Let’s Start at the Very Beginning: On Prologues



There’s a certain type of prologue that always makes me
deeply suspicious of the book I’ve just started reading. I don’t know if this
prologue type has a name, but I’m sure you’ll recognize it from a few examples:

  • Average Joe is doing something mildly dangerous
    that he often does in his line of work, like patrolling a castle rampart or
    taking a shortcut home through a haunted alleyway. He’s accompanied by his
    dear, disposable friends, Average Sue, Average Bob, and Average Jill. But this
    night, something is different. Something is coming for Average Joe. It picks
    off his friends one by one, always managing to stay hidden. And when Average
    Joe finally sees it, he screams “By the gods!”—or just screams—and we, the
    reader, are told that he sees it, and how he reacts, but not what the thing
    actually is. End Prologue.
  • Scholar Joseph is researching an ancient and
    mysterious force, being a scholar. He suddenly hits upon a shocking discovery.
    We are not told what this discovery, exactly, is. But the kingdom is in danger!
    He must warn the king—nope, too late, someone stabbed him in the back. End Prologue.
  • Evil Overlord Jxoxex is busy torturing children
    and kicking puppies when his Evil Advisors approach him. The Evil Ritual is
    complete! At last, after a hundred or a thousand years, he can rise again to
    complete his Evil Plan! What’s the Evil Plan, you ask? Who knows! Certainly not
    the reader. End Prologue.

Chapter one begins in a small farming town in the middle of nowhere
(or a castle scullery) in which a teenager of mysterious parentage is looking
forward to the Harvest Festival. The events of the prologue are not mentioned
again until 400 pages in.

I think I will call this type of prologue the Ominous
Prologue of Vagueness.

I have a cynical suspicion that authors use the Ominous
Prologue of Vagueness because they know that starting their story in a
pleasant, sleepy farming town is dull. The Ominous Prologue of Vagueness is
supposed to make us forgive 50 pages of mundanity in the hopes that soon, we’ll
get back to something interesting. But at this point in my life, I am utterly
desensitized to a prologue in which bad things happen to characters I don’t
know. Your world is in danger from an ancient evil? Get in line. Without any
kind of distinguishing detail, the malevolent evil force itself is only an
eyelash more interesting than the preparations for the Harvest Festival.

This reminds me of my recent rewatch of the original Star Wars movies, and my realization that the movies are absolutely brilliant from a storytelling standpoint. Because on one level it does do the jump from Ominous Threat to Sleepy Farm Town, but it does it in a way that works.

Let’s count the ways:

  1. First, it isn’t vague about the threat. In the first few minutes, we find out exactly who the players are and what is at stake.
  2. Second, it keeps the two parts of the story connected via the droids. In fact, it actually takes a shockingly long time for us to meet our supposed hero-protagonist; but it doesn’t matter, because we are emotionally invested in the droids. 
  3. Luke’s entrance is actually very understated, because we are still focused on the droids. He could almost be a quirky disposable side character that the droids meet and then leave ten minutes later. His entrance isn’t a “Okay now everyone look at this boring farmboy here I know he’s super boring but I promise he’s important because I’m making you look at him.” We are immediately invested in him only because of his connection to the big space battle we saw a few scenes ago (again, via the droids), not because there is a flashing sign over his head saying “Farmboy of Destiny Here.”

So in conclusion, if your prologue is not connected to your first chapter in an immediately obvious way, you need droids.