What Is A Prologue And How Do You Write One?
Most writers know that the opening of a book is all-important in terms of grabbing the attention of busy agents and editors. Many of us also know from our own experience browsing online that a striking beginning might make a difference between buying a book or not. Hence if how you start your plot can change your literary fortune, prologues can offer a fresh way to launch a narrative.
In this piece, we’ll look at what prologues are, a little bit of their history and their main types and purposes.
What is a Prologue?
What does ‘prologue’ mean?
Prologues originate in Greek drama, coming from the term prologos, ‘before word’. Ancient dramatists used them as devices to introduce the play to come and you can see the influence of this in later Shakespearean works, such as Romeo and Juliet, where the Bard uses a prologue to set the scene for the star-crossed lovers.
Another famous prologue is that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was written in the Medieval period and introduces his cast of characters and the context of the pilgrimage.
As you can see, prologues are used at the start of a work to bring the audience into a piece, but, as you’ll see below, in fiction writing, there are particular types of prologue which you might use to make your book opening more compelling.
Purpose of a Prologue
As we’ve seen above, in plays, prologues literally set the stage for the action to come, bringing us into the world of the drama in a succinct way.
However, prologues are not always necessary in novels and, indeed, they are a source of debate in writing circles as they can tempt writers to add too much ‘backstory’ about their characters and the setting in one go, before the main plot begins in Chapter One, leading to an overload of information which can be off-putting.
Prologues can also easily be too long, meaning the ‘real’ beginning of the story is delayed. Make sure you don’t make your prologue longer than your standard chapter and possibly consider making it even shorter to add real punch. You need to lay the foundations for the plot to come, but without being long-winded.
Another difficulty is that prologues often don’t contain the lead character, unless in a mysterious and often unnamed way, so you’ve got to be careful about being too ‘on the nose’ as this device can be a way to generate real tension and excitement about your story.
As you can see then, prologues come with various pitfalls, so they can be a challenge to pull off well. We’ll look at some of the reasons why you might use a prologue below, but just remember that not every plot needs a prologue, so don’t feel your work isn’t solid without one.
Differences Between Prologue, Preface, Foreword And Introduction
If we’re new to writing, it can be hard to tell the difference between prologues, prefaces, forewords and introductions and to understand exactly what is a prologue in a book.
A preface is usually a short account by an author, explaining the origins of their book, with a foreword often offering an introduction to the text and its author by another person, usually a writer or authority in the same field.
An introduction, on the other hand, is a summary chapter, outlining the argument and contents to come, which is used primarily in non-fiction. Indeed, most fiction doesn’t have a preface or foreword on the whole, so it’s not something the majority of writers need to worry about.
Prologues are primarily the preserve of novelists then (as well as some playwrights), being a part of the narrative itself, rather than material which precedes it.
Types Of Prologues
Considering the various functions prologues can perform is perhaps one of the most important things if you’re going to include one in your novel.
Many writing experts say there are four main types of prologue, involving a future protagonist, past protagonist, a different point of view and one which presents background.
This sort of prologue shows us the future self of the lead character – perhaps including their death – in order to set in motion the story of how they reached that point.
It is written in the same point of view and style as the rest of the novel, but if you’re using the third person, the prologue often presents the end of the story first, with the journey towards that point beginning in the first chapter.
If you’re using a first person voice, the prologue might show the lead writing a letter or memoir, stating why they needed to tell this story, and the tone is often reflective. In this sort of prologue, an older character often is introduced, presenting the overall plot as a walk down memory lane.
Sometimes there’s a juicy event in your protagonist’s life which the reader needs to know to understand them fully. Often, it’s a tragic event, such as a loss or trauma, which might not be given its due in the course of a flashback, but which has set up the wounded detective lead, say, to have a passion for justice.
This sort of prologue allows us a look into the past then to let us see what makes the lead tick, bringing to life a powerful event which will draw the reader in and making us sympathise with the protagonist deeply right from the get-go and, luckily, it’s effective when written in the first or third person point of view.
Different Point Of View Prologue
Sometimes, it’s useful to bring in a different narrative perspective in a prologue than the viewpoints presented in the main plot. It can be particularly useful in order to add mystery to the coming story, perhaps, say, by showing a murder in the viewpoint of the unknown killer before the main plot shows the hunt for this villain.
You can also use this sort of prologue to create dramatic irony, so the reader sees some event coming down the pipe – probably something which threatens them in some way – whilst the lead remains unaware. In women’s commercial fiction, for example, we might be presented with a cheating husband, while the protagonist wife goes on oblivious – until reality hits later in the book at some point.
This sort of prologue is often useful in historical or adventure fiction with, say, an artefact being used or hidden in the past, which the lead only discovers later on, as this brings the world of the book into focus, as well as establishing the compelling question about what this thing is and why it’s important.
However, it’s crucial that this sort of prologue is written in the third person, even if the main part of the novel is in the first person, to make it stand out from the rest of the narrative.
