What is a prologue and do I need one

by Aaron Dennis

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Posted by ADennis1111
In the last post, we learned a bit about info dumps and how to avoid or correct them, but we also learned about prologues, a way to set up the story. Is such a thing always necessary? A prologue is an introductory segment of a body of work. You can implement a prologue if there’s some back story, which requires explaining before a reader jumps into the main story. Sometimes, in a series, the prologue gives a quick recap of the previous book, which helps readers dive into the second book without having read the first, or it just refreshes the memory for those who have read the first book.

Perhaps, one of the most popular and familiar prologues of all time is the one from Star Wars, a New Hope. Strange that a movie had a prologue; movie goers generally want to watch a scene unfold rather than read it, but it seemed as though the story needed some explaining before the viewer dove in, but was it necessary? Did it even accomplish its job?

No, it didn’t. In fact, the Star Wars, a New Hope prologue is one of the worst prologues of all time. Not only does it provide zero information, and not only was that lack of information irrelevant, but the information that was provided had little to do with the plot, characters, and setting; the prologue didn’t even set the mood for the story.

Let me ask some questions:

Who is the empire? What have they done that’s so bad it has inspired rebellion? What are the empire’s goals? Who are the rebels? Against what are they rebelling? What are their goals? Has anyone tried peace talks? Who are the aliens? From where did the Jedi originate?

Now, before you go answering any of these questions, remember that when the movie first came out, none of the other movies existed, and neither did the books, and so certainly some questions have been answered throughout the series, but many of these questions could have been easily addressed in the prologue, since they decided to include one to begin with. In other words, while a prologue is far from necessary, if you choose to use one, you must implement one properly.

I recall my first prologue, and it was nothing more than an info dump. I spent five pages—and I mean five, computer pages, 8.5 by 11, not some 6 by 9 book pages—five pages of boring, monotonous facts all leading up to the story. It hadn’t occurred to me to explain the facts in the story. I thought I needed to lay out all the complicated factors, which resulted in the story’s plot, but that’s not storytelling, that’s just reportage, and you, or your editor, must know when to use each.

Once I learned how to write, and how to spin a yarn, I rewrote that particular story. I do not have the original prologue, but I have the updated version, and while it is still a dry account of facts, which lead into the story, the whole of the spiel has been cut down from nearly 3,000 words—a short story in itself—to 458 words. Check it out:

Man yearns to explore, learn, perceive, and break beyond the bonds of limitation. Great, philosophic minds pondered such implications, giving rise to questions with no answer. Who are we? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Are we alone in the universe? Can we reach for the stars?

That first segment sets the mood, an inquisitive mood, which showcases the philosophic dreams of mankind. The last two questions also help to reinforce the fact that the following story is of the scifi genre, which is, of course, obvious by the title, cover, and blurb.

A decade into the Twenty First Century, a space exploration program known as NASA retired their shuttle, stating their space station, the ISS, was sufficient to advance man’s knowledge of space; no more flights to the moon were needed, probes were built to reach other planets, yet a question was raised; was NASA truly marooning their scientists in Earth’s orbit? Was there, really, no shuttle in reserve for emergency protocol?

The second segment provided just a bit of back story, but it also opened a conspiratorial line of questions, which also helps to set the mood, as the story is quite conspiratorial in nature, but that becomes more apparent in the novel itself.

What no one knew was that a new vessel had already been designed and produced. A drone shuttle carried equipment to the ISS, building materials, and there, the engineers constructed new probes. Launching them from beyond Earth’s gravitational pull allowed the tiny machines to explore without immense fuel requirements. New studies had commenced.

The third segment answers some questions, but it also redirects the readers’ line of thought. They are taken from the context of the known and plunged into the possibilities, which must be considered for the story to make sense. Furthermore, the possibilities are reasonable; building probes on the space station and sending them out from there does cut the fuel requirement since they don’t have to fight gravity. A little science has been mixed into the fiction.

