In Praise of the Vilified Prologue: Top 12 Novels with Prologues

In Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 rules for writing, the second rule is: avoid prologues. “They can be annoying,” he wrote. “A prologue in a novel is back story, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.”

Leonard, the author of “Get Shorty” and other best-selling crime novels, was not alone. There are many writing books and articles that say the same thing. I’ve heard the same advice in writing conferences, as well.

What is a Prologue?

The term prologue is used in fiction. It comes before the actual beginning of a story. It’s not the same as foreword, which is usually an endorsement or an explanation of the book, and is written by another person, whose name typically appears at the end of the foreword.

While most novels identify a section as prologue, there are some that don’t. The top two novels on my list belong to the latter. “Loving Frank” has four-and-a-half pages of italicized text before the first chapter that read like a diary entry. “The Piano Tuner” has similar italicized text, plus a letter addressed to the protagonist.

Anti-Prologue Rule

While it’s true that in many cases, prologues don’t work, it doesn’t mean prologues are always bad. In fact, there are many writers who have pulled it off. The image of a woman walking under a parasol in Daniel Mason’s prologue in “The Piano Tuner” has stayed with me many years after I read the book.

I understand Leonard’s rule. I’ve never written a prologue in my manuscripts, but I’ve enjoyed reading them in other people’s work. I have a beef with the anti-prologue rule as well as the rule against the use of the present tense in a novel. Some people won’t even pick up a book if it has a prologue or if it’s in the present tense. Blanket statements like these are narrow-minded.

Top 12 Novels with Prologues that Work

Here are 10 novels off the top of my head that prove prologue critics wrong. I’m sure there are many others I haven’t read. How about you? Share your favorite novel with a prologue; leave me a comment.

1.     “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan

2.     “The Piano Tuner” by Daniel Mason

3.     “Montana 1948” by Larry Watson

4.     “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco

5.     “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline

6.     “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen

7.     “Shutter Island” by Dennis Lehane

8.     “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho

9.     “The Promise” by Ann Weisgarber

10.  “Tangerine” by Christine Mangan

11.  “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham

12.  “The Light Between Oceans” by M.L. Stedman

In addition to the abovementioned novels, there are two books I love with short text that could be considered a prologue— “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan (one page of italicized text) and “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold (half page).

Read Elmore Leonard’s writing rules here.

Note: I’ve updated this post, first published on my old blog on Dec. 11, 2014, from a list of 10 to 12 novels.