“What’s Past Is Prologue”

“What’s past is prologue” is a quotation by William Shakespeare from his play The Tempest.

As the phrase was originally used in The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I, it means that all that has happened before that point (the past) has set the stage for the present. So it is with the prologue (or prelude) in novel form.

I’ve read a lot of articles that claim a prologues is the kiss of death; editors hate ’em and readers skip ’em. I’m not sure what that makes me, because I read them, except when… Well, we’ll get to that in a moment. Curious about this all-encompassing denouncement, I went to my library and plucked three books from the shelves: Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings (which is signed, I’ll have you know!), and George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. I picked them because they’re well-known authors and best-selling books. And guess what? All three of them have prologues.

“The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened.” (The Eye of the World)

“Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of the Shnovar, wore white on the day he was to kill a king.” (The Way of Kings) 

“”We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.” (A Game of Thrones)

All three of them perform, in the very first line, what an opening is supposed to do:

  1. create a setting
  2. develop conflict
  3. introduce characters
  4. set the tone
  5. drive the story forward
I went crazy and randomly picked four more books off my shelves. The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. Stormrider by David Gemmel. Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind was the only one that didn’t have a prologue.
I decided to branch out a bit from fantasy: Lady of the Forest by Jennifer Roberson, Hood by Stephen R. Lawhead, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum? Guess what? Prologues every one.
Why are so many people so anti-prologue? As I said earlier, I read prologues, except when…

First I’m going to say that the exceptions are rare. Second, I’ll tell you why: They’re a blah, blah, blah massive information dump. The entire history of the world before Joe Protagonist ever makes a first appearance. Yes, that turns me off at the first page, and there’s a fifty/fifty chance I won’t even bother with chapter one.
Title on the left,
intro/prologue on the right
Aside from the obvious no-no of the History of the World Prologue, there are the bad prologues (though it usually takes a little investment of time to discover them). Bad prologues mess with your head, confuse you, irritate you.
  1. They’re really long. Like… a whole chapter. About something that doesn’t even make sense when we finally get to Joe Protagonist’s real dilemma.
  2. They’re written in a voice or style entirely different from the rest of the book.
  3. They don’t have anything to do with the rest of the book.
  4. They’re short and exciting to hook us in, but chapter one is slow and boring.
Lital Talmor has written an excellent article about prologues, Where to Begin? When, Where and How to Write a Prologue, in which she discusses the types or jobs of a good prologue:
  1. The “future protagonist” prologue shows the hero or heroine some time after the main part of the plot has taken place.
  2. The “past protagonist” prologue is generally used when the protagonist has a defining moment in his past which must be known to the reader, in order for the reader to understand this character.
  3. A different POV prologue describes a certain event from a point-of-view different than the main characters of the plot. This event may occur in the same time-frame as the plot, or years before or after.
  4. A background prologue can usually be found in the science-fiction and fantasy genre, where the settings may differ so wildly from our own world, that without a proper explanation the reader might get lost.
Number 4 is often in extreme danger of becoming an info dump. After all, if we had wanted an encyclopedia or history, we would have acquired one.
I was curious to see how my first selection of famous-books-and-authors-with-prologues fared when it came to chapter one.
Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World: “The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.” Wow. Good thing he had a prologue that really gripped me. Things didn’t get interesting until the last sentence in paragraph three, which was at the very bottom of the page. Cutting it a little close there…
Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings: “”I’m going to die, aren’t I?” Cenn asked.” I can’t really say I feel invested enough in the character enough to care. A few lines further on we discover Cenn is about to go into battle. Sanderson got really daring and had a prelude before his prologue. It was interesting, but… Really? Two “befores”?
George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones: “The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer.” Luckily, the very next line talks about going to see a man beheaded. Okay, not so lucky for the fellow losing his head, but Martin breaks another cardinal rule by opening with a line about the weather. Yawn.

“A great first line is the collateral that grants the author a line of intellectual credit from the reader.” ~Chuck Wendig

What have I learned? If your prologue isn’t pulling its load, lose it or try to work the information into chapter one. And, since there is this vast population of readers that skip the prologue entirely on the principle that it might be boring, you also need to give chapter one a hook every bit as good as the one that appeared in the prologue, or run the risk of losing the skippers entirely.
You can find out more about prologues here:
How do you feel about prologues? Love them? Hate them? I’ve set up a poll—or I’d love to read your detailed opinion here in the comments.

2 thoughts on ““What’s Past Is Prologue”

  1. I don't think I've ever skipped a prologue! Somehow, if I'm picking up a book to read it, I've already granted the author an intellectual line of credit. I might as well read what he's taken time to write, eh?

  2. I agree! That prologue must be there for a reason—and I'll take any sort of prologue but the encyclopedic variety. The same curiosity that drives me to read the first chapter applies to the prologue, too!

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