Survey satellites were then built and released to specified coordinates. Their role was to relay any information gathered by probes back to Earth. It took little time to obtain great findings. Less than a year into the program, the probes detected abundant deposits of precious minerals in asteroids both inside and outside the solar system. The next step required mining probes to retrieve the deposits. A new age began when humans no longer needlessly harvested their own planet’s resources.

Again, this segment answers potential questions, but it also creates some hope. Regardless of your political beliefs, is it not true that there is an abundance of resources available off world? How cool would it be to live in a world where precious metals are mined from asteroids and flown back to earth? Are you not already curious about this particular story?

A few decades down the road, survey probes revealed more than just resources; asteroids, moons, and planets were deemed acceptable for colonization with little cost or effort, however, there was always the obstacle of time. A journey from Earth to the closest sites meant decades of travel. Great minds set their combined efforts on the task, and a solution was proposed; send colonies to midway stations on small asteroids.

Here, the first idea tackled is that of colonizing with little cost or effort. In our world, today, as of 2017, such a thing is obviously quite costly, but the prologue states that it isn’t, and since the writer states that such is the case of this particular, scifi adventure, the reader must accept the statement at face value. Furthermore, there is a reasonable solution presented to a problem most of us are aware exists; we cannot travel to even the nearest solar system, which is about four light years away. It takes almost a year to reach Mars! Another assumption is turned to fact by this segment, though. Since a couple of decades have passed, one cane assume the year is somewhere around 2040, and by then, we’ll certainly be able to reach the nearest planets in no time, so sending colonists to midway stations is the reasonable solution. This entire segment picks up from the last one; it obliterates the reader’s current knowledge of space travel and replaces it with the story’s version of space knowledge.

It was no surprise to NASA that very few volunteered. Many citizens of Earth were comfortable and happy in their lives. A move to a colonial life in space was practically permanent, and traveling for years only to live in the desolation of space was frightening. Then, the military stepped in, looking to soldiers for support. Project Safe Haven was announced.

Once more, the reasonable solution; no way anyone, especially someone living on Earth during a time when resources are brought in from off world, wants to spend five, ten, twenty years traveling to an undeveloped colony, which might not even function, but if soldiers are ordered to do so, they’ll do it. This also sets up the story. For one, it implies that soldiers aren’t fighting against other countries. Secondly, it is a sound assumption that if the military started the colonies then each colony is a military base. Naturally, all the newer colonies will be military installations, so there’s a trend started by this segment; the military has control. This is a military, scifi adventure.

In the year 2111, almost fifty years after the first, successful colony, Admiral John Lay, the overseer of Safe Haven, commissioned Captain Riley O’Hara to lead a team of scientists and engineers aboard the Phoenix, a vessel orbiting a planet called Eon. The new ship and the new crew were set to break new ground; The Horizon Project was employed to begin colonization of the first planet outside the Sol system. O’Hara was beyond psyched.

Finally, readers have the last nugget of intel. They know the year. They know the place. They know the reason. They know who the protagonist is, but there’s also something overlooked. If it’s been nearly fifty years since the first, successful colony, were there failed colonies…? As they say, the stage has been set, and now readers aren’t just prepared for the story, they are a part of the story.

As been stated ad nauseam; it is imperative that you write out every, single, little, tiny detail, even if that turns into an info dump. While the story is being written, while it is being discovered, piece by piece, by you, the writer, it becomes necessary to jot down all pieces of the puzzle, but, it is during the editing process, which is so far beyond proof reading, that an editor, in this case also you, must remove all the extra pieces of the puzzle.

When placing together puzzle pieces, and you see the picture on the lid of the box is a cat, the cat is all you really care about. You don’t care about the half of a ball of yarn in the top corner. You know it’s a corner piece by the shape of the puzzle piece. The same goes for stories, I think; the prologue is the shape, and the rest of the story is the cat, and each piece of the puzzle completes the story.

