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September 27, 2010


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Wonderful post and great examples! I do love prologues and spend much of my story writing time in "pre-thought." In my first novel I went back, back, back (like I was falling in a time tunnel) with various prologues that I believed gave "need to know" info for the story. Maybe it did, but didn't necessarily deliver much info directly important to the main character. Yep, I snatched the reader away to a seemingly different story and expected a lot of patience for revealing the link. Finally I cut the prologue and tried to incorporate info in later.

I might revisit my prologue ideas though with this clarification of what a prologue can do most effectively -- show a character (the main character) via another character's thoughts and actions. In the examples you gave I could still identify whose story it was. Thanks for the tips!

Liz Fichera

I agree with you on prologues--they have to work for the story. The reader will know if it's merely filler or not. I also like the idea of using them to further explain character motivation. Excellent post! :-)

Donna Cummings

Melissa, I'm glad you liked the examples. I've always been a fan of the one in Gone Too Far, but I had just picked up High Country Bride the other day and it really made me realize why prologues can be so wonderful.

I've definitely tried to use prologues, but then discovered the info could be fed into the story later. It's a little more work, but definitely worth the effort!

And showing a character via another character's thoughts/actions -- I'm trying to do that now when I write. It's such an amazing tool to have in the writer's toolbox. :)

Donna Cummings

Liz, you're right about the reader knowing that writers are just using the prologue as filler. It's such a tempting thing to do! LOL

Thankfully there's always so much to learn from those who do it well. :)

Nicki Elson

Hi Donna, I saw your comment at Liz's blog that you'd also written about prologues and came on over. What you say in one of your response comments here expresses something I was thinking as I read through your post -- when a writer has a prologue, it's a good practice to see what information can be worked into the body of the story, leaving behind what can only be told via prologue...or nothing, in which case you know a prologue isn't warranted.

Your two examples sound like excellent use of prologue! :) Thanks for the post.

Terri Osburn

You are not going to get me to pick up another extensive backlist. LOL! I don't have time! I know these two authors are excellent, and maybe when I retire, I'll read all of their stuff.

How do you feel about the prologue that is actually a scene closer to the end of the story? One that is maybe the start of the black moment? That's how Castle started last week and how Hellie started one of her older MSs. I kind of like that idea, though I've no idea if I'll ever get to use it.

Donna Cummings

Nicki, thanks for coming over! I completely agree with you about putting the info into the main portion of the story instead of the prologue. It really reduces the need for a prologue, in most instances.

In the first example here, I think the prologue is necessary to keep the father sympathetic. Plus, since it's not his book, it would be harder to get this info into the story appropriately.

And with the second one, it's the hero's book, but we've gotten to know him through the previous books. I don't know that his backstory would come thru as sympathetically if he's relating it as an adult in the current story.

I'm learning a lot on this topic! Thanks for adding to the discussion. :)

Donna Cummings

Terri, you can learn so much about writing from reading Suzanne Brockmann's books. Seriously. AND it's thoroughly enjoyable learning. :) These characters feel so real. Just try one book. That's all -- just one. *diabolical laugh*

Mmm, I'm kinda of intrigued about that kind of prologue. It's kind of a foreshadowing thing? Meant to pique the reader's interest?

Terri Osburn

Yes, it's the perfect hook. Though I think it works better in a story that includes a mystery or at least someone potentially getting shot.

In the beginning of Castle's season premiere, the first thing they showed was Kate (the heroine for those who don't watch) and Castle facing off, each holding a gun on the other. Since these two are partners, basically, you had to keep watching to get to that scene. You couldn't NOT watch at that point.

The same would apply for a book. You start the book with the heroine about to fall off a cliff, and then you jump to three weeks earlier or whatever, and the reader HAS to keep reading to find out if she really falls off the cliff.

Sort of a pre-cliffhanger?

Donna Cummings

Terri, I couldn't remember the scene at first, so thanks for refreshing my brain cells!

This "pre-cliffhanger" method works really well to get people to ask, "What the hell is going on?"

But this one is particularly great because the previous season ended with a missed-romance opportunity between these characters, which was rather poignant. So now people are going to think, "How the hell did things deteriorate so much that now they're pulling guns on each other?" LOL So definitely a great technique here.

Liz Lipperman

I agree that you have to careful with prologues. LLM and SB are masters at it. I use the general rule - if I can get away without one, I don't use it. I judge a lot of contests and have to remind the writer that a prologue is not a place to dump backstory. It has to be relevant to the opening sentence of the first chapter.

IMO, most prologues can be deleted, though. Of course, I write mysteries and don't want to give away too much in the beginning!! LOL

Great post.

Donna Cummings

Liz, you're about about the temptation to use prologues as a backstory dump. It's not going to intrigue the reader as much as feeding that info in through the rest of the story.

When I read these two prologues, it made me realize how rarely prologues actually ADD to a story in a meaningful way.

LOL about you not wanting to give away too much in the beginning of a mystery! So true!


Great blog, Donna. Gives me some real food for thought... And reason to open up the LLM book I downloaded to my Sony Book but haven't read yet!

Donna Cummings

I'm glad it's feeding your brain, Chance. :) I haven't finished the LLM book yet, because I was so caught up in the prologue! Maybe I should do that now. . .for research purposes. Yeah, that's the ticket!


Great examples. The poor prologue gets a bad rep only because so many people don't use them properly. Like any writing tool, used well, they work well.

Donna Cummings

Tracey -- I completely agree! I think that's how these darn "rules" come into play sometimes -- because somebody didn't know how to use a certain tool and it was easier to just say, "Okay, NOBODY gets to use it now!" LOL

Clarissa Southwick

Great blog, Donna. I recently wrote my first prologue and I've been tied up in knots over whether to include it. You've given me some things to think about. Thanks.

Donna Cummings

Thanks, Clarissa. I'm glad it's sparked some ideas for you. It's really hard to know whether a prologue should be included or not.

Another benefit to prologues is you get to SHOW something happening, rather than TELLING about it later. This would give it more impact, as an active scene rather than a memory. So hard to decide!

Laura Pauling

It's pretty obvious when the prologues are done the right way and not just to grab attention. Just like every other aspect of writing - they're hard to get right! Thanks for commenting!

Donna Cummings

Laura, thanks for stopping by. I really enjoyed your blog, and I'll definitely be back. :)

You're right -- every aspect of writing is tough to get the way we want it, but boy isn't it great when we do!

Jan O'Hara

Awesome post, Donna, as usual. One of the most effective prologues for me was in Loretta Chase's LORD OF SCOUNDRELS. Without that peek into the hero's childhood, we wouldn't have yearned for him to find happiness so much as wanted him to receive a strategic kick to his snug-fitting breeches.

FYI, Kristen Lamb did a great post on prologues this week. I think it would be a nice compliment to this one. If you are interested: http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/7-deadly-sins-of-prologues-great-novel-beginnings-part-2/

Donna Cummings

Jan, LORD OF SCOUNDRELS is another great prologue. I have that book packed away somewhere, from when it was first published, but I think I may just buy it again--it'll be easier that way!

And I read and commented on Kristen's post on Monday! Apparently that was "prologue post" day because Liz Fichera also had a post on that topic! I love how we all tapped into the collective wisdom that day, and we all had different takes on the same subject. :)

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