If there’s a prologue in your manuscript, be aware that interested agents and editors will most likely try to talk you out of it. Prologues are out of vogue. They’re seen as cumbersome beasts that only weigh a story down. But did you know that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has a prologue? Chapter One takes place 10 years before Chapter Two so it’s a prologue, if not in name. Rowling’s prologue obviously didn’t kill her book’s chance at publication, but was it necessary? Could the story have been stronger without it? It’s important to ask critical questions of even the most successful books because, until you understand a rule, you won’t know when it’s best to break it.
How a Prologue Should NOT Be Used
- To introduce characters. A prologue should not be used to give characters some alone time in the spotlight – no matter how important or special they are. A good way to avoid this pitfall is to look for action in the prologue: Is something happening? If not, kill your darling (before your reader does it for you).
- To warm up the reader. Writing a book is not like playing baseball. In baseball you can take a couple of swings before you get to the plate, but when it comes to your book, you’d better be at that plate and swinging for the fences on page one. Do not warm up with a prologue – swing, baby, swing! (Find out here if your first page is a homerun.)
- To entice the reader. This is the opposite strategy of trying to warm up the reader. You copy a chunk from an exciting scene in the middle of your book and paste it at the beginning (or you paraphrase it – same concept). This is usually a sign that your beginning needs an overhaul: If it isn’t interesting enough on its own, it needs work.
- To give background. This is probably the most abused reason for including a prologue. Instead of carefully depositing background throughout the story, this writer just dumps it all in the beginning.
Was Rowling right to include a prologue?
“The Boy Who Lived” is one of the most famous chapter titles of all time. In this chapter, Rowling immediately introduces us to the Dursley family and draws a connection between them and Harry Potter. She also gives us a glimpse of the wizarding world Harry is leaving behind and will hopefully return to someday. She writes the prologue from a mix of third-person limited and omniscient, while the rest of the book is seen through Harry’s eyes. (Randomly jumping POV’s is typically a no-no as well, but, since Harry is a baby in Chapter One, there’s no way around it.)
What is the purpose of Rowling’s prologue?
To introduce characters and give some background.
Well . . . . looks like Rowling broke the rules. Her prologue supposedly doesn’t pull its weight – so why was her book successful anyway?
Because she understood that all writing rules serve one almighty purpose:
To engage the reader.
If you know you can break a rule and still engage your audience (and you have a good reason to break the rule), then have at it. Rowling already knew she needed to hook her readers, prologue or no prologue, so it wasn’t about breaking the rules but about finding a balance between telling her story and making her readers curious enough to turn one page and then the next page and the page after that – which she obviously did with great success.
But I still don’t think the prologue was necessary. Rowling could have easily tossed it out and incorporated that information into the rest of her book. (Don’t believe me? Think of all the intricate character backgrounds Rowling somehow managed to weave into the story without stopping to write an entire chapter about each one of them.)
But that’s also the beauty of writing: It still is – and always will be – an art. A hundred writers could have the exact same idea and the result would be one hundred completely different stories. Rowling obviously believed that how she wrote Chapter One was the best way to start her story, rules or no rules. (And she supposedly rewrote Chapter One upwards of 15 times.) She followed her gut and it paid off. Big time. But remember that Rowling wrote many unpublished stories before she struck gold with Harry Potter. She had to learn the rules first and then practice (a lot) before she knew when and how to safely veer off the path.
*Photo by Public Domain Archive / CC0