How to Write a Prologue Readers Won't Skip (with Examples)
A prologue can be the perfect introduction to a book's world, but they're not easy to pull off. A great prologue will set the scene and intrigue readers, without info-dumping or giving the game away. Many writers are intimidated at the prospect of writing one, but there are a few simple rules to follow that can keep your prologue on the right track.
Here are 5 rules for writing a prologue for a book:
For more detail on how to write a great prologue, plus examples of prologues done right — or wrong — to illustrate each point, read on.
1. Include a prologue for the right reasons
Writers often insert a prologue into their book to prop up what they think is a flat or boring first chapter. But a prologue shouldn’t be a substitute for an interesting first chapter. If anything, following a high-stake prologue with a weak, pedestrian chapter one can leave readers feeling let down.
However, there are other, great reasons to employ a prologue. These include:
- Showing a moment near the book’s climax to create tension in medias res
- Introducing a character or location not present in the first chapter to create suspense
- Establishing atmosphere or a central theme to pull your reader further into the story
We’ll go into these below, but let’s pause for a moment to consider what you can do if you feel your prologue doesn’t really serve a purpose. Scrapping it entirely and working on your opening scene instead is always an option.
Ask yourself what instinct led you to add a prologue, and learn from yourself: perhaps you were sensing that a main plot twist comes too late in the book, and you were missing out on a chance to engage your readers early on. Try to pin down what you wanted your prologue to do, and if you can’t, discuss your concerns with your developmental editor, who’ll be able to weigh in on whether your book really needs one or not.
Example: Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada
Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada is a classic locked-room mystery, so the setting of the Crooked House (an extremely bizarre maze of a house) is key to the crime and the plot.
Its prologue introduces the concept of erratic, bonkers buildings in Europe, then transports readers to Japan, explaining that oddball buildings are rare there — but there is one house we ought to know about, the Crooked House. It then describes this house in some detail. It provides a sketch of the building, effectively laying down the rules for the mystery game about to unfold. Armed with a clear sense of the building’s layout, the reader is now ready to jump in and appreciate the puzzle-like structure of this novel.
Murder in the Crooked House is a strong example of a prologue that is completely necessary to enjoy the following story. It has been included for the right reasons; it provides essential context and worldbuilding and establishes the story's tone.
If you’re certain that you want to include a prologue, and are doing so for the right reasons, then read on for more tips on writing them well.
2. Center your prologue on character action
Even if your prologue needs to relay information about your book's world, it should always focus on character action. This will help you draw readers into the story, instead of making them wade through expository housekeeping. One way to do that is to ensure something happens in your prologue.
While the obvious choice may be to center your prologue around a main character, many prologues focus on a peripheral figure. This allows the book to introduce a new perspective that might not be easily found in the main body of your story.
Perhaps your prologue’s narrator is a foil for your protagonist, providing context or highlighting their more unusual qualities. Maybe your prologue is written from your antagonist's POV, building conflict right from the outset. Or maybe this new character is not immediately recognizable to the reader: a mystery narrator (whose identity is later revealed) can be most intriguing.
Whichever character you choose to frame your prologue, try and focus on them doing rather than thinking to create forward momentum.
Example: A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
The prologue to A Game of Thrones establishes the tone and world of the story, especially through its use of character action. It doesn't feature any of the series' main characters but, instead, a band of Night’s Watch rangers. As they track a group of wildlings beyond the north wall, they encounter the undead Others, men who have long been considered extinct. The group leader is killed (only to rise again and slay his comrade as an Other), while the third man flees.
This action-packed prologue works on multiple levels. The choice of point of view, following characters who will never feature again in any meaningful way, allows us a unique perspective on the story's world. It becomes immediately clear to the readers that the Others exist, which our main characters don’t yet know, in a classic example of suspenseful dramatic irony.
The heavy focus on action also establishes the tone of the novel. While the following chapters focus on courtly intrigue and politics, the prologue creates an expectation for violence, bloodshed, and magic, showing readers what they’re in for.
Which famous author do you write like?
Speaking of creating expectations, let’s take a closer look at how prologues can emphasize core themes or images.
3. Focus on what you want readers to take away
Prologues are an opportunity to plant key themes or motifs. In our Game of Thrones example, the prologue sets the tone for what is to come and provides readers with a context for the body of the narrative. Focusing on key themes within the prologue also allows greater cohesion, marrying what could seem like an unrelated preamble with the rest of the story.
Hinting at the story’s underlying theme can also heighten curiosity and anticipation for what’s to come. Readers naturally want to understand the greater meaning of what they’ve been shown — and they assume all will be revealed later in the book. What you choose to highlight in your prologue will have significance in the minds of your readers, so choose your focus carefully.
Not every theme has to appear in your prologue — it’s sometimes best to simply focus on a key image that you can condense into the brief format of a prologue. Anyway, don’t sweat the first draft — if you’re using a writing app like the Reedsy Book Editor, you can easily circle back to the beginning and amend your prologue’s focus later.
Example: What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe
Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! uses its prologue to set up several thematic threads of the story. The book focuses on a biographer hired by the estranged eldest sister of an influential family to investigate them all. Each family member represents a tendril of Thatcher’s Britain, manipulating the worlds of journalism, art, politics, agriculture, and banking.
The prologue takes place at the family home in the 1940s and 60s, and details one mysterious death in the family (while hinting at another). It establishes the family’s treachery and murky underbelly, as well as the interpersonal conflict and suspicion that has ravaged the Winshaws for decades. It also introduces the mansion, which the family's next generation will be drawn back to in the grisly final act.
A violent ending may have come out of nowhere had the novel not had a prologue establishing the story’s overall tone, whereas the rest of the book has sections focusing on more grounded, real-world issues.
💡Thinking of writing a whodunit? Check out our guide on writing creepy and satisfying mysteries.
By hinting at what has come before, prologues are also able to create tension about what’s still to come.
4. Keep your foreshadowing subtle
Remember to pique your readers’ interest, not send their eyes rolling to the back of their heads. Heavy-handed foreshadowing runs the risk of spoiling the twists and turns that are to come, so ensure that any hints you do give aren't enough to deflate your readers’ sense of anticipation.
Ideally, your clues for what’s to come should be relatively cryptic: suggestive enough to establish your tone and create intrigue while compelling readers to keep moving forward. You don't want the clues to be so clear or straightforward as to make the rest of the story redundant.
Example: Eragon by Christopher Paolini
Christopher Paolini’s Eragon may have faced criticism for its occasionally purple prose, but no one can criticize its intelligent use of its prologue. In it, the reader is introduced to creatures they don’t recognize, Urgals and a Shade, as they ambush a group of three elves transporting a mysterious pouch containing a sapphire. Two elves are killed, while the third — a woman — magicks away the gemstone before collapsing. Frustrated, the Shade rides away, leaving her there.
It’s a brief prologue that quickly does everything it needs to, establishing a world of magic and non-human creatures without losing time to explain who everyone is or what they’re doing there. What matters is the sapphire stone being saved from the clutches of these violent beings.
The reader knows this stone is no ordinary stone — it’s powerful, important, and sought-after by the bad guys of this world. Soon after, Eragon, the book’s protagonist, discovers this stone in Chapter 1.
He won’t know it, but the reader will immediately know he’s in danger. Nicely done, no?
Paolini accomplishes this efficiently and concisely without overwhelming readers with explanations. This, too, is a sign of a prologue wisely used.
5. Avoid inundating readers with an info-dump
There may be countless things about your world that you want to share with readers, but remember that this is their first taste of your book. You don’t want to overwhelm them with information. Many new (and experienced) writers) will feel the need to tell readers everything about the world of their book within the prologue, but this type of exposition usually leads to readers switching off, or, even worse, putting the book back on the shelf and buying something else. Instead, trust in your reader’s ability to wait for information and piece things together.
Go for a prologue that’s short and immersive — and as always, show, don’t tell! To prevent yourself from overwriting, keep in mind that worldbuilding is a constant effort that the prologue can be a part of, not a substitute for.
Example: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Jurassic Park is an unusual example in that the novel contains not one, but two prologues (albeit one is labeled an “introduction”). The contrast between these two prologues can be seen as a prologue done right, and a prologue gone wrong.
The first prologue, “The InGen Incident,” is heavy on exposition, reading like a short historical account of genetic engineering. While the chapter does hint at what is to come, an exploration of the ethical implications of bioengineering, it’s a pretty dry read.
The following prologue, more excitingly named “The Bite of the Raptor,” is a far more compelling starting point for the novel. It tells the story of a doctor treating a critically wounded construction worker whose injuries aren’t quite adding up.
While the official story is that he’s been hit by an earth mover, his clean wounds and intact bones suggest something else has happened, and before he dies, he mumbles the words “lo sa raptor.” As the doctor struggles to translate the dying man's words, the mystery of what is truly happening ramps up.
While the initial prologue is certainly relevant, it’s a little indulgent, giving us more information than we strictly need to begin the story that’s to come. The second prologue does a far better job of creating intrigue, kicking off the novel’s action effectively. Our advice? Readers can probably skip that first prologue altogether.
Whatever you do, make sure your prologue-related decisions are intentional and contribute something to your project. After all, every scene in a book should add something that would be missing if it was removed, and the same principle applies to prologues. Happy writing!