter when I was a kid because of the prologue, specifically the part that follows Vernon Dursley. That it wasn’t labelled ‘prologue’ made it worse because I had no way of knowing that the story proper would start later. I was promised by the cover, title and backcover a book about a boy who goes to wizard school! Instead I get to read about the most boring /adult/ (what kid wants to read about adults??? I certainly didn’t!) who was even worse than my childlike opinion of adults already was and who was supremely boring and even proud of it. His last name wasn’t Potter, so I didn’t assume he’d be a relative of the titular character. I was just confused, bored and felt let down, then outside circumstances forced me to put the book down for the time being. I didn’t pick it up again until I couldn’t escape the hype anymore and would never have done so were it not for said hype and peer pressure. I did like the books for many many years though, so it’s really sad that the opening pages repelled me like that.

    I was told recently by a friend that the prologue apparently was necessary for Harry Potter’s financial success by introducing adult characters for the parents who would buy the book to identify with but I doubt that. To accomplish that it would make more sense to start with the scene where Dumbledore arrives, who is interesting and also sets plots in motion, not with Dursley, the least likeable and most boring character in the entire book?! There are lots of Hogwarts teachers that parents might identify with and while some parents regrettably share more traits with the Dursleys, I doubt most would admit that to themselves. Maybe looking down on and laughing at the Dursleys is fun for some people, I don’t know, but it doesn’t make a good opening for a children’s book.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah the Dursleys certainly aren’t there to give parents someone to identify with. They’re like, the anti-identifiers. We all sleep better knowing we are not the Dursleys.

      • Bellis

        I wonder if that draws in parents though? It repelled me and still would even though I am nominally an adult now. But maybe most adults like reading about someone they know they are better than? Maybe most adults also recognised it as a prologue even if it wasn’t labelled as such and knew the real main character was going to be introduced soon, that would definitely help with enjoyment.
        I’d still cut at the very least that part (if not the entire part with Dumbledore and the others as well).

        • Cay Reet

          As someone who was in her twenties when reading the book (I was late to the franchise and I was born in ’74), I can tell that they’re not any more interesting for an adult than for a child. I’m still not sure what purpose the first part of the first chapter serves. The part with Dumbledore is an information dump which wasn’t completely necessary either. As mentioned in the article, Harry gets all of that explained to him later on, anyway.

          Fun fact: when Hagrid mentions that the flying motorbike belongs to Sirius Black, the German translation was ‘Sirius Schwarz’, which is verbatim and thus legit, but when Sirius became a recurring character, they called him Sirius Black. Essentially, Germans would assume that those two were different characters, not one and the same. I only realized that when reading the English version.

          • Uly

            The purpose of the various HP prologues, now that I think about it, might be nothing more than “She wanted to write a few scenes from somebody else’s POV, and this was the only place she felt safe putting those scenes”.

            There’s worse reasons to do things, I guess.

          • Cay Reet

            I can see how, for instance, the prologue in “Goblet of Fire” has its uses – it suggests that there is something going on in the background and there’s no way to get that in from Harry’s perspective. The prologue of the first book, though, is unnecessary.

      • Uly

        For many years – though I’ve had to stop doing it because JKR – I reliably informed people that The Daily Mail is a *bad source* as it’s the one Vernon Dursley reads.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Hehe. Yeah, the Dursleys were certainly supposed to be a caricature of British conservatives. Ironically, the same people Rowling is now drawing closer to because they’re more accepting of her transphobia. (not to say that British liberals and leftists are free of it either)

          • Uly

            Yeah, the UK left seems weirdly infested with transphobia, and I just can’t figure out why. I mean, I’ve read people’s various attempts to explain it, and I just can’t get past “But… why? Seriously, why?”

            Then again, I’ve never understood transphobia to begin with. Why should I care how you live your life? I’m just not that invested in other people’s lives or genitals?

  14. Ash

    What are your thoughts on (what TV Tropes calls) ‘A Minor Kidroduction’?

    I think they can be done well (but so rarely are); the best ones match the narrative (not just a random scene from the MC’s childhood) where we meet the MC & see one or more of their relationships (to see how, or if, they’ve changed), establish the setting, possibly introduce the antagonist(s), foreshadow the plot and give enough back story so the audience gets their grounding, etc.

    Treasure Planet (I know it’s a movie, but the first scene just feels like a prologue and is called such on the DVD scene selector) has one that’s quite good. In the span of 3 minutes it introduces:

    * the main character and his relationship with his mother,
    * the setting & tech level (mix of old & sci-fi),
    * foreshadowing,
    * the goal / an important location (the eponymous treasure planet),
    * the antagonists (pirates),
    * the back story (forgoing “As we all know…” exposition during the movie)
    * an important (deceased) character in the back story

    (No captain Flint > no treasure planet > no map to it > no inciting incident > no story) [SPOILER] Also, in this version, Flint(‘s remains) is kind of a load-bearing boss.

    So when the inciting incident happens the audience (if they have never read the book) can quickly figure out what’s going on and why the orb / map is important.

    Personally, I don’t consider the first chapter of Harry Potter to be one since infant Harry is basically a prop in that chapter.

    • Ash

      Forgot to add: introduce other important characters (including deceased* ones or MC’s heroes), Chekov’s guns and McGuffins.

      *Because we all know, in fiction death is only a minor setback in regards to influencing the plot.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I feel like they can occasionally be useful in a visual media, when you need to get something across from the character’s backstory, and it would be awkward to say in dialogue.

      In Korra, for example, it’s useful for us to know that Korra basically had no problem with the three of the four elements, even as a kid. Whether that’s a good character trait or not is debatable, but it’s important to her character. A quick shot of that is more natural than someone saying “as you and I both know, Korra mastered every element but air very quickly.”

      Of course, even in visual media, they are often unnecessary, hence the Pitch Meeting joke at the top of the TV tropes page. In novels, the chances of needing one are almost zero. Novels have a much greater ability to convey info through narration, so if there’s some backstory context we need, the author can just tell us, and it’s way less intrusive than having a full scene.

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