Kristin’s incomplete list of why prologues don’t work:
1. When the sole purpose of the prologue is to fill the reader in on the back-story so the real story can begin.
This is so easy to point out but harder to explain.
In the example of UNDONE, Brooke Taylor needed a prologue to show how it all started. To juxtapose who the girls were when they first “meet” versus who they are when chapter 1 begins. The prologue also serves a strong purpose. It sets tone, character, and sets up several questions. Why did Kori become a “I-puke-cheerleaders-for-breakfast” kind of girl? Something has happened but what? Why is Serena obsessed with her by her own admission? And it’s very clear that these two girls have nothing in common in this bathroom scene yet Kori calmly states that they are more alike than Serena knows. They are connected.
This is a prologue with a clear purpose. The reader should want to know more by the end or it doesn’t work. It’s also masterful. Brooke managed to accomplish quite a bit in just 4 short paragraphs and this leads me to the second reason why prologues often don’t work.
2. They are too long.
This is the death of a manuscript if a writer has problem #1 and then it’s combined with problem #2.
3. When the prologue is in a whole different style or voice from the rest of the manuscript.
Then when chapter 1 begins, readers are left flummoxed—especially if that style or tone of voice is never revisited.
4. When the prologue is solely there to provide an action scene to “draw the reader in” but then serves no other purpose or is not connected to the main story arc or is only loosely so.
5. When the prologue introduces the evil character simply so the reader can “know” what is at stake.
I can sum this up in two words. Clumsy writing.
6. When the prologue is supposed to be cool (or I might reword this to say the writer thinks it sounds cool).
Lots of writers overwrite when creating a prologue. It shows.
When all of the above is happening (and there are probably a dozen more reasons why prologues often don’t work), it becomes really clear that the writer isn’t paying attention to dialogue, character development, plot pacing, etc. All key elements of good writing.
This is why almost all the agents I know completely skip the prologue and start with chapter one when reading sample pages. A beginner writer might actually be able to do good character, dialogue, tone, pacing, and whatnot but it’s more than likely not going to show in the prologue.
Now in defense of the prologue, when it’s done well, it’s truly an amazing tool. The number of times I’ve seen a prologue done extraordinarily well in requested submissions? Well, I can count that total on two hands….
Kristin Nelson, President and Senior Literary Agent at Nelson Literary Agency
Being an avid reader practically since birth, Kristin is equally happy reading a Pulitzer prize-winning literary novel for her book club or a sexy romance novel. She established Nelson Literary Agency, LLC in 2002 after the literary agent she was working for expressed dismay that Kristin wanted to represent genre fiction – gasp! – as well as literary novels. Forming NLA was absolutely the right thing to do.
Clients include bestselling authors Jamie Ford, Ally Carter, Marie Lu, Gail Carriger, Simone Elkeles, Courtney Milan, and RITA-award winners Sherry Thomas and Linnea Sinclair. When she is not busy selling books, Kristin loves playing Ultimate Frisbee (where she is the oldest person on her team), playing Bridge (where she is the youngest person in her club) and taking hikes with her husband and their dog Chutney.