If the world of your novel is very different than our own, such as if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, this sort of prologue can be used to establish your unique setting and its rules in detail, so we understand the main action better.
However, this is tricky to pull off as you don’t want to throw your reader into your alien world, say, unprepared, but you also don’t want the book’s opening to become an overwhelming info dump either.
Focus then on creating a simple plot which illuminates how your particular world works – preferably one which links to the main narrative. Sometimes, however, the prologue might could take the form of a document which sets out the strange wonders of the world we’re entering and this form of opening offers a lot of opportunities to use your imagination, but, again, it’s a matter or balance as you also don’t want to make the beginning too obscure.
Again, it’s good to narrate this sort of prologue in the third person, even if the main plot is told through the first.
How to Write a Great Prologue
So, does a book need a prologue? As I discussed above, many novels don’t require one at all, so it might not be necessary for you to learn the skills set out here in order to create a killer plot opening.
However, as you can see, prologues can perform some very useful functions in terms of opening a plot with power and they can be particularly helpful when writing certain genres of fiction, so you might want to consider including one in your novel.
We all know how crucial a striking and stylish opening is, so bear this in mind when writing your prologue – this will be the first thing agents, editors and the general reader sees of your book, so you must make it compelling.
If you’re wondering how to write a prologue, it’s key that you grab your audience’s attention from the first line and keep it. The prologue needs to be essential reading for the rest of the book, so make sure it’s both relevant to the main plot and dramatic.
Immediately Engage The Reader
In order to make your prologue stand out, it’s a good idea to take a powerful event and milk it for all its worth. You must also ensure you’re engaging the reader all the way through and not getting lost in backstory or obscure details.
You want the prologue to keep the reader turning pages right into the main narrative, so keep it peppy, no matter what genre you’re writing in. You might not need a car crash or explosion in literary fiction, but even emotional crises can stir emotions enough to lure the reader in.
Provide Essential Information
As I said before, prologues can help with world-building for fantasy, sci-fi and historical fiction writers, allowing the reader to become aware of the specific context of the coming story. Indeed, prologues can also provide relevant information about past events which have impacted the lead or show scenes, such as a murder, which set up the ensuing narrative.
In many ways then, prologues can give the reader relevant information for the literary journey to come and can be extremely useful devices.
However, as I’ve also stressed, it can be difficult to not overload the reader with information. Add details gradually, like a breadcrumb trail through the forest, knowing you have the whole book to establish your characters and setting and remembering that an air of mystery and unanswered questions can be very alluring. Make sure the reader has the necessary information, but no more.
Use a Consistent Tone and Style
It’s important to remember that, whilst the prologue might well be in a different point of view from the main text or come from the viewpoint of a character whose perspective does not appear in the later narrative, the prologue’s style always needs to fit with that of the main narrative.
What you don’t want is for your prologue to seem inconsistent with the rest of the book. Yes, you want the prologue to stand out, but if your prologue doesn’t sit well with the rest of your plot and language, it will possibly offer a false impression of your book to the publishing industry and general reader.
You don’t want to confuse your audience as to what your book is like or to have your readers feel perplexed when they reach the first chapter, so make the prologue powerful, but in keeping with the ideas and style of the main text.
Keep It Short
I described before how prologues shouldn’t go beyond your average chapter length and this is one way to ensure you don’t bore the reader or include excessive information.
Indeed, some of the most powerful prologues are brief, offering just a glimpse into a murder scene or a crucial part of the lead’s past, before delving into the main action. In this way, prologues can be very evocative, without giving away the store.
Consider then if less might be more with your prologue.
Review Other Prologues
Much of our skills as a writer come from reading, so research other prologues, particularly those from books in your genre to see how the best ones work.
You could even try to experiment by emulating certain types, copying prologues to see how they’re put together, and experimenting with different types from the four given above to see what might work for your novel.
Excellent Prologue Examples
I’ve already mentioned some of the most famous prologues, such as Chaucer’s General Prologue, Shakespeare’s opening to Romeo and Juliet, but there are also plenty of more contemporary examples available, including those from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity.
From ancient Greece to modern action and adventure, there are plenty of juicy examples of prologues to ponder. Think carefully as you read about what the author is presenting in the prologue, what type of prologue it is (does it provide background, for instance) and how long the author has made it. By taking notes and really absorbing what the author is doing, your own ideas and writing craft will grow.
Prologues Can Add So Much
As you can see, prologues aren’t always necessary, but they can add a lot to the opening of a novel if handled well.
From ancient Greece on, writers have turned to prologues to provide important past information on the characters and general background. They also can be part of world-building in sci-fi and fantasy or generate context for historical fiction.
Moreover, prologues can offer a framework for an older narrator to look back to the past, or to present a different point-of-view – such as that of a murderer in crime – thus adding mystery, as well as dramatic irony and a juicy impending sense of doom.
Although you have to be careful not to add too much backstory or go on too long, ensuring that you keep the prologue relevant and consistent with the style of the rest of the book, you might end up with a really special opening to your novel. Try it and see how you get on!
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