Writers in the Storm

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May 15, 2024

Love or Hate 'em Sometimes a Prologue is Needed

by Lynette M. Burrows

Close up photograph of a woman's hand on the first page of a book, her fingertips are just under the word "prologue."

Rumor has it that agents and editors hate prologues. The truth is agents and editors are readers. Some readers love a good prologue, others will never read a prologue. The same is true of publishing houses.

Prologues aren’t bad per se…but they are tricky to get right. They are so tricky there are no hard and fast rules. A poorly written prologue can prompt your potential readers to close your book and never open it again. Knowing what a prologue does and what questions to ask will help you decide if your story needs a prologue.

The word prologue has its roots in two Greek words. In Ancient Greek, “pro” meant forward or before. “Logos” means word or plan. Latin, then Middle English, language each changed the word to what we use today. 

Today’s dictionaries often define prologue as an introduction or preface. In the world of books, a preface refers to a section of the book that talks about the book. And that is not what we mean when we say prologue.

 In fiction, a prologue can be an introduction to the world or society of a story. It can be a past event or a future event. It can also set a mood, a tone, or to provide information.  

Prologues come before chapter one without exception. 

The most important thing a prologue does is it establishes the context for the story. You can do this in several ways. 

If it provides necessary information that would disrupt the plot of your story if you included it in the main story, that is a useful prologue. This is especially true if the reader will understand the plot more deeply by having this information. 

Introducing an important-to-the story philosophy or religious belief can make a good prologue. If it helps the reader understand why the story characters make the choices they do but would require a lump of exposition that would disrupt the story, this would make suitable prologue material. 

You can write a prologue from the point of view of a character who knows or experiences something that is outside your plot and your viewpoint characters’s experience. Whatever this knowledge or experience is, it should add to the reader’s understanding of your story.

Another good prologue introduces a little of the antagonist’s background and motivation. It could be a scene that humanizes the character or a scene of how far the antagonist will go. This type of prologue is effective when the antagonist doesn’t appear until later in the story. 

Finally, a prologue can be a bit of background or a glimpse of the future that reinforces the main plot.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

The opening four lines of this play introduces the conflict between Romeo’s family and Juliet’s family. The culture and long-standing conflict is information that helps the reader immediately understand that these two young lovers will have colossal problems. 

A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones #1) by George R.R. Martin 

The prologue in this book is a complete scene. None of the characters in this scene are viewpoint characters in the rest of the book. However, each of the characters represents a part of the story’s culture and society. It shows us that there is something unusual happening, and it’s freaking out the viewpoint character. By the time the reader has finished reading this prologue, they want to know who were the creatures that attacked, how cold is it going to get, and who’s going to stop the threat from the creatures? The reader is prepared for the brutality of the world and for the feudal culture and government of the story. 

The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Book 1) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

This prologue is told in the main character’s voice. It takes place when he was a young boy and his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten books. It’s an exclusive and mysterious place of wonder presided over by an old man. The protagonist is told he may select one book, take it away, and make it part of his life. This sets up the reader to understand the character’s obsession with the book years later and how this leads him to a mystery that is the heart of the book.   

1. Information Dump

This is the most common “bad” prologue. If your prologue is only about one element of the story (technology, the world, the society, a character’s lineage, etc.) it will most likely be unnecessary and boring. Like the rest of the story, a prologue needs only enough of each story element in order for the reader to see it in his mind’s eye. 

2. Has Nothing to Do with the Story.

It does not matter how interesting a bit of business, a scene, or a description is if it doesn’t illuminate some part of the main story.The life cycle of a Fairy Godmother might be an interesting story, but as a prologue for Cinderella, it would fail. Why? The reader does not need to know the life cycle of a Fairy Godmother in order to understand the story. The same is true of a prologue about the lineage of Prince Charming. Neither of those bits of backstory is necessary to understand and enjoy the story. 

