When Does a First Chapter Become a Prologue?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Laurence, Aug 3, 2018.

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  1. Laurence

    Laurence Mystagogue

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    My entire story is in chronological order but my first chapter could currently be set anywhere from 1 to 15 years before chapter 2.

    At what point along the timeline would you class this first chapter a prologue and if there’re other criteria for it being a prologue then what are they?

    The chapter does include two of the main characters of the rest of the story.
     
  2. FifthView

    FifthView Istari

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    First, I don't think there should be a rush to label it a prologue in the tale rather than Chapter One. Really depends on what you want to do.

    That said, besides distance in time from the main story, I'd add the attribute that it sets up the main story. The first chapter in the first Harry Potter book is a good example of what I mean. It introduces something extremely important for making best sense of all that's going to follow. This could be something about the world, the social milieu, the history, the various players (cast), whatever.

    I'm not sure what other "criteria" I'd add.
     
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  3. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Dark Lord

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    I’d call it chapter one if it’s got the main characters, no use complicating things unless necessary.
     
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  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Typically, the first chapter introduces the character in their "home" life. Since it's not always clear to the MC where the conflict is going, at all, a prologue hints at it to the reader, revealing something far away from the main character. It's basically a promise, "Here's a taste of where we're going, just give me a minute to get there."

    That's the standard theory anyways. I would say the closer you keep to that hypothetical, the more likely you should call it a prologue. The more you tinker with the role of this chapter, the more you should call it chapter 1.

    Some people really do skip prologues, so if the chapter can't be skipped, it's chapter 1 (and be honest with yourself - a surprisingly large number of them can be skipped without a problem, which isn't a bad thing).
     
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  5. Laurence

    Laurence Mystagogue

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    Thanks everyone. I’m not too keen on calling it a prologue on account of the potential to be skipped so I’ll go ahead and stick to Ch.1
     
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    A couple of common markers for a prologue.

    1. It's about where the curse originates, or how the gods fell into war, or in general is about characters that are not the MC and will either not appear again or will appear only in the background.

    2. It sets the tone. Often used in grimdark, to let the reader know that, despite the bucolic Chapter One, things will get grim. And dark. Also used to let the reader know this is fantasy even though Chapter One starts with no magic and no elves. But again, the Prologue would not have the MC in it.

    3. There's a big jump in time. So, a Prologue might open with the birth of the MC, or a childhood scene, but Chapter One begins with the MC as an adult.

    In general, there needs to be space between the Prologue and Chapter One. And, imo, if the material in the Prologue can be woven into subsequent chapters, then do so. A Prologue should be used only when unavoidable. And, yes, I'm one of those who skips over them, because I've learned most of the time they weren't actually important.
     
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  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istari

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    I think this idea can be extended. It's a great consideration. The prologue delivers information to the reader that the main characters probably won't have—or will have forgotten—when Chapter One starts.

    This in addition to the other considerations everyone has listed above.

    A note on the "will have forgotten." Modern storytelling for television seems to me to have gone over the deep end re: flashback usage. I've contemplated starting a new thread on this; there's probably a lot I'd want to say, heh. But vis-a-vis prologues, the "distance" might be a distance in time that has erased something from the MC's conscious memory. Say, a scene between a young boy and a mysterious man or woman, or creature, in the woods. When Chapter One starts, the boy is now a young man living in the slums of a large city, and that wood has been long forgotten. That sort of thing. (And maybe as a prologue, you could even not specify that the boy is that boy, but leave it as a surprise for later, heh.)
     
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  8. DylanRS

    DylanRS Apprentice

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    Guys, help me out here. Why can't I even fathom skipping a prologue? I'm actually surprised to find out this is a preference. Even a common one.

    No matter how many times I find out a prologue is unnecessary, there's no way to know if the next one will be.
     
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  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    Of course there's no way to know if your next project will need a prologue or not. There's no reason to worry over that.

    As for fathoming, all you need do is read one of a thousand novels that in fact has no prologue. So, obviously it can be done. You will find that the most common advice is in fact to begin with the story itself and dispense with prologue. This is not so much because prologues are intrinsically bad as it is because so many are done badly. But it certainly can be done. A thousand novels with prologues can be set over against a thousand without.
     
  10. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Grandmaster

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    I understood Dylan as referring to skipping prologues as a reader, not a writer. In which case, I agree. I don't understand skipping prologues. If the prologue is so badly written that I have to skip it, that doesn't bode well for the rest of the novel.
     
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  11. FifthView

    FifthView Istari

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    As a reader, I never skip prologues, although I do sometimes feel like I'm slogging through material in order to get to the good stuff later.
     
  12. Skybreaker Sin K'al

    Skybreaker Sin K'al Lore Master

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    I don't know, I think a prologue either happens a long time ago or is told from the POV of a character who isn't the main POV character. That's just what I thought, don't know if its right or not.
     
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    There are no rules in writing, Skybreaker Sin K'alSkybreaker Sin K'al. That's Rule One. But there are a kajillion guidelines, and you've named a couple of them.

    As a reader (I did misunderstand), I'm immediately on my guard when I see Prologue. I don't skip over it, but it had better be a good prologue. Specifically, it must be very well written, because due to many experiences, I find prologues wind up containing material either not important or which could have been folded into the main story. In other words, an indicator of poor structure. So, the prose itself needs to be so good that I'm willing to keep going despite being one strike down in the count. As often as not, the prose itself is as clunky as the structure, and I bail in the early chapters.
     
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  14. Skybreaker Sin K'al

    Skybreaker Sin K'al Lore Master

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    Yeah, personally, I just treat prologues like a first chapter. If its a good prologue I would treat it as a good first chapter. Important material, in prologues, I think is required. I don't want to hear about dandelions and daisies coming to life 300 years ago when I could be learning about a pivotal point in the world's history, right? :ROFLMAO:
     
  15. Yora

    Yora Mystagogue

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    My intuition is that if you could skip it and not notice that something is missing, it's a prolog.

    Chapter 1 continiues into chapter 2. If there are two paralel storylines, then it picks up again in chapter 3.

    If it doesn't continue at all, I would definitly call it a prolog. That's why lots of people consider them irrelevant. Though there are probably many writers who just call the first chapter prolog.
     
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  16. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    IMHO, if you can skip the prologue and not miss anything then why the hell is that prologue even in there? It should be edited out.

    Prologues, like all other parts of the story, should be important and should serve a purpose. If you skip them then you should be missing an important piece of the story. Look at the prologue for Game of Thrones. It introduces the White Walkers as real thing and a real threat and it's introducing the overarching story of the whole series. Without it the walkers are just myth. Without it, Ed Stark's honor isn't exposed as being flawed. Without it our understanding of the main story and it's characters is lessened.

    The reason prologues get flak is because there are a lot of them that are just unnecessary and poorly written info dumps.

    Whether you label it Chapter 1 or Prologue, you're going to have possible issues. First is the issue with people skipping prologues. Second, is if you have a large time jump between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, there's the possibility of confusion for the reader. Their expectations are that the story takes place in Chapter 1's time frame, but when you jump, the reader has to figure things out and reorient themselves. Then some will wonder why didn't the story start with Chapter 2.

    For me, labelling the prologue as a prologue, avoids confusion and helps the reader orient themselves.
     
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