Cup of Dcaf: On the Subject of Prologues

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I must admit to some discontent with myself even as I write this. I’m a fan of a well-executed prologue, especially in a fantasy novel, and indeed there is a prologue in All Flames Cast (and will be one in Of Genesis). Yet I’m about to argue in opposition of prologues, for some reason.

Actually, for good reason. You see, prologues are generally unnecessary.

Oh, most authors will argue heartily that their prologue absolutely HAS to be in there. “It sets up so much!” they maintain. Or, “There’s tons of background there!” Possibly even, “It’s where the plot gets set up!”

I mean hell, as I sit here and write this, I’m wailing internally: “The prologue of All Flames Cast does so much to establish the magic and the religion!”

To all of which I reply, “But does it really need to be there?”

That’s the crux of the issue. Are prologues actually necessary? Does this background, or character setup, or worldbuilding, really need to be handled in a prologue?

At this point, with how much I’ve been thinking about potential revisions to AFC while it’s being reviewed, I’m tending toward saying that prologues are very often unnecessary. Only in a few cases can I think of a truly excellent prologue that did something that couldn’t be done in the story proper (here I’m thinking of something like “Dragonmount”, the prologue in Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World; or the recurring prologue scenes in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, where he revisits a key event in the past from multiple different characters’ POVs).

Very often, what’s covered in a prologue can be effectively relayed in a later chapter—but it’s not as easy. This is what I’m realizing. Prologues are the easy way out. Instead of working to find a graceful way to impart character background or worldbuilding, writers use the prologue as a cheap, easy infodump right at the beginning.

Basically, there are lots of ways to get this information into a story, and take up a lot less space. Is it a key scene from the protagonist’s childhood? Try a flashback later on, perhaps at a point when it will establish some more immediate character tension. Or have a mirroring event occur, that brings out memories or reignites a struggle.

For the worldbuilding aspect, that’s even easier to handle. I know that with All Flames Cast, I pretty much already have all the same stuff that happens in the prologue occurring somewhere else already.

So this is my challenge to myself: don’t be lazy. Don’t take the easy way out. Find the right touch, that makes the book better.

What are your thoughts on prologues?

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