Sometimes the beginning of a book can be confusing. Some books may have an introduction, a foreword, acknowledgments, and a prologue before you ever read line one of the main text.
In an effort to de-shroud some of the mystery about a book’s beginning, I’ll explore what a prologue is and how to write one. (Hint: It's different from a preface.)
Note: This is one of many posts on the subject of book parts, from the prologue to the author's bio.
- What a prologue is and its purpose
- How a prologue is different from a foreword, preface, or introduction
- How to write a prologue
Table of contents
- What is a Prologue?
- How is a Prologue Different from a Foreword, Preface, or Introduction?
- Great Examples of Prologues
- How to Write a Prologue
- How Not to Write a Prologue
What is a Prologue?
A prologue comes before the first chapter of a novel. It is part of the narrative and serves to set up the main story, provides some vital information, and prepares the reader for what is to come.
“Prologue” comes from the Greek prologos, meaning, “before word.” In an ancient Greek drama, the prologue was the equivalent of the first act of a play.
What is the Purpose of a Prologue?
Prologues are used in works of fiction for a variety of reasons. They allow the writer to give the reader some vital information regarding the conflict of the story, the main character or characters, or the overall tone and meaning of the story. A prologue can also provide background detail and important (but limited) exposition.
The prologue is separate from the bulk of the story but still important. If the reader skips the prologue, they will be missing some key piece of information that will come into play later in the book.
And since the prologue is separate, it allows the author a bit more freedom to get creative. For example, it’s common for a prologue to be written from the point of view of a minor or secondary character. This different perspective may never be used again in the book, but the events of the prologue will most certainly be referenced at some point.
A good prologue should:
- Provide some foreshadowing.
- Introduce a major character, even if only by name or in passing.
- Provide some vital information on a character's backstory.
- Set the tone/feel for the rest of the story.
- Provide information on the world, conflict, time period, or inciting incident.
Some literary critics and editors think that writing a prologue can be a crutch, holding up a story with a weak beginning.
Readers know that a prologue is simultaneously separate and part of the story, and so they’re willing to indulge the author a bit – as long as it pulls them in, serves the main purpose of the story, and everything makes sense by the time the novel is finished.
How is a Prologue Different from a Foreword, Preface, or Introduction?
A prologue is within the world of the overall story and it is part of the front matter of a book. It’s as fictional as the rest of the story and serves one or more of the purposes listed above. Prologues are tools used exclusively in works of fiction such as novels, plays, and films. A prologue is considered the opposite of an epilogue, which comes at the end of the novel.
A Foreword is usually written about the book itself or the author of the book. Typically written by another author or a person of note familiar with the story, genre, or subject matter, a foreword can be found in both fiction and nonfiction books in the introductory section.
A Preface is a place the author uses to acknowledge those who may have helped along the way and to give thanks to any influences they may have. Prefaces can be found in nonfiction and fiction books.
An Introduction is also written by the author but is designed to give the reader context about the book itself. Whereas the preface usually tells about the journey of creating the book, the introduction prepares the reader to understand the wider significance of the work. Introductions are usually found in nonfiction books.
Great Examples of Prologues
Here are some modern and classic examples of great prologues for you to check out!
Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, Book 1) by James S.A. Corey
The first novel of the superb space opera starts with a prologue from Julie Mao’s point of view. Although we never enter her POV again in the book, this prologue is important to understanding the rest of the story, including the world the author(s) have created and the central conflict.
It's an effective prologue in that it pulls the reader in and sets up questions that are answered later in the novel.
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Perhaps the most well-known prologue in any literary work is from Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. In fact, several of Shakespeare’s plays have prologues, which he used to set the scene for the audience.
The prologue in Romeo and Juliet begins:
“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. . .”
The sonnet goes on for several more lines, but even those first four lines give the audience vital information about the Capulets and the Montagues without mentioning the two houses by name. It also does some foreshadowing, preparing the audience for the tragedy to come.
Every Star Wars Movie
Moving away from literature a bit now, you may remember the beginning of every Star Wars movie to date. The text scrolling over the backdrop of space before the opening scene is a great example of a prologue.
The exposition in those prologues sets the stage for the movie to follow, sometimes condensing years of conflict into a couple of sentences. The background is only important because it tells the audience exactly what it needs to know to get right into the meat of the story.
How to Write a Prologue
Determining whether to write a prologue is probably the hardest part. To determine if you need to write a prologue, ask yourself these questions before sitting down to your favorite writing software:
- Is there information the reader must have before the actual story begins?
- Can you present that information in a compelling and brief manner?
- Is it information that you can’t provide the audience in the opening chapter?
If you answered yes to all of those questions, you probably need a prologue. But if you answered no to any one of them, you may want to re-think the use of this literary device.
Remember that a prologue has one overall job: To keep the reader turning the pages. The other jobs of the prologue, like conveying important information, foreshadowing, introducing a major character, and setting the tone of the novel all come secondary to keeping the reader reading.
Having a hard time coming up with the first line for your prologue (or your first chapter)? Check out this first line generator to get you started.
Tips for Writing a Prologue
If you decide you need a prologue to start your novel, keep these tips in mind as you write.
- Remember to “show, don’t tell.”
- Keep it as short as possible (as if you're writing a very short story).
- Make sure any questions presented in the prologue are answered in the main body of the novel.
Know you’re going to use a prologue before you ever begin writing? Make sure to put it in the outline of your book! (If you outline, that is.)
How Not to Write a Prologue
Now, let’s take a look at some common prologue mistakes to avoid as a writer.
This tends to be more of a problem in sci-fi and fantasy novels where the reader needs a bit of background information concerning the world, technology, politics, magic, etc. The tendency is to dump a ton of info on the reader at the prologue, bogging them down with pages and pages of background details and exposition.
Readers are smart and they’re willing to put the pieces together. If you can find a way to drip-feed them important details through the narrative, then do so. Give the reader some credit and let them uncover the world you’ve built as they read the novel.
Another big mistake is to use the prologue as a crutch for a slow first chapter. Remember that both the prologue and the first chapter need to be compelling, enticing the reader to keep turning the pages.
Flexing the Prose Muscles
Since the “rules” for prologues are a little lax, some writers tend to get carried away. Instead of seeing the prologue as a tool to be used only when absolutely necessary, they see it as a place to wow the reader with their skill as a writer, thinking that it will hook the reader into the rest of the novel.
While good prose is a plus when writing any kind of fiction, it shouldn’t be the only focus. Some readers may enjoy the nice prose, but most are looking for a compelling narrative and they’ll move on to the next novel if they think there isn’t one coming.
Do you need a prologue for your book?
If you’re still unsure whether you should write a prologue, pick up a couple of your favorite novels that begin with prologues and read them. Try to remember how you felt when you realized how the prologue was related to the storyline. That’s the feeling you’re trying to evoke in readers.
Stick with the tips above and avoid the common prologue pitfalls. Chances are you’ve got a good instinct for whether you need a prologue or not. Trust that instinct, and get writing!