Let’s look at another prologue. This one is 223 words. It’s the prologue to one of my novellas. I don’t usually use a prologue for a body of work that’s under 70,000 words, but I really needed to set the stage for this story because it is very outlandish:

Fear, despair, rage, lust; these are base feelings, emotions, which run through the essence of man. It is odd to say that no one has sat back and questioned the value of these emotions, but it is even more odd to ask why no one has done so. Certainly, it can be agreed upon that people have questioned the purpose of life, but to what extent?

I’m sure you see a trend in my writing; I wax philosophically. First and foremost, this prologue states: if you don’t want to think, don’t read this book.

Is there more to life than money? More than sex? Whoever pursues a life without such great pleasures? Most men, normal men, crave the deep darkness of the Id, the passion, heat, and flame of the most immediate gratifications, yet in the end, everyone leads the same life, suffers the same pitfalls, repeats the same thoughts and conversations over and over again, and all while considering themselves unique.

This jabs the first point further. Hopefully, it does raise the question; if we’re all so unique, how come we can be so easily analyzed by psychological formulae? Why is it that all our friends have the same problems, the same complaints, and why is it that we do repeat to our minds the same dialogue over and over again? Perhaps it is this stagnant repetition, which has mired our lives…? Again, the stage is set, bearing the question: but what else is there?

Now, let me tell you that a Shadowman is never concerned with such trivialities. A Shadowman sneaks between the world of light and dark; as such, he cannot possibly fret over the mundane, for while he traipses through the world of men, his eyes are perennially on the prowl for something more abstract, something ephemeral, something incomprehensibly inhuman. Now, I’m going to tell you the story of my life, but not my life as a man in the world of men; the story of my life as a Shadowman.

I’ll bet you’re ready to find out what a Shadowman is. In just three paragraphs the eerie mood has been provided. Your mind has been opened, and if not, you’ve left, and that’s okay; not all stories are for everyone.

The one you thing you’ll notice about this prologue versus the previous one is that no information has been provided in this one. The first prologue basically provided a history lesson before presenting the story. The second prologue pulled you from the confines of the known in order to provide an inkling that there is an unknown out there waiting to be discovered.

Finally, I’ll present a prologue that recaps a previous title. It runs at 541 words, which makes it one of my longest prologues, but I’ll discuss it detail:

An amnesiac mercenary called Scar appeared in the middle of the territorial disputes of Tiamhaal. He brought a whirlwind of change, the kind of change no one expected. That man was in actuality the avatar of Eternus, the Dragon of Time, a being outside the realm of human comprehension. Eternus was the universe, it was the ineffable creator of all that was, but having taken a liking to a particular world, it sent a portion of itself to the world of men.

The protagonist is immediately introduced as is the world. The readers also know that this is a fantasy adventure revolving around men and dragons. Furthermore, the mind has been assaulted by the fact that the creator of existence is a dragon, and that the dragon sent himself as a man to the world in order to do something.

Crafted from the clay at the edge of the world and fashioned from the eight, guiding principles of man, Scar, the mercenary, was sent to slay the Dragons, and so he was named Sarkany, the Dragon Slayer, yet his fashioning was not without flaws, and he lost his memories. Finding himself traveling aimlessly, seeking only to learn of his origins, Scar was beset by Dracos, the followers of Drac, Dragon of Fire, and then he was manipulated by Zoltek, Negus of the Zmajans, followers of the Dragon of Destruction, and finally, the warrior was sent by King Gilgamesh of Satrone, a worshipper of Kulshedra, Dragon of Truth, to the ruined kingdom of Alduheim where a forgotten memory lay buried in darkness.

You might be able to tell that the story, or the prologue at least, has been written in a manner that imitates Biblical tones, so not only has the stage been set, but the production has also been set; readers know they’re in for something that reads somewhat archaic. On top of that, a great deal of what transpired in the first book has been explained, but rather than being provided as a bland reportage, it is a story in and of itself. There is also proof that the world is at war, and that the protagonist is in the mix to do something outlandish, yet there is an air of mystery—the forgotten memories.

