If You’re Gonna Prologue, Do It Right

Greetings, all. Fall brings out the beauty in nature, the changing leaves on the trees, pumpkin-flavored everything in grocery-stores, and my most favorite of literary movements…The Great Annual Reading of Horror Novels.
I started this tradition years ago, and it is simple. I read horror novels, ghost stories, and gothic treasures each fall, as I am too afraid to read these selections the rest of the year. I try to mix things up- read a few classics and a few contemporary selections, get my chills on, and enjoy. This year’s docket includes The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, and The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp to name a few. Last year, I read Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Ghost Story by Peter Straub, A Headfull of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, and The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.

One thing that I noticed as I concentrate on this genre is the large amount of prologues used to forward the story. Of the eight books I listed above, four have prologues. In a literary era where to write a prologue means certain literary death, it piqued my interest to consider this a bit more.

A prologue is defined as a separate section of a literary or musical piece of work. In each of the horror novels, the prologue introduced a main character, the evil antagonist, or the consequences of failure. Most were separated from the timeline of the main novel. You know townspeople are mysteriously missing in Maine from the prologue of ‘Salem’s Lot. The demon and the priest are introduced and the price of failure revealed in the prologue of The Exorcist. The curse of the Pyncheon family is revealed in the prologue to The House of the Seven Gables– a full two hundred years before the action in the main story. Here is where I think a prologue works best- to elucidate critical, condensed backstory and introduce the stakes for the main story.

What these prologues DID NOT DO were the following.
1. Provide significant world-building. Your imaginary landscape should be revealed gradually as the characters and plot move through your world, not in a dissertation for the first five pages.
2. Disguise itself as a huge information dump.
3. Relay large amounts of backstory- let this information come out in your story, not all at the beginning. If you feel like it must all come out, then maybe you are not writing the correct story:)
4. Delay getting to the current story. Your prologue should only be a few pages, not a whole chapter.

If you want to write a prologue, think about its purpose for your story, and critically read what work it does to forward and strengthen your novel. If there is no other way around it, then write it, proudly call it a prologue and move on.

If you are worried your prologue is a trope if what not to do…consider this. Many of the works above utilize different POV very effectively to do the work of a traditional prologue. Consider Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone by JK Rowling. Chapter One is set ten years before the main action of the story and told from a different POV from the rest of the story. Another tactic is to use the “found footage” model- find an old diary, film, newspaper article, person with critical information, etc to fill in the gaps of the story. The more contemporary selections above use all of these tricks instead of a prologue. The most masterful use IMO is how the town history is openly known in Hex, and the use of POV in A Head Full of Ghosts.

I hope these tips and tricks help.

Until next time

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