If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard the advice ‘don’t use a prologue unless you really need one’. If you write fantasy, you have probably broken this rule at least once (most likely before you ever heard it) and may have been tempted to break it since you did learn it. If you’re a reader of fantasy you have almost certainly ploughed your way through many prologues of varying calibre.
There are many reasons for not using prologues. The key one for me is they are nearly always an infodump of backstory. That’s two sins right there:
- Infodump – a massive dump of information that makes the reader’s eyes water and their brain desperately desire to be elsewhere; and
- Backstory – which should always be trickled to the reader in the exact amount they need as they need it. Kind of like Goldilocks – not too much and not too little, not too early and not too late, just right!
First off, why tell your reader all the backstory in a lump at the beginning when you can keep them guessing? Secrets can drive plot, create suspense and keep the reader turning pages. I am guilty of this one in my manuscript The Fires of Madness. Did I mention it needs a complete rewrite? Yep. Total. Bulldoze it flat and build it up from scratch type rewrite. And there won’t be a prologue. Why would I reveal the reason for my character’s self-inflicted emotional torment and borderline insanity when I can get so much mileage out of teasing the reader with it? I mean, really, when you look at it that way, it’s a no-brainer, right?
So we all know that prologues are almost always a big no-no. But what about the other question? The one that you don’t see answered as much?
When should you use a prologue?
I don’t claim to be an expert on this, but I can point you to one person I believe has done it right.
Brandon Sanderson in The Way of Kings.
I have nothing but respect for Brandon Sanderson. My favourite editor told me I should read some Dickens because my weakness is at the sentence structure level. When this was pointed out to me, I was reading The Way of Kings. Thinking about what she’d said, I noticed that Sanderson’s writing is very economical and effective. In fact, I have done so much writing and critiquing these days, it’s hard for me not to mentally rewrite the book I am reading.
But I couldn’t rewrite The Way of Kings. Not for love or money. I suppose there is a reason he was hand-picked and personally invited to complete The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan’s lamentable premature death.
I asked my favourite editor and she said yes, Sanderson’s writing is technically near perfect. Of course, there is more to writing than technical perfection, but I'm not going to complain about technical perfection in addition to compelling stories - would you?
The Way of Kings is interesting because it breaks the prologue rule.
I kid you not, this book has a prologue, but before the prologue, you read a prelude.
I know what you’re thinking. In this day and age, when prologues are frowned upon, why would you write a prologue and a prelude? And how would you get it published? Well, the answer to the latter could be because publishing houses do have favourite sons and daughters who get to break the rules, and while a certain amount of this is going on here (The Way of Kings is so long it’s been broken into two parts) I don’t believe that is the reason the prelude and prologue slipped through.
No, I believe they are there for good reasons. So what are those good reasons?
The prologue and the prelude contain information the reader needs to know. This information cannot be dribbled to the reader throughout the book because the viewpoint characters don’t know it.
The prelude is ancient history. So ancient it has been lost in the mists of time. If I didn’t have this information, I believe a decent amount of the rest of the book would be confusing to me in the context of the bigger picture. Some of the foreshadowing I have identified would be meaningless. Also, one of the main characters has visions of the past. I only know they are true visions of the past because I know some of the past. Everyone in the book believes he is mad. I think it’s important the reader believes he isn't mad, otherwise the visions would have no meaning. And believe me, even with the prelude, my faith did waver at one point and I began to wonder if the poor guy really was mad. Without that prelude, I’d be almost convinced of it.
The prologue deals with more recent events – who was behind the assassination of the Alethi king. The Alethi know a little bit, but they don’t know the full details. The POV character of this prologue also gets his own POV scenes later in the book, but not many. Arguably these details could be dribbled in there, but since he only has two or three scenes, I personally believe those scenes would be getting into the realm of information overload if you tried. The reader just wouldn't grasp all the important information.
The full details of the situation are important because it lets the reader know there is more going on than the war with the Parshendi, the Parshendi are not the unrefined brutes the Alethi think they are, and there is some kind of villain out there who is carefully orchestrating events for his own advantage and things are so much worse than the protagonists think it is.
The villain is revealed at the end of book one – but of course you can’t build suspense and tension for a big reveal unless the reader knows there is something to be revealed. The prologue is the first step in building this tension and suspense, and of course the tension increases after the reveal because the identity of the villain is someone the protagonists trust – and they still don’t know he’s working against them.
So the two key reasons for a prologue?
- It contains information the reader needs to know; and
- There is no other real way to give it to the reader because, for example, the primary viewpoint characters don’t have this information.
The prelude/prologue were written in limited third person, which for me made it more engaging than using omniscient. That said, even though there is a good reason for including both the prologue and the prelude in The Way of Kings, I must warn you, they did still make it hard for me to get into this book. Inevitably, they will slow the introduction down, and I found myself wondering ‘when am I going to get to the real protagonist?’. So even if you need a prologue, be cautious in its use.
And unless you are Brandon Sanderson, I really don’t recommend you opt for the prelude/prologue double whammy.
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