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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Prologues Kill by Sarah J. McNeal

Prologues Kill Your Story

Prologues used to be popular among writers. It was a swift, clean way to catch the reader up on a back-story—a big flashback, if you will. Well, that was all fine and good back in the day or forgiven if I newbie author committed the sin; and I confess, I have sinned in this regard.

I’ve been working on a book that was my first published novel and has been edited by three publishers. Now it has been contracted with Fire Star Press. Honestly, I have not looked at this story for a number of years so it was quite a shock to discover how many primary rules of writing I broke. I would say I am editing this book, but the truth is I am rewriting it.

The very first mistake I made glared at me at the onset of the story...a big scary prologue. I hesitate to think what readers thought of this prologue. They may have quit reading right then and there. Even worse is the fact that this book is the first in a trilogy. I can’t imagine the reader wanting to read the next two books after the fiasco on the first page of the first book.

We have had it pounded into our brains to start a story in the middle of the action or intrigue, and yet, there it was on my first page—a gigantic, good for nothing, flashback. Ugh! I hung my head in shame for a moment before I deleted the entire prologue. I don’t miss it. The story doesn’t miss it. It served no purpose except to kill a reader’s interest in moving any further into the story.
I read an article that said we shouldn’t even write the word “prologue” at the beginning of a book; it would be better to just write “Chapter 1” and then write in italics “whatever years later” so and so happened that REALLY started the story. The author of the article made the statement that readers are turned off by the word “prologue.” I guess readers just think. Here we go into a boring flashback. Whooptydoo. Maybe that’s what drives some readers to read the ending first just so they can get a sense of what the heck is going on and whether everything is going to turn out okay.

I would go into the negative aspects of epilogues here—another sin I have committed, but I won’t. Sometimes epilogues tie things together at the end without the reader having to speculate if things worked out after all. Honestly, if not for the epilogue in the book “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier I would not have learned that any happiness evolved from all the tragedies that took place in the story. Therefore, I will leave epilogues alone.

But I will say that Prologues often kill a reader’s interest before they get to the meat of the story. I must atone for my sin in writing a prologue and make a promise to myself never to do it again.

What some other authors to have to say about prologues:

“Bad Ways To Start A Novel” by Cytolene
No one except the author is really interested in your character’s backstory. The reader wants to see what is happening right now. Whatever backstory is necessary can be woven into the main story.
Prologue. The fuzzy bit at the beginning that doesn’t make sense until you’ve read the whole novel. It’s backstory in disguise. Prologues that start a thousand years in the past will cause the author to burn in hell.

K. M. Weiland

Helping Writers Become Authors by K.M. Weiland
Prologues offer many dangers, a few of which include:
·         Forcing readers to begin the story twice.
·         Grabbing readers with a “fake” hook (which also causes the writer the extra work of then having to come up with two brilliant hooks—one for the prologue and one for the real first chapter).
·         Creating prime real estate for info dumping.
·         Wasting readers’ time with intro material instead of allowing them to get into the real story right away.
·         Forcing readers to accept the author’s hand-holding.
·         Killing subtext.
All of these are all integrally related, but that last is the one I want to zero in on today.

Laura L. Martin
Prologue. (One of the 10 Worst Story Openings by Laura L.Martin)

Maybe I’m the only one, but I always used to just skip prologues and then read them after I was finished with the book. Prologues are just another cheap way of stuffing a bunch of back-story in. However, I know a lot of successful famous books have used prologues, so they’re not always unacceptable, but if you can, work in the information somewhere else—maybe even if you need to have a flashback later on. Readers are put off by prologues that they don’t understand and have visibly little to do with the actual first chapter.

Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author who writes diverse stories filled with heart. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press and Sundown Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. I've had some problems getting the comment section to work. Hopefully, I have fixed the problem now. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  2. Sarah, this is an excellent post. I agree with the "dangers" of the prologue--a lot of people just skim it or don't read it at all. And it's really a risk, as some people will just lay the book down. I usually put that information in flashbacks and memories. Great post, and very informative. I can't wait to see your revamp of your trilogy!

    1. Cheryl, the first book is taking a great deal of time since it was my first published work. I've been working on it for 2 months and I'm only in Chapter 6. These books are a big leap from the Wildings and I want them to be good enough to attract readers who are used to my western stories. That prologue on Dark Isle was shocking and unnecessary, so I ditched it. Boom! I still have a huge amount of work to do on it.
      I'm so appreciative that you hung in there trying to get this comment to post. Thank you!