3. It only has one purpose.

Like the other parts of your book, a prologue needs to fulfill more than one purpose. Offering the reader a tourist brochure and guide or an encyclopedic description of the geo-political world instead of writing about an event and a character they can identify with and learn about the world alongside, will probably bore your reader. Or they’ll skip the prologue or put down the book. More than one purpose rounds out your prologue and gives it strength.

4. It’s used to supplement a boring first chapter.

No matter how suspenseful or interesting your prologue is, the reader will not keep reading if the first chapter is boring. Every part of your story must be the best, most interesting story you can write.

5. The content could be part of the main story.

If it could be, why isn’t it? 

6. Is it longer than your chapters?

A good prologue needs to be short and to the point. An overly long one may show information that you (the writer) need to know (and the reader doesn’t). It may also show you need to include this information in the main story. At any rate, if it’s longer than your chapters, it is in danger of not hold your reader’s interest.

7. It doesn’t fit the genre.

Readers of genres such as science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, and historical fiction are accustomed to prologues. Readers of contemporary romance are not as used to prologues. 

1. Does your story make sense without it?

The best prologues give the reader little bits of information that help them "get" the story. Test yours to see if yours does that. Try having someone read it without the prologue. If they read and understand the story without the prologue, skip it. 

2. Could this content be part of the main story?

It's okay if there's a part of the prologue is echoed in the main story, but the best prologues are the puzzle piece that helps complete the story. If your prologue could be part of the main story, by all means, put it in the main story. 

3. What does the reader gain from your prologue?

Even though your prologue is short, the best ones offer a full story moment. If it exists solely as exposition, or world-building, or mood setting, reconsider. Or rewrite your prologue to include an event and/or characters that will enlighten your reader about the main plot.

4. Does it give information that the reader could not glean from the rest of the novel?

If it does and the information enhances the reader’s experience or understanding of your story, then go for it. 

5. How does your prologue stand out from the rest of the book?

It can stand out by being a letter or poem, set in a different time period, or from a different point of view. If it doesn’t stand out from the rest of the book, why is it a prologue?

6. Does it make the reader ask questions but does not frustrate her?

A frustrated reader is a reader who will put the book down forever. If you’ve written a good prologue, then the reader wants desperately to continue reading. 

7. Is it gripping and intriguing?

Your prologue must be as gripping as the rest of your book. Remember, an agent, editor, and some readers will judge your story by the first ten pages of your book. 

Despite genre and reader preferences, whether you write a prologue is all about what works best to tell your story. 

If you can’t decide if you should start with a prologue, read books in your genre. Do they have prologues? Look at what those prologues give the reader and what story techniques were used to create them. Another way to decide prologue or no prologue is to finish your story first. Once it’s complete, you will have a better idea of whether a prologue works.

Consider giving your prologue a title other than the word prologue. Some say this is necessary if you publish your book on Amazon. I don’t know the veracity of this. However, if you choose to give your prologue a title, make it stand out from the rest of your book. In The Shadow of the Wind, Zafón uses “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books” as the title of his prologue. He numbered the chapters in this book.

Finally, keep in mind that some readers may turn away from a book with a prologue. Other readers may skip it. 

You can’t do anything about the readers who see a prologue and give the book a miss. But for the readers who skip it there are two things you can do. 

1. Make certain the readers who skip the prologue can still enjoy your story. 

2. From the first to the last line of your prologue, use crisp, evocative language that pulls even a reluctant reader in. 

Prologues are not for every writer or every story. If you choose to write a prologue, use your best story writing techniques. A prologue isn’t simply something you tack onto the beginning of a story, it’s a story (or at least part of one). 

Have you thought about starting your story with a prologue? Why did you decide to use one/not to use one?

* * * * * *

About Lynette

Lynette M. Burrows is an author, blogger, creativity advocate, and Yorkie wrangler. She survived moving seventeen times between kindergarten and her high school graduation. This alone makes her uniquely qualified to write an adventure or two.

