How Do You, As A Reader, Read The Prologue To A Book?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I had an interesting discussion about prologues yesterday.
Some folks seemed to feel very strongly that readers universally skip (or skim to the point of skipping) a prologue.  Which isn’t actually a bad approach, since as Raymond Arnold accurately pointed out, “The opening prologue either gives backstory, or shows teaser scene of who the Big Bad is without introducing why our character cares about them.”  (For more info on why authors do this, check out Dan Wells’ thoughts on The Ice Monster Prologue.)  And the anti-prologue people were vociferous in insisting that most folks flat-out ignored the prologue, and maaaaybe went back to read it later when they got better context.
Whereas I’m of the opinion that most people read straight through.  I believe this because I was shocked to discover that most people read anthologies straight through, in order.  (I’m a “read my favorite authors, then read the shortest stories, then read the ones with the interesting titles, then read the rest” kinda guy.)  So the idea that people are skipping the prologue in a book intended to be read sequentially seems crazy to me…
…but what do I know?
Well, what I know is that for purposes of being a better writer, agents and book companies do read the prologue first, and you’ll get your ass rejected if it’s not good, so you’d better treat your prologue like it’s the first thing people will read, or they won’t ever get the chance to read it.  (Unless you self-publish, of course.)
But leaving all thoughts of manuscript salability aside, when you are presented with a prologue, what do you do as a reader?  I personally read lightly – it’s foolish to get attached to anyone in a prologue, to the point where I’m considering titling the prologue to my new book “Don’t Worry, Dude Dies At The End Of The Chapter” – but I do read it.  And if I’m skimming through books at the bookstore, if the prologue’s uninteresting, I won’t get to the first official chapter.
Yet that’s me.  I could be mapping my preferences onto the world at large.
How do you read prologues?

15 Comments

  1. jerilybn
    Apr 23, 2014

    absolutely! A well done prologue tells you exactly what you should be looking for to properly read the story and my never to be humble opinion sometimes it tells you what’s really important. even though a lot of Sturm und Drang is going on the prologue tell you what really matters. For an example take the prologue to Game of Thrones the book t you know what really matters in between all this petty incest and Kings playing and everything else, it could all be for naught.
    I would no more not read a prologue then I would read ahead to the end

  2. BenjaminJB
    Apr 23, 2014

    Like you, I find it odd that people would skim or skip the prologue. It’s like they treat the prologue as the record’s liner notes and want to jump directly to the music. That seems bizarre to me since clearly the prologue is part of the book, not part of the meta-text.
    When reading, I skip any author’s/editor’s introduction; and I might skim the genre-mandated map of fantasy-land and the family tree (and come back to those when I got lost in the story). But if it’s part of the text, like a prologue is, of course I read it.
    (To compare: I tend to skip the introductory fiction in RPG books since what I got it for was the RPG part. I may return to the fiction later to get some idea of what could happen or the tone of the game.)

    • Patoma
      Sep 24, 2014

      Same, I thought I was the only one. I guess not. Once you’ve read a lot of books you start to predict and guess about what’s going to happen. And well sometimes the Prologue just spoils that for me. Sometimes as in all the time! It’s a game, and my favorite game in a book. So yeah, I skip the prologue like you and if and when I read the book over again, I read the prologue. 🙂

  3. nikki
    Apr 23, 2014

    I often read them, but if they start getting too spoiler-y, I go back and read them at the end. That was a habit that my lit teachers back in college ingrained in me actually. A few of them would specifically assign the prologue at the end, after we had finished reading, so that we could really discuss what was being said there. It worked pretty well for me.

  4. John Wiswell
    Apr 23, 2014

    I read them straight through. If the author has written the prologue off-theme, off-tone or whatever else, I still take it as a first impression and will contrast it with the proper first chapter. I’ve never given up on a book because the prologue stunk, while I have gotten hooked by some (Martin’s A Game of Thrones). It’s very conventional to tease big plot elements that won’t show up until later in the prologue, but I often enjoy figuring out how it will fit together if it’s done artfully.
    Then again, I almost always read anthologies straight through as well. Only once in the last five years have I skipped to the authors I wanted, and that was only because I’d gotten the book out to specifically study them.

  5. Courtney
    Apr 23, 2014

    I always read the prologue. Sometimes I don’t read it closely, but I also don’t read most genre novels very closely, at least at the beginning. I sometimes read authors or editors notes, especially if they are short, but thanks in the front annoy me. I like them at the end, when I actually appreciate the work.

  6. ellixis
    Apr 23, 2014

    I figure if the author is presenting a prologue, there’s some kind of point, theme, or foreshadowing they want me to take away from it and take into the main story, so I read it first. If it didn’t matter, it’d be placed elsewhere or cut altogether.
    However, I’m one of those people who has trouble skipping even an author’s introduction, so you may want to take that with a grain of salt.

  7. Terra
    Apr 23, 2014

    I read the prologue the first time I read a book. When I reread, unless it was compelling or I think it was an important part of the story (i.e., Chapter 1, titled “Prologue”), I skip it.
    But then again, on rereads I often skip whole chapters in books. For example, while I love Honor Harrington, I really don’t need to read how Warshawski Drives work any more.
    FWIW I also read the dedication and the acknowledgements, but those may be a remnant from my time as an academic.

  8. Robyn
    Apr 24, 2014

    I always read the prologue. But often now, I feel like they’ve labeled it “Chapter 1”. I guess because “no one reads the prologue.”

  9. nex0s
    Apr 24, 2014

    I usually read the prologue at the beginning, and then again at the end, for more nuance.

  10. Sarah
    Apr 24, 2014

    I also always read the prologue. It’s the first part of the story to me, although if it’s one of the recap types in a lengthy series, then that doesn’t count as a true prologue to me and I skip it.
    I also read anthologies straight through.

  11. Yet Another Laura H
    Apr 24, 2014

    I read it now, but my fifth-grade self used to read the book first, then come back to the prologue. I got so sad at the end of good books, and having that last little bit to come back to was so sweet, like finding an unconsidered segment of a tangerine when throwing away the peels.
    …Although my fifth-grade self used to eat the peels of tangerines, too.

  12. sethg
    Apr 24, 2014

    I read straight through. If the author hadn’t wanted me to read the prologue before everything else, he/she shouln’t have put it at the beginning of the book.
    However, when reading A Classic Work of Literature, I have learned to skip over the introduction in which A Scholar I Have Never Heard of goes on and on for twenty pages about what makes this particular book a classic and what manuscripts this particular edition was compiled from and what the author had for breakfast while it was being written and….

  13. Michele
    Jun 27, 2014

    I usually read the prologue once I am finished with a book and am desperate to hold onto the characters and story for just a bit longer. Sometimes I may also read it half way through the book, when I am wanting more of something…. Searching for more understanding or history or perspective. I rarely read it before starting the book.

  14. Malak
    Aug 6, 2014

    Prologues are usually the last thing I read in a book.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Prologue Tally | Ferrett Steinmetz - […] So after talking to some people who were firmly convinced that most people skip the prologue, my informal tally…

All Comments Will Be Moderated. Comments From Fake Or Throwaway Accounts Will Never Be approved.