Illustration courtesy of Tom French
What is a prologue?
A prologue will delay the start of a book for the reader who, having just opened it, is champing at the bit, or at least more interested than they have ever been up till now or will ever be again, to find out what the book is about. A prologue is a piece of writing separate from the start of a book setting out an early thought that the author really needs the reader to know to be fair to them embarking on this reading.
Rather like a host at a party will mention a whispered aside to the only guest who has not been to their home before, ‘We don’t open the red door, that’s where we keep Grumpy the Doberman when we have visitors, everyone else knows not to go in there.’
Good to know, important to know, the newcomer is grateful to have been clued up so they don’t inadvertently upset the social occasion but finding this out was not the main reason they called at the house.
Likewise, the reader will be better prepared having the information set out in a prologue but that detail is not the main thrust of the story they’ll be reading in this book and it is not usually the thing they are reading to discover. The aside is what should, if it is needed, go in the prologue.
On another occasion a newcomer to the house might call when someone has kindly taken Grumpy on a long hike, there would be no need for any concern that the red door might be opened and on that day no need for the aside – no prologue.
If there is no need for a prologue do not have one do not hold the reader up unnecessarily when they are at their most ready to engage with the content of your book. If it is not needed because you have no secret which they will be at a disadvantage not knowing about at this point, leave it out, let them get on with what they have come to do.
Placed at the front of a book before the start of the story a prologue should say all it needs to but briefly and should not take up a great deal of time. A good prologue gives a little extra information about the background of the story which will help a reader fully appreciate the context in which the story is being told. So, it will help to create a satisfying rounded story and used well, will help the reader feel engaged and immersed in the world or setting of the story right away. So, include an event or at most two events which help to draw the reader into the best place to be to start reading the story set out in the book. To write a good prologue consider the timeline of the book and if there is information outside that timeline but which you feel should still be included this is likely to be the right sort of material to make into a prologue.
Particularly in sci-fi using a prologue can introduce unexpected features of world-building or alien characters which are in the early scenes of the story without slowing those scenes down with the description. This also makes for an intriguing context being set out in the prologue which will give more to those readers who do take the time to read the prologue without delaying readers who prefer to dive straight in and try to work the contextual detail out for themselves.
A prologue may be a great place to mention an event which gave the characters their motivation so, for example a character who has lost a young child may have that reason to become over-protective of a child they later adopt. To show this actively the past event could be placed in the prologue making the reader aware of that context for how the character goes on to act.
Another use for the prologue is to give a different point of view from the main story and fill in some detail or insight from a different character’s perspective. So, for example how a murderer feels being taken away to prison, may be given in the prologue when the main character in the story would have no way of knowing that information. As perhaps the story is about the first-person experience of the murder victim’s sister.
You can use a prologue to start the story from a different point in time from the main story if that would be useful for some information which you feel the reader will need as context for your main story but which cannot for some reason be delivered within the main story set up.
Why not to include a prologue
Don’t write a prologue if your story makes sense without it. The content you were thinking of putting into a prologue may fit in the main story and if it does no prologue is needed.
Avoid just using a prologue for mood, atmosphere or for world-building alone. These can be uses for a prologue but there should also be a further reason that a prologue is required because all these things could be done within the main body of the book.
What is a good prologue?
If you still decide a prologue is needed
- Make it interesting imparting crucial information.
- Make it short in length (considerably less than any of the book chapters). Some recommendations are between one and five pages, others suggest around 1,500 words.
- Refer to one or at most two events otherwise you risk overloading readers with too much information.
- Make sure the language is consistent with the rest of the book, otherwise it will appear odd.
- Make sure any questions posed in the prologue are answered by the end of the book.
In conclusion, when it comes to whether to have a prologue it is good to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin, ‘If in doubt, don’t.’