Her Fellowship series is a takes “chillingly realistic” alternate history in 1961 Fellowship America where autogyros fly and following the rules isn’t optional. Books one and two, My Soul to Keep, and  If I Should Die, are available everywhere books are sold online. Book three, And When I Wake, is scheduled to be published in late 2024.

Lynette lives in the land of OZ. She is a certifiable chocoholic and coffee lover. When she’s not blogging or writing or researching her next book, she avoids housework and plays with her two Yorkshire terriers. You can find Lynette online on Facebook or on her website.

Image purchased from DepositPhotos.

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18 comments on “Love or Hate 'em Sometimes a Prologue is Needed”

  1. Intriguing advice: Consider giving your prologue a title other than the word prologue. My historical-fiction WIP features a prologue, something I've never done before. NOT labeling it "prologue" may be the way for me to go. Many thanks!

  2. Hi Lynette,

    I enjoyed reading your post on prologues. I struggled making the decision of whether to use one or not after I read some agents don't like them. It took some revising, but I turned the prologue into the first chapter.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.


  3. I love short and well-done prologues that hint at the mystery and danger to come.

    Once, I heard a reader say, "I don't get the ending." Someone asked if she'd read the prologue. "I never read prologues." Since then, I've heard of other readers who don't read prologues either. Wow.

    Great post! I'm going to add it to my Recommended Reading page on my website. Well done!

  4. I write historical romance and my prologues set up the story for the reader, tell them what the book is going to be about, and solidifies the subgenre. I've never heard a complaint, but maybe readers are too nice.

    1. Pamela, your readers are yours because they like your books. That means they like your prologues, too. Perhaps some of them read straight historical and are accustom to prologues in those books, but they are definitely accustom to the prologues in _your_ books. Good job!

  5. Great info! You have me thinking. I have a story I am revising at the moment and it has a prologue. I'm debating whether to use it or not. I think you've helped me reach the right decision. Thank you!

  6. PC is a trilogy. Each volume has a tiny prologue/prothalamion (~200 words). Taken together, with a tiny 'last word' epilogue, the prologues form part of a meta document, written AFTER the story ends, by a writer at The New Yorker endeavoring to explain what just happened to the three main characters. Many of us have read those New Yorker articles, which attempt to cover a subject in depth, and recognize what the writer is doing.

    The first short (145-word) prologue should make the reader want to know what happened, when the resolution to that question is 500K words away at the end of the third volume. To give a reader a reason to dig in to the story, and stay with it, because it's going to get complicated.

    It puts a LONG perspective on the story which starts with the very SHORT perspective of the night two people met on a New York City late night talk show.

    I think of it as a meta-story, giving a view of the whole to come, to be used as a yardstick measuring where we are as the pieces come out. You can skip these little pieces of TNY article - but will lose a whole layer siting the story in the real world of writers, actors, and the TV commenters in talk shows that is the core of the entertainment world. I hope there is another layer of enjoyment to be had from watching how this whole elaborate story progresses from seed to Giant Sequoia.

    Long-winded way of saying: if your prologue has a solid purpose, keep it - some of your readers will get it. And also that you should think whether the story holds together if the prologue-haters skip it.

    1. Alicia, Fascinating way to create a prologue that links all three books. You make a good point about how your story should hold together if your readers skip the prologue. Thanks for sharing.

      1. The fun part for the reader is knowing nothing at the beginning but the conclusion - and how much of the New Yorker article is dead wrong - by the time they finish reading LIMBO (which I'm still working on).

        To keep it interesting, a reader knows the overarching article is wrong in many ways, after reading the prologue for the book they're currently reading.

        I feel there are a lot of things outsiders will never know for sure, especially in that world, and in this case, READERS will know more than the New Yorker writer who's so sure they've figured it out.

        Part of the fun - and essential to the story, because if the 'truth' came out, three people's reputations might suffer irreparable harm, and children would find out.

  7. This was so helpful for me, Lynette! Prologues and flashbacks are two things I've always shied away from because they have to be done so perfectly to succeed. I like have the rules you've laid out here, even if a story calls out for me to wiggle them a bit.

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