Thursday, 7 January 2010

revenge of the prologue rant

I hate prologues. Out of the hundreds (perhaps more) of prologues I've read, I only remember two of them fondly: Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie are the authors who stole my heart. The vast, vast majority of them suffer from some or all of the following problems:
  • Are used as an excuse for appalling infodumps. Huge quantities of information are crammed in with very little attempt to craft an actual story.
  • Depict a long-ago historical event the author wrongly thinks we need to see up-front to understand the story.
  • Feature a generic evil overlord being generically evil. He burns villages, he tortures people, he kicks the dog. Yawn.
  • Attempt to be ominous yet unspecific by using painfully cliched language of foreboding: "Something terrible is coming." / "Yes, and a hero must rise to deal with it, but I fear he will succumb to the madness in his soul." (I don't understand why people ever bother with ominous vagueness when it's so obvious they're referring to the protagonist.)
  • Show the special events of the special protagonist's special birth. Apart from the cliche, this supports the tired idea that everything special about a person is inherited from their equally special daddy. Alas, poor meritocracy, we knew ye well.
  • Are completely unnecessary.
  • Try to persuade us to get emotionally invested in the characters, even though we all know that prologue characters won't recur - whether they die at the end or are historical characters or aren't important at all except for the special baby.
  • Don't even bother trying to persuade us that there's something here worth investing in emotionally.
  • Tell us things that don't become relevant for another 80,000 words, by which time we've forgotten what happened.
  • Are obvious ripoffs of other stories.
  • At the end, rip the reader out of that scene and dump them into chapter one, frequently with absolutely zero continuity of time, place, plot or character. (I complained about this in my review of the pilot of TV series Sanctuary.)
If I could write the One Law to Rule them All, I'd probably rule that:
  1. Prologues cannot contain more than 50 words of exposition at a time. Period.
  2. Special protagonist's special birth prologues are banned.
  3. Generic evil overlord prologues are banned.
  4. Prophecies? Totally banned.
  5. Ominous vaguery is not interesting.
  6. Readers need some continuity. The prologue and first chapter should be obviously linked: the same characters, or the same setting, or the same subjects, etc.
  7. At least one named character with an actual personality must feature.
  8. Thinking, feeling, angsting, expositing, world-building, reflecting on backstory and navel-gazing of all types must be balanced with dialogue, action and character interaction.
Nearly all prologues I've read have been disastrous.

But when I reread the prologue of Best Served Cold, I remember how enormously I love it. :)


  1. Yes, the prologue to Best Served Cold definitely rocked, but in general I totally agree: prologues should probably be banned in general, because seriously, we do not need all the navel-gazing, transitionless and completely plot-unrelated infodumps.

    Also say yes to ban prophecy :)

  2. I'm glad you're blogging regularly again. I haven't read Best Served Cold, but maybe I will now.

    I often skip prologues when I'm reviewing something on YWS because they're boring. I haven't seen a lot of prologues in books, but the ones I have weren't very memorable, and usually are the worst chapter of the book - which is stupid, since it's right at the start and needs to be the best.

  3. Awesome post Para! I'm totally there with you on the prologue-hate and you gave really great reasons :)

  4. Ohh, prologues. I've long had a beef with prologues myself; in fact for a while I wanted to write an essay for the YWS knowledge base about the problems with fantasy prologues. You've hit the nail on the head as to why I hate prologues. Especially those of the infodump variety. Or when it's just the first chapter masquerading as the prologue. Sometims I wonder if Twilight and Eragon had a part to play in making prolougues popular among young writers, since those books feature horrible (for different reasons) prologues.

    Prologues are of particular interest to me, because they feature heavily in my six-book magnum opus. I know, practice what you preach and so on, but I'm trying to figure out a way to do prologues right, because I am arty and ambitious like that. So far the formula I've worked out is that,in most cases, the prologue is a largely self-contained but short vignette from an event earlier in the timeline than the actual story, which connects directly to the main body of the story within a few chapters. Or not. Of course, depending on how the stories turn out, this could be a violation of the "80,000" word rule. We'll see. XD