  3. Every editor I have had in Trad publishers killed a prologue without even looking at And I agree. Most of the times they serve no purpose. You need to jump into the story and pull readers into your world. Prologues rarely propel the story forward. However, NEVER SAY NEVER is a banner for publishing. So I am sure there are a few that a prologue worked for. I cannot recall one, but I am sure there is one or two.

    1. Deborah, I've seen very few prologues in the books I've read. The ones I did see weren't really needed, but, as you said, "never say never." I might come across one that makes all the difference in the world. I don't know that I'll hold my breath on that though.
      Thank you for continuing to try to post your comment in the face of adversity. I appreciate your perseverance.

  4. While I don’t necessarily disagree, and I haven’t published a story with a prologue, I do read prologues. Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels are an example of how a prologue adds the mindset to how the story will unfold. I recall Agatha Christie used prologues a few times, too. As with any writing device, the author’s storytelling skills and delivery will make or break a story.

    1. Kaye, I think there was a time when prologues were popular. I did have what could be called a prologue in my story, Fly Away Heart, but I called it Chapter 1. The reason I put it in there was to show the connection between Lilith Wilding and Robin Pierpont from the time when they were kids including Lilith's bravado and Robin's fear of deep water. So, it might not be necessary and it might be a mistake, but I don't really want to change it.
      Thank you so much for putting up with that glitch earlier today when it was impossible to post a comment. Thank you.

  5. As with everything, there are exceptions to the "rules"--if we can call them rules at all. If a prologue has all the required elements--action, it holds your attention, etc.--there are times when a prologue is the only way to start a story. At least Cheryl didn't "kill" my prologue in Wild Texas Hearts. ;-)

    1. ...good points though, Sarah!

    2. Well Tracy, I have a "prologue" that I called chapter 1 in Flay Away Heart. It does have action and Cheryl didn't take it out, but mostly I couldn't think of another way to show how my characters related to one another from their earliest years. As I mentioned in my comment to Kaye, it also shows Lily's bravery in the face of adversity and Robin's phobia about water. So, I agree about the exceptions to the rule.
      Thank you so much for commenting, Tracy.

    3. LOL Tracy--you're right. It was needed there. There certainly are times when they are appropriate and as long as there is action that gets the story off to a great start like yours did I'm all for them. I've seen plenty that were "It was a dark and stormy night..." types, though. LOL

  6. Sarah,
    Don't be so hard on yourself. I don't believe all prologues should be scrapped. It depends on the content. So, as Deborah says, never say never. And like Kaye mentioned, a good writer can make a prologue work. I think the key, of course, is what's in the prologue. How necessary is the info? Would it be better now or later? I would probably follow the advice that if you're a brand new writer, don't use prologues, but once you're established, you can get away with a lot. Good luck with the rewrite! I think part of what you're experiencing is simply coming at your work with fresh eyes. I think we'll always want to rewrite our younger selves. Our work is always a snapshot of who we are at that moment in time. Again, go easy on your young writer girl...she needs a hug more than a bashing. :-)

    1. Thank you for being so kind, Kristy. You're right, it IS hard to look at earlier work before I knew as much as I do now. I know, even when I finish slogging my way through it making changes, it will not be perfect.

      I yearn to write something new, but I am determined to get these older books up to muster first. One nice thing about rewriting this trilogy, since I know where all 3 books are headed and how it ends, I can fix and highlight certain things to make it all come together in a more cohesive way.

      I'm still glad I ditched that prologue. The flashback at the beginning of Fly Away Heart is an action scene and reveals some needed truths about the two characters, so no regrets there.

      Thank you so much for coming and for your support and kindness, Kristy.

  7. I like prologues. Always have, especially as a reader before I started seriously writing. I don't like characters or situations that pop out of nowhere on the first page, even if that is where that particular book's story begins.I liked either (a) background story that helped me understand what was going one, or (b) a mystery that I expected the rest of the book to resolve. I will continue to write prologues. If readers and editors wish me to disguise my prologues as Chapter 1, I can do that.

    1. Hey Zina,
      Ya know all of us do something the powers that be tell us not to. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't.

      As I mentioned in the article, I am guilty of writing prologues. I may need a prologue intervention. LOL I did delete the prologue in Dark Isle and good riddance, but I will not remove the prologue (disguised as chapter 1) in Fly Away Heart because I, like you, feel it is needed to show the reader some insight into the two main characters--and it starts off the book in immediate action.

      Thank you for coming and for sharing your pro-prologue comment. All viewpoints are welcome. Each of us does what we feel is best for the sake of our stories