Want to engage your readers from the first moment the read your book? Then read on!
A good prologue will draw readers into the story. It’s an integral part of the overall reading experience and can make or break a reader’s decision to continue reading.
So, how do you write a prologue? And what are the elements that make an effective prologue?
Before we explore how to write a prologue, let’s better understand what a prologue is.
What is a prologue?
The prologue is the text that comes before the opening chapter, but after the introduction, dedications, and index, if there is one.
The prologue introduces essential information about the story. It may offer some background detail, such as setting or character background details, or a narrative about events after the story’s main events.
What is the purpose of a prologue?
There are a number of reasons to have a prologue in the beginning of your book. Here are some of the reasons:
Draw readers into the story
A great prologue begins with intrigue and mystery, two crucial elements in any good story to catch a reader’s interest and keep them hooked.
It also offers readers a taste of the author’s voice and the book’s overall theme.
Readers who like the prologue will likely read the rest of the book. If they don’t like the prologue, they may not want to continue reading.
The point or relevance of the prologue is not obvious to the reader’s mind at first. The intrigue draws them in because they want to know why the prologue is relevant to the main story.
In literature, foreshadowing is the suggestion or teasing of events to come.
A good prologue foreshadows the events in the life of main character or the external events that happen to all characters. Foreshadowing is one of how authors hook readers.
Sometimes, foreshadowing goes unnoticed. An observant reader will sense foreshadowing or understand the prologue when they read the book.
Many readers will only fully understand the prologue if they go back to the very beginning and reread it after they’ve finished the story.
Point of view
Some prologues offer a point of view alternative to that of the main story.
It can be written from a minor character’s perspective, whose importance to the overall story may only be fully understood at the end. It may also take the POV of an omniscient narrator.
Sometimes, the prologue POV is not a different perspective from that of the main character and stays that way throughout the entire novel.
The inciting incident in a story is the event or conflict that sets the rest of the story in motion. It often occurs in a story’s first few pages or chapters and the prologue.
Inciting incidents that take place in a prologue are often those that do not fit in the main narrative.
In such cases, most writers provide backstory through an incident which may have taken place long before the character is aware of what’s happening and may even take place before they’re born.
Later in the article, we’ll look at some exciting prologue examples to highlight the above purposes.
How to write a prologue
Now that you know what a prologue is and its purpose, it’s time to learn how to write one!
If you’ve never written a prologue before, then don’t worry. Creative writing can be daunting, but the step by step process outlined below are straightforward and can help make your prologue distinct.
1. Consider necessity
Before you try to write a prologue, consider if it’s necessary.
Prologues are more common in specific genres than others. Fantasy novels often feature prologues because the story can be complex, and a prologue offers a comprehensive starting point.
Prologues are less common in nonfiction books than fiction books, yet some nonfiction works still use an opener before the main narrative.
Consider if your prologue is necessary. You don’t have to include one – feel free to start your actual story in chapter one.
Remember the purpose of a prologue. Yes, it hooks the reader, but a good opening chapter can also connect with the reader.
Do you have information vital to the story that doesn’t make sense in the main narrative? Do you want to broaden the narrative by offering a different perspective from that of the main story?
If so, then a prologue will work.
2. Keep it short and sweet
It’s best to keep your prologue short.
A short prologue includes all the necessary information before the main story but doesn’t bore or overload the reader.
Remember that the prologue is the hook. A reader is less likely to get hooked if it’s too long.
The prologue gets readers excited about the main story. As such, a long prologue can prolong that excitement for too long and cause it to fade.
If a reader does stick with your prologue, but it’s long, they’re likely to feel invested in that perspective or character. This can cause frustration when they get to chapter one and feel like they’re reading an entirely different story.
Your prologue should range from a few paragraphs to just a few pages.
3. Offer an engaging reading experience
Your prologue should spark interest in the reader.
Given many readers’ aversion to prologues, let your prologue make a stand and prove it’s right to exist. Let the content of the prologue lend itself to the events that occur later.
Set up the world, several characters, or theme in an exciting prologue so that readers have at least something to expect from reading the other chapters.
4. Don’t use the prologue as a crutch
Some authors make a common mistake. They use a prologue to dump information on the reader to make the main narrative easier to write.
Fantasy authors, in particular, face a challenge – fantasy novels often include complex world-building that can take up a lot of space in the main narrative.
Feel free to introduce the story’s world in the prologue, but don’t dive into its details just yet.
Remember that a prologue should create intrigue, so don’t overload your reader with information right off the bat.
5. Don’t forget about the first chapter
Your prologue is a means of introducing your reader to the world of your story. However, chapter one also plays that role.
Assuming some readers skip the prologue, remember to make your first chapter exciting and engaging. You can lose the reader if your prologue completely overshadows your first chapter.
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Many of Shakespeare’s feature prologues are powerful examples of foreshadowing and background information. The prologue for the classic tale of Romeo and Juliet opens with the following:
Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parent’s strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parent’s rage,
Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours traffic of our stage;
The which, if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
Before beginning the story, we already know important information about the characters.
Though no family names have been mentioned, we know that two families are at war with each other, their offspring are star-crossed lovers, and a tragedy will ensue.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
The following is an excerpt from the prologue for Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This is one of the most renowned and enjoyed prologues in modern fiction.
It offers the reader a sense of humor and wit while creating intrigue about the ‘terribly stupid catastrophe’ to follow. We also learn about a character who does not feature in the main story.
…one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, one girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Sadly, a stupid catastrophe occurred before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, and the idea was lost forever.
This is not her story.
But it is the story of that terrible, stupid catastrophe and some of its consequences. It is also the story of a book, a book called The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – not an Earth book, never published on Earth, and until the terrible catastrophe occurred, never seen or heard of by any Earthman.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, George Lucas
Though not a book, the first installment of George Lucas’ Star Wars series includes a section of text at the beginning known as a screen crawl and is one of the most well-known modern prologues.
Let’s look at it to see what makes it so effective.
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…
Though incredibly short, the prologue above offers readers an insight into the story to follow. We are introduced to the fact that a Galactic Empire exists, rebels fight against it, and a Princess holds important information that can save her entire planet and the galaxy at large.
If you’re wondering whether or not to write a prologue, consider the advice and tips outlined above.
Remember that not all novels need prologues; when a prologue is inserted unnecessarily, that can deter a reader.
Use prologues to introduce readers to the overall book’s themes, voice, and style, not as a crutch or a place to dump information.