What Is a Prologue — and How to Write One Readers Won't Skip
Some call it the "introduction" to a story, or a first of “two beginnings.” While there's some debate on how they function as a literary device (more on that later), it is agreed upon that a good prologue contains information that is vital to the rest of the story — though often not in a way that’s immediately apparent.
A prologue is mainly necessary if it contains information that would hinder the narrative if present in the body of the novel. Think of it a bit like an appetizer: if done right, it can perfectly prepare you for the main course. If done carelessly, it can ruin your appetite for the novel.
Before we talk about the best way to write a prologue, let's make sure we're all on the same page about what a prologue is — and isn’t.
What is a prologue — and how is it different from a foreword, preface, and introduction?
It’s easy to confuse prologues with prefaces — they’re both P-words that refer to the bit before the beginning of a book: the front matter. But they’re not the same, and neither are forewords or introductions.
- A prologue prepares the reader for the story they’re about to read with information that is necessary to have before the start of the novel itself. Mostly used in fiction.
- A foreword is written by someone who is not the author of the book — usually a public figure or authority on the subject matter at hand. The foreword explains some significant connection between its writer and the book or the book’s author. Used in both fiction and nonfiction
- A preface gives the reader a look at how the book came to be. It explains the goal of the book, its development, and acknowledges the parties who contributed to the book. Mostly used in nonfiction, sometimes in fiction. You can go this way to learn more about prefaces.
- An introduction deals specifically with the subject of the book. It might offer supplemental information or explain the perspective of the writer(s). While a preface doesn't typically contain information critical to the reader’s understanding of the book, an introduction usually does. Mostly used in nonfiction.
The prologue is the opposite of an epilogue, which comes at the end of a novel. Now we’re all clear on this particular literary device, let’s take a closer look at its purpose and determine whether it’s the right start for your story.
How to write a prologue: tips from our editors
No one hates being told “these are the rules” more than writers. We get it, writing is a personal thing and reading is a subjective pleasure. But since the popularization of the novel in the 18th century, certain ways of writing a prologue have emerged as being more reliable than others.
Below are tips from our editors on its ideal uses, and suggestions for when an author is better off diving straight into Chapter One.
Do write a prologue that...
Provides a crucial glimpse into the past or future
When you read the first chapter of a book, you expect to settle into a story you’ll spend the next couple hundred pages with. So a first chapter that starts at one point in time only to shoot forward or backward a significant number of years can feel a bit out of the blue. If some part of the backstory is an integral piece of knowledge to have at the outset of your novel, the prologue can be a good way of delivering this without throwing the reader off. Likewise some authors to start with the aftermath of the story, then double back in the first chapter to answer the question, "How did we get to this point?
Recommended read: for an intro that begins in the present and then flashes back in time in the first chapter, read The Bridges of Madison County.
Explains details from a point of view different than the main one
It can be extremely jarring to switch POV in the middle of a novel (unless of course the whole novel is told from various perspectives). So if it’s important to the story that the reader hear an account from a POV different to the main one, the prologue can be a useful place to include this. Whether you’re doing this to create tension through dramatic irony or foreshadowing a twist, the significance of starting with a different perspective should become apparent at some point in the novel.
Recommended read: For an intro that begins by setting up the conflict from a different POV than the rest of the novel, read The Cuckoo’s Calling.
Succinctly sets an other-worldly setting
If your story takes place in a time other than the present, or a world totally different from our own, it can be important to set the stage for your story before diving right in. As freelance editor Lisa Howard notes: “A concise prologue can help an author avoid resorting to characters expostulating about their setting, a technique that puts characters at risk of sounding utterly awkward since most conversations do not involve people stating facts everyone obviously already knows — like where they are, the date, and a summary of the year's/era's events.” This is why they are often used in historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc.
Recommended read: For an intro that develops the world, culture, setting, and magic system without lengthy exposition, read The Way of Kings.
Stay away from prologues that...
This is the flip-side to the above point about setting the stage for your story: “Sometimes authors use a prologue to do what we call a data dump. That is, the author tries to tell the reader everything they think they need to know. This does not work and often throws the reader out of the story,” says freelance editor Andrea Hurst.