It was there that he and his men found a paladin, a warrior named Ylithia, who fought in the name of Mekosh, a true God, the God of Severity, and even though paladins had always maintained that the Dragons were posing as Gods, most people of Tiamhaal had never taken them seriously, yet what was witnessed beneath the rubble of Alduheim united them in their efforts to reveal the truth to their kings and queens. The leaders of every tribe had established their own countries under the name of their Dragon Lord posing as God; constantly, they fought for territory, supremacy, religious beliefs, and even peace. Things changed when warriors of Kulshedra, Scultone, Fafnir, and Tiamat joined forces with Scar and Ylithia, but their plan to bring to light the lies of Dragons was short lived; Scar and Ylithia fell in love and left kings and pawns to squabble amongst themselves.

Now the underlying order of the novel, or the series, in this case, has been provided—Dragons have posed as Gods, but there are real Gods, and there are warriors who have chosen to listen to the real Gods rather than the Dragons. Also, readers know that in the previous novel, the protagonist fell in love, and that created some sort of problem.

The two abandoned Gods and Dragons for a life of peace, but the spurned King Gilgamesh had other plans, and he sent his men to kill Scar, yet he was away, and it was Ylithia, who was cut down without mercy, and for that act of betrayal, Scar took his sword, joined his old friend, Labolas, invaded the impregnable palace, Inneshkigal, and killed Gilgamesh before all the Kulshedrans of Tironis. Upon the king’s death, Scar was transported to Drangue, where he battled the mighty Kulshedra, a misty whorl of a Dragon, and the Dragon Slayer took the beast’s soul.

Several details are provided, yet still in an entertaining fashion. This story, which is just a prologue employed to rehash the previous title, or explain to people joining the show a little a late, reveals what happened when the protagonist abandoned his ordained duties, yet the discord was resolved, if by gruesome means. What readers don’t see is the abundance of information regarding the key players, because that belongs in the narrative, the actual story. They do, however, learn that the hero has rejoined the battlefront, and killed a dragon, and somehow stole its essence. Having mentioned such a thing entices a reader to wonder why stealing the dragon’s soul happened, how it happened, and what can be done with the soul; it engages the audience’s mind.

Since then, the Kulshedrans have lost their powers—the ability to augment their armor through Dragon’s magic—and they struggle to maintain their borders, their culture, their lives, but Scar is far from finished; he owes someone a debt of blood, and so he has journeyed back to Usaj, the land of destruction ruled by the mighty Zoltek. In Meshoptam, capitol of Usaj, Scar, the pale skinned seven foot giant in black, leather armor, has slain the Zmajan, royal guards and come face to face with an old foe….

Finally, the readers are caught up. Everything from the previous book, without the minutiae, has been provided in story form. They know the hero, they know the villains, they have an idea as to why some people worship dragons—they do provide magic—and they know what’s about to happen.

In short, prologues are mood setters, and sometimes, they also provide pertinent information. They must be entertaining, however, and they must be brief; people bought a book to read a story, not learn and memorize facts; unless you’re writing a textbook, even non-fiction should be entertaining.

Some prologues go so far as to lay out a cast of characters. Do not do that. No reader will ever commit to memory the names of fifty characters and their scant descriptions. Why would they? They haven’t read the story, so they don’t care about the cast yet.

If you, as a writer, wish to provide a cast of characters, names of planets, or fictional countries, or races of aliens, or what have you, place that at the end of the book as an appendix. Personally, I do enjoying flipping through back pages and reading those kinds of details, but I’ll skip them if they’re at the beginning of the story; I’ll probably even skip the story because it’s intimidating to so much as think that I might have to memorize details just to be able to participate in the story. It also makes me wonder if the story is lacking; I mean, it must be if the writer has to provide such details before starting.

Finally, to tackle the question: do I need a prologue?

No. You never need a prologue. Everything that a prologue does can be done in the first chapter of a story. I wrote a Skyrim fanfiction, and it just starts with chapter one. There was no need to dive into what led the dark elf to question magickal theory; I just presented his case through character interactions, but should you choose to implement a prologue, make sure to edit the prologue just as you do the story; cut everything that doesn’t need to be there.

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