Pacing, Part 15: Prologues (with Agatha Christie)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Do you need a prologue?  Are you allowed to have one?

Beginning writers are often advised to avoid prologues.  In fact, they’re often advised to avoid a lot of things that annoy editors and agents when handled badly.

But if you’re studying pacing…you’re probably no longer a beginner.  You can throw that advice out.  More on that later.

So can you get away with a prologue or not?

Two issues here:

  • Prologues slow down pacing, a lot more than it might seem at first glance.
  • Prologues require their own internal structure.

A story with a prologue implies that there is going to be a lot more plot than a story without a prologue.  This will be no straightforward story in which the protagonist encounters a problem, comes up with the perfect plan to solve the problem, makes one big push to resolve the problem, and voila! Problem solved.

If there is a prologue, this implies that there are at least two plots–the plot the main character thinks they’re addressing, and something else (a murder, a crime, a twist).

The Cask of Amontillado can’t have a prologue.  The structure of the story is just too simple to support it.

Pride and Prejudice doesn’t need a prologue.  The story starts with the rich dude moving into the neighborhood.  No further past details need to be explained in order for the reader to be entertained.  And no other plot is needed, either.


IT was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed. The women and children were being lined up awaiting their turn. Some still clung desperately to husbands and fathers; others clutched their children closely to their breasts. One girl stood alone, slightly apart from the rest. She was quite young, not more than eighteen. She did not seem afraid, and her grave, steadfast eyes looked straight ahead.

“I beg your pardon.”

A man’s voice beside her made her start and turn. She had noticed the speaker more than once amongst the first-class passengers. There had been a hint of mystery about him which had appealed to her imagination. He spoke to no one. If anyone spoke to him he was quick to rebuff the overture. Also he had a nervous way of looking over his shoulder with a swift, suspicious glance.

She noticed now that he was greatly agitated. There were beads of perspiration on his brow. He was evidently in a state of overmastering fear. And yet he did not strike her as the kind of man who would be afraid to meet death!

“Yes?” Her grave eyes met his inquiringly.

He stood looking at her with a kind of desperate irresolution.

“It must be!” he muttered to himself. “Yes—it is the only way.” Then aloud he said abruptly: “You are an American?”


“A patriotic one?”

The girl flushed.

“I guess you’ve no right to ask such a thing! Of course I am!”

“Don’t be offended. You wouldn’t be if you knew how much there was at stake. But I’ve got to trust some one—and it must be a woman.”


“Because of ‘women and children first.’” He looked round and lowered his voice. “I’m carrying papers—vitally important papers. They may make all the difference to the Allies in the war. You understand? These papers have got to be saved! They’ve more chance with you than with me. Will you take them?”

The girl held out her hand.

“Wait—I must warn you. There may be a risk—if I’ve been followed. I don’t think I have, but one never knows. If so, there will be danger. Have you the nerve to go through with it?”

The girl smiled.

“I’ll go through with it all right. And I’m real proud to be chosen! What am I to do with them afterwards?”

“Watch the newspapers! I’ll advertise in the personal column of the Times, beginning ‘Shipmate.’ At the end of three days if there’s nothing—well, you’ll know I’m down and out. Then take the packet to the American Embassy, and deliver it into the Ambassador’s own hands. Is that clear?”

“Quite clear.”

“Then be ready—I’m going to say good-bye.” He took her hand in his. “Good-bye. Good luck to you,” he said in a louder tone.

Her hand closed on the oilskin packet that had lain in his palm.

The Lusitania settled with a more decided list to starboard. In answer to a quick command, the girl went forward to take her place in the boat.

This is the prologue to Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary.  Chapter 1 starts with two completely different characters, in a different time frame, with a completely different tone.

“Aha,” we say, “eventually the events in the prologue will become relevant.”  There is an open browser tab of the mind, as it were, that is continuously watching for the main plot to catch up to the prologue.

The prologue has a beginning, a demonstration that emphasizes the beginning (as in “The Cask of Amontillado”), a climax, and an ending/wrapup that points its way out of the prologue and toward the main body of the book.  It makes us care enough to keep reading…but not enough to throw the book against the wall, in knowing that one of the characters, at least, is about to die.

If your prologue exists mere to tell the reader that the bad guys are going to do something nasty, well, you’ve wasted the reader’s time.  That’s what bad guys do.  You have to imply something unexpected will happen, and it must happen.  It’s kind of like a prophecy in a high fantasy novel.  It has to happen, it can’t be something that you already expected to happen, and it has to happen in a way you didn’t expect (but still in line with expectations).

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