A prologue shouldn’t tell the reader everything, just what they need to know. And definitely not in an essay-format. After all, it's still part of the story, so the information provided here should also be in a well-crafted, narrative form that stylistically matches the rest of the novel.
Supplement a dull first chapter
A high-stakes intro that proceeds into a slow first chapter runs the risk of starting your story on an anti-climax — a sure way to lose readers: “I often hear authors say they want a prologue in order to start the story with something exciting, but I think this is the wrong approach. The first chapter should grab readers as much as any intro would,” says editing instructor at the University of California, Lourdes Venard.
Only serve to “create atmosphere”
“I suggest authors think of a prologue the way you would an overture in an opera or musical,” says freelance editor Susannah Noel. “An overture contains the vocal or instrumental themes of the performance to follow and can often hold up as a stand-alone piece.”
In other words, if you solely want to "create atmosphere," turn to the epigraph — which is more to suggest theme than plot. The mood of your novel needs to be made clear in Chapter One anyway, so unless you have something important to say before the chowing begins (like “may contain nuts”), leave the prologue out and get on with it already.
Break the pacing of the novel
Genre can come into play quite a bit here. For instance, when readers pick up a thriller, they expect a fast-paced story: “Think James Bond novels,” says Lisa Howard. “Action-packed narratives like these tend to hurl the reader right into the thick of things.” If the genre you’re writing in tends to have plots that develop quickly, starting with a prologue can result in a much slower start and leave readers putting your book back on the shelf.
With these tip for crafting a great prologue in mind, let’s look at some of our editors’ favorites and discuss why they work.
Examples of well-written prologues and why they work
Don’t forget to click “Look Inside” for each novel so you can see for yourself why these prologues are esteemed by our editors.
Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
When asked for examples of their favorite prologues, both Lisa Howard and Lourdes Venard pointed to the one in Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth. It begins with this line:
“The small boys came early to the hanging.”
In the words of Lisa Howard, “This prologue — and specifically this line — works well because it provides a factual historical time frame, as well as a reasonable conjecture of what the mood in England in the year 1123 may have been like.”
The passage goes on to open a mystery: the hanging described is for a foreigner who stole a chalice that he would not be able to sell. In other words, a man with a crime and no motive. At the end of it, the man hangs, and a woman in the crowd screams out and delivers a curse. “With this, the reader immediately knows the curse will be important to the story,” says Lourdes. “In fact, this opening is crucial to Follett’s epic historical novel.”
What makes this crucial information work as a prologue instead of just a first chapter is that it introduces the questions that the rest of the novel will spend answering: has this man been set up? Why? Will the woman’s curse serve to bring the guilty parties to justice? Set in 1123, twelve years prior to Chapter One, the prologue frames the themes that the story will explore.
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Written by Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire is a novel in the form of a 999-line poem (yes you read that right. The poem itself has been written by fictional poet John Shade, and the novel opens with a “foreword” written by a neighbor and academic colleague of Shade, Charles Kinbote.
Let me state that without my notes Shade's text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem as his... has to depend entirely on the reality of its author and his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide. To this statement my dear poet would probably not have subscribed, but, for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.
Oct. 19, 1959, Cedarn, Utana
Of primary significance here is the fact that it immediately sets up an overarching theme of the novel: things are not always what they seem. A former editor-in-chief of Scholastic’s Magazine, Tim Major notes that his favorite prologue “appears to be separate from the novel but is in fact very much a part of it.”
Nabokov also uses the prologue to introduce us to the notion of the unreliable narrator and puts the reader in a critical frame of mind. For example, Kinbote spends the majority of the foreword (which is meant to be about the poem it preludes), talking about himself, and steadfastly claims that his interpretation of the poem is the correct one while making vague and strange remarks that suggest a lack of self-awareness.
For more examples of effective prologues, check out the following novels:
- Fantasy: A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
- Thriller: Empire Falls by Richard Russo
- Literary: The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason
- Romance: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
- Science Fiction: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
To prologue or not to prologue?
Now that we’ve discussed what goes into a well-written prologue, you might still be doubting whether your story needs one. The fact is, if you’re unsure, it probably doesn’t. But this decision must be based on your story, and not on any preconceived ideas of good practice. Even when it comes to agents