How to Write a Prologue

Helpful advice to determine if writing a prologue is right for your book

A young man sits on his living room floor with a laptop and papers surrounding him; he is deciding if he should write a prologue for his book.
Have you finished your manuscript, but still
have information you think is important to
include? Our editors explain what a prologue is
and when to use one.

So, you’ve finished writing your book and can’t figure out where to put that extra bit of necessary information. Or maybe you’ve got everything mapped out, but seem to be struggling with writer’s block. A prologue can be a useful tool in building your novel; however, it can also be harmful to the story if used inappropriately. This article will explain the prologue and help you determine whether you should use one.

What is a prologue?

A prologue is used to give readers extra information that advances the plot. It is included in the front matter and for a good reason! Authors use them for various purposes, including:

  • Giving background information about the story. For example, in a sci-fi book, it may be useful to include a description of the alien world, perhaps in a scene that illustrates its essential characteristics and functioning, so as not to confuse readers by plunging them into a completely foreign world in the first chapter (and having to explain it then or leave them lost, which may lead to disinterest).
  • Grabbing readers’ attention with a scene from the story. The author could pick an exciting scene from the middle of the story to draw readers in and make them want to keep reading.
  • Describing a scene from the past that is important to the story, such as a fire where the main character’s father is killed, which is the motivation for the action in the novel.
  • Giving information from a different point of view. The story is written in first person, and the prologue is in third person. The prologue focuses on a secret of one of the characters (which the main character would have no way of knowing, and the author would not otherwise be able to tell the reader due to the first person perspective).
  • Expressing a different point in time. For example, the prologue may be about the main character who is in her eighties and who is remembering her childhood, which is when the story takes place (and which begins in Chapter 1).

Why shouldn’t I write a prologue?

With all of these reasons for having a prologue, you may be wondering what the downside is. Well, prologues can be boring. If you include too much background about Dal’s homeland, the flora and fauna, and the intricacies of the social customs on the mother planet, you may turn readers off. Also, people admit to regularly skipping the prologue, so if you include an essential part of the story here, your readers may not get it, which could lead to confusion down the line. However, the main reason to consider not writing a prologue is that in most cases, they simply aren’t necessary. Introducing the essential components of a story, including history/backstory, different points in time, attention-grabbing action, and characterization can be accomplished within the body of a novel. The general rule is that, due to their troublesomeness, you should avoid having a prologue. Ask yourself: will this fit in Chapter 1? Is this essential to the plot? If the answer is no, skip it.

So you’ve decided to write a prologue

Writing a prologue, just like the writing process in general, varies according to the individual. Some find it best to write the prologue after the bulk of the novel has been written, particularly if there is a vital plot component that cannot be inserted elsewhere. Others like to use prologue writing as part of their prewriting process to establish the tone, language, and style of the story. Whether you write it at the beginning, end, or somewhere in between, there are some basics to consider.

  • Make it interesting! You want to get the proverbial hook in right away to make readers want to keep reading.
  • Don’t think because you have a hook in the prologue that you don’t also have to have one in the first chapter. Think of the prologue as a separate entity. A good general rule is that it should have all the components of a short story, except that no conflict is resolved.
  • Make the length appropriate. You don’t want the prologue to drag on for half the book. It should be an introduction to the main story.
  • Keep the language/tone consistent within the prologue, i.e., if it’s a mystery set in Charleston, don’t use humorous language, mixed with a dry, historical recounting of the time period. Use it to set the mysterious tone for the novel.
  • Limit the background information; there are other techniques that can be used to weave the history into the fabric of the novel. Don’t dump too much on readers at the very beginning.
  • If you’re having trouble deciding what to do, read other authors’ prologues. There are so many styles to choose from, so reading what’s been done before may give you a great idea for your own.

Overall, be careful. The prologue, when used effectively, can enhance the story and further your plot in a creative way; however, when used ineffectively, it can put readers off. If you need help editing your prologue, or even your whole novel, why not let our book editors take a look? Good luck!

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