The section of text that precedes the first chapter of a literary work is known as a prologue.
Prologues are a standard literary device that fiction authors use and serve a narrative purpose.
In this article, we’ll explore what is the purpose of a prologue, when they are used, and when they’re unnecessary. First, let’s develop a better understanding of this common literary device.
What is the prologue of a book?
The prologue of a book is a short section of text at the very beginning of a book that indirectly introduces a reader to the main story.
It’s short, typically ranging from a few paragraphs to a few pages.
Prologues are not the only text that comes before the first chapter. Forewords and dedications also precede the first chapter but are unrelated to the story. A prologue relates to the story, but the degree of relation is not evident at first.
Typically, a prologue is a short story in itself. The reader’s understanding of the message or point of the prologue develops over the story.
Often, a reader will understand the message of the prologue after they’ve read the main story.
What is the purpose of a prologue?
Why do authors write prologues? There are several reasons.
Prologues create context. They offer background information to the reader so that when they begin the story, they already understand something about the world in which it takes place.
2. Hook readers
A prologue can hook a reader. Such is why a prologue needs to be well written.
While some readers choose to skip reading the prologue altogether, others use it as a means of considering reading the rest of the story.
A good prologue draws the reader into the story by creating intrigue. The theme or message of the prologue is not always clear, and that lack of clarity can make the reader want to understand it further.
The challenge for authors when writing a prologue is to create intrigue but not frustrate or deter the reader.
Foreshadowing is a literary technique in which an author suggests events or themes come later. Prologues help authors foreshadow.
An author can foreshadow later events through dialogue, a character’s thoughts, or symbolism.
Symbolic foreshadowing is incredibly common in literature and film.
For example, the cawing of crows symbolizes a sense of impending doom or death. A scene where a tiger catches its prey represents predatory behavior or natural law.
A character’s inner monologue can foreshadow events. A character may explain to the reader in the prologue that they believed life was one way, but it turned out to be another way.
We don’t know yet what that ‘other way’ is – we must read the story to find out. Still, we know that some part of the story will be about a shift in perspective.
4. Point of view
A prologue can include the main character, but often it’s told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator or a supporting or minor character. After the prologue, when the actual story begins, the POV often shifts to that of the main character or remains with the omniscient narrator.
Alternatively, the narrator may inform the reader about a supporting character but focus on the main character when we begin chapter one.
The following are some examples of prologues that serve the purposes outlined above.
These are not complete prologues but excerpts, as many prologues can take up an entire page or two.
A Song of Ice and Fire – George RR Martin
The prologue of this series of epic fantasy novels depicts what is to unfold in the story.
‘We should start back,’ Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.
‘The wildlings are dead.’
‘Do the dead frighten you?’ Ser Waymar Royce with just the hint of a smile.
Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. ‘Dead is dead,’ he said. ‘We have no business with the dead.’
‘Are they dead?’ Royce asked softly. ‘What proof have we?’
Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare’s prologue in his famous play starts off the doomed love story of his beloved characters.
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.
Demian – Herman Hesse
Herman Hesse’s work opens up with the importance of the character’s past to the story.
I cannot tell my story without reaching a long way back. If it were possible I would reach back farther still – into the very first years of my childhood, and beyond them into distant ancestral past.
Novelists when they write novels tend to take an almost godlike attitude toward their subject, pretending to have a total comprehension of the story, a man’s life, which they can therefore recount as God Himself might, nothing standing between them and the naked truth, the entire story meaningful in every detail.
I am as little able to do this as the novelist is, even though my story is more important to me than any novelist’s is to him – for this is my story; it is the story of a man, not of an invented, or possible, or idealized, or otherwise absent figure, but of a unique being of flesh and blood.
Are prologues necessary?
Some fiction books feature prologues, and others don’t. So, why would an author choose to include a prologue in their book?
Often, it’s a matter of necessity. An unnecessary prologue can deter a reader and reduce your book’s impact. A good prologue sets the story in motion.
Below we’ll explore when you should use a prologue and when you shouldn’t.
When to write a prologue
There are many reasons why a prologue is useful in a book, other than to catch a reader’s attention.
1. When you need historical context
If you want to offer the reader information crucial to the story, but it doesn’t make sense to put in the main story, then include it in the prologue.
For example, a prologue can enlighten the reader on the story’s historical context. Including the story’s historical context alongside the characters’ daily lives will not make sense.
Adding context bolsters the reader’s understanding of the piece as they read it.
2. When you want to add dimensions to a character
A prologue can serve to deepen the reader’s understanding of a character. The main story may take place at a given period of a character’s life, while the prologue can cover a period in the person’s life before or after the story’s main events.
Such a prologue helps the reader understand the character through important background details and motivates them to read on and understand that character further.
3. When you want to show a POV not included in the main story
A prologue can help you share a point of view that wouldn’t make sense if it were included in the main story.
For example, a minor character without dialogue may play a key role in the plot. Still, since the story follows the protagonist and not this minor character, it may not make sense to include their POV anywhere else but in the prologue.
When NOT to write a prologue
Authors must also watch out for pitfalls in writing a prologue
1. When the information fits into the story
Don’t write a prologue just because it makes you look like a better writer.
If the information you will include in a prologue works within the story, it’s much wiser just to have it in the story.
2. Misuse of the hook
Prologues hook readers into the story.
However, just because they’re a great hook doesn’t mean you should misuse their power.
If you write an intriguing, hooking prologue solely for the reader’s attention, you set them up to be disappointed when they get to the first few chapters and realize they’ve been led on.
3. To replace the first chapter
The first chapter of a book is significant for the reader. It sets a tone for the story and can make or break a reader’s decision to keep reading.
Just because a prologue is intriguing and hooks, the reader doesn’t mean you can be lazy with your first chapter. A good prologue is not a replacement for a good opening chapter.
Prologues are an excellent tool for hooking readers into a story, creating context without over-explaining the main story, and setting up a tone or theme for the overall narrative.
However, they’re not always necessary, and unnecessary use of this literary device can result in the opposite of its desired effect.
Generally, a prologue should not be more than four to five pages long. Five pages is a long prologue but can still keep a reader’s attention and curiosity.
A lengthy prologue can feel like an entirely different story and confuse the reader into thinking the story is about one thing when it’s really about another. So it’s best to use a prologue only if it really adds to a story.