Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #2: Avoid Prologues

Welcome to the second in a series of posts covering Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers. Leonard started his career writing westerns, then switched to hard-boiled crime, which became his specialty. His skill as an author was widely praised by both the literary community and the general public of readers. Many of his works were made into famous movies, and he received the National Book Award in 2012.

Leonard developed ten rules for writers (and a bonus eleventh rule that sums up the rest). I love his books, so when I learned these rules, I applied them to my own writing. I think they’ve made the single biggest positive change to the quality of my work.

So, in this series, I’m going to take you through all of them. Continuing with…

Avoid prologues.

Different readers and writers will have varying opinions on this rule. Some people enjoy prologues, others do not. First, let me explain Leonard’s reasoning for telling us to avoid them, and then you can decide if you agree or disagree.

Leonard described prologues as, “annoying.” His idea is that you pick up a book, read the back cover, and, if it sounds interesting, you buy it. You’re excited to get into the story, but you can’t start chapter one yet because there’s a prologue. So, you have to sit through that before you can get to the part you really want to read.

He also adds that prologues in novels are always backstory. He argues that you can put that information in the book itself. Instead of the prologue, put that backstory into the narrative. Have characters talk about it. Do a flashback scene. Or find some other creative way to implement it.

So, that’s Leonard’s feeling. As a reader, I tend to agree with him. I don’t like prologues. If I’m interested enough in a story to pick up a book, I want to get right into it with the first chapter. That’s how I’m handling my current novel—you won’t find a prologue in it.

However, many readers don’t mind (or even enjoy) prologues. And writers certainly like having the option of using them.

What’s your opinion? Keep in mind that any “rule” of writing, no matter where you hear it, can be broken. That’s the magic of creative work. There are no hard and fast rules, just guidelines and the commentary of pros.

Do you like prologues? Leave me a comment!

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