What is a Prologue, and How Can Authors Use It? (with Examples)
A prologue comes at the beginning of your book — after the technical information, the dedication, and the epigraph (if you have them), but before the first chapter. What’s the purpose of a prologue? Well, it introduces information important to the story, like character backstory or a glimpse to the future, though readers won’t understand why or how these details are crucial to the story just yet.
❗ Note: A prologue is different from a preface — the latter is written from the perspective of the author and isn’t fictional.
But in what ways can the prologue be important to your story, and what are some examples of prologues in literature? We’ve got the answers to these questions right here!
Use the prologue to create intrigue
Firstly, you can use the prologue to hook readers into your story. Picture your story structure like it’s a roller coaster ride — what if you give the readers a taste of the most exciting part, right as the ride begins to take a dive? Those who are in it for the adventure would be curious: how did the story come to this point, and what’s going to happen next? By immediately introducing some kind of tension, a prologue can pique the readers’ interest and reel them in.
📚 Example: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Packed with mystery and action, Ninth House begins in the middle of a crisis (a.k.a. in medias res). Alex Stern, the protagonist, is seemingly stuck in a house, reading some notes left by members of a secret society that she’s somehow a part of. She’s also injured — something has bitten her, and there’s no one around to lend a helping hand.
Laced with threads of information about a mysterious association and a strong dose of high stakes, Ninth House keeps readers asking questions with its prologue — questions that can only be answered by turning the pages.
✍ Writing tip: Avoid substituting a dull first chapter with a prologue
Nothing can replace an engaging first chapter. If you’re unsure whether your first chapter isn’t strong enough and are hopeful that the prologue will prop it up, then it might be better to revise the chapter rather than invent something new. A prologue shouldn’t be a substitute for your first chapter; if anything, a weak following act to a high-stake prologue can leave readers feeling let-down.
Add layers to your narrative
Another way that a prologue can serve your story is by introducing layers and points of view that are otherwise difficult to organically incorporate into the main narrative. You can choose to adopt a different character’s voice, or go back or forth in time, or pick an unusual setting for this kind of prologue. There’s also the opportunity to experiment with different formats like a letter or a news clipping to portray an alternative perspective (see A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles). Regardless, this other side of the story can reveal insights that will become important later on in the story, without muddling the narrative structure too much.
Use unexplored characters and viewpoints
Think of interesting side characters or antagonists whose minds readers wouldn’t get a glimpse of. They might provide some interesting insights that can deepen the reader’s understanding of the story. And since adding a chapter for their POV into the book would probably be jarring, the prologue is just the place to give them a voice.
📚 Example: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
This extravagant and satirical romcom lives up to its name by beginning with a prologue set in the lobby of a luxury hotel, in the heart of an affluent part of London, 1986. The protagonist Nick Young’s mother and aunts are there for a holiday. When the English hotel manager refuses to let them check in to their suite because of their race, one of the aunts indignantly makes a phone call that ends with her becoming the new owner of the hotel. Speak of crazy rich!
The prologue reveals the kind of power that Nick’s family is used to wielding. It may baffle Nick’s girlfriend, Rachel, later on in the story, but readers will have been savvy to this information all along. For those who enjoy popcorn with a side of drama, this is top-notch material.
Impressing the partner’s parents is stressful on a whole other level for Rachel Chu (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)
✍ Writing tip: Foreshadow the main conflict
It doesn’t have to be obvious, but if you can begin foreshadowing the main conflict in the prologue, then you’re golden. By highlighting the Youngs’ unattainable lifestyle, the prologue of Crazy Rich Asians hints at the disparity that underlies the central conflict of Nick and Rachel’s romance. You might be dealing with a different type of conflict in your story, but your prologue can work in the same powerful way, giving readers insights that will make their reading experience more interesting.
Set up a different time frame or location
You can also add nuance to your narrative through the prologue by making use of a different time frame or location (or both). With a different time frame you can reveal crucial background information to your characters or your plot. A different setting can act as a way to emphasize the main setting of the story.
📚 Example: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
This first installment of Holly Black’s The Folk of the Air series opens with a mysterious faerie knight arriving at a cozy family home. He comes to the door and demands, with menace, to get back the child that his human wife had taken from him. As said child and her siblings watch on, confused, their human father rushes to his wife’s side to try and fight that faerie away. The faerie strikes the parents down with ease, taking the bewildered children — now orphans — away to Faerieland.
The first chapter is set in this other world, years in the future, where the kidnapped children are now grown and trying to make sense of their past as well as their position in this magical world.
✍ Writing tip: Don’t use the prologue just to create an atmosphere
When you use a different timeframe or location, it’s easy to set your prologue apart from your story. But keep in mind that the prologue is still a piece of your narrative — in fact, it can be very helpful in building the plot and themes of the book.
The Cruel Prince’s prologue, for instance, is a preliminary inciting incident which throws the young character into this unfamiliar world that she must now navigate. On top of that, it creates a comparison between the human girl who lost her family to the faerie world, and the faerie knight who lost his family to the human world. These two characters are inextricably linked but also conflicted, and Holly Black’s prologue builds onto this central dynamic exquisitely.
So as you work on the prologue, think about the big picture aspects of your story, the way you would when you plan or revise your novel. Make sure the prologue connects to the big picture aspects and has something important to say, in addition to building the atmosphere of the tale.
Strengthen your worldbuilding
This tip applies very well to novels with more intricate worlds, like those in fantasy, sci-fi, or historical fiction. As the setting is such a big part of books in these genres, a prologue can be an engaging way to ease readers into it. By picking some relatively recognizable details of the world and spotlighting them with a teaser scene, you can create an interesting transition from the real world to this fictional one for readers.
📚 Example: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
This epic historical novel opens with the scene of a public hanging of a character who doesn’t appear again in the story, but whose sad fate is the basis for the vengeance that drives the rest of the plot. The atmosphere on the day, the open gallows, the anticipating spectators, and the witch who cries out a curse after the execution all create a strong image of 12th-century England — the era in which this Medieval tale unravels.
Pillar of the Earth’s prologue consists of just this scene, which plays out in five short pages — it’s succinct but dramatic, and is the perfect set-up for the rest of the story.
✍ Writing tip: Avoid info-dumping!
There may be countless things about your world that you want to share with readers, but remember that this is the first taste that they'll get of your book. You don’t want to overwhelm them with information. Go for a prologue that’s short and immersive, rather than long-winded or potentially confusing. And as always, show, don’t tell! To prevent yourself from over-writing, keep in mind that worldbuilding is a constant effort of which the prologue can be a part of, not a substitute for.
For more inspiration, here are some books with great prologues for you to peruse:
- Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (romance)
- The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (fantasy)
- The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin (urban fantasy)
- Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (sci-fi)
- My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki (literary fiction)
- Paper Towns by John Green (young adult mystery)
- The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris (thriller)
- A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (historical fiction)
With that, we hope that you’ve got the tools you need to craft an amazing prologue of your own! And if you’re interested in the parts that come later in a book, move along to our next post in this guide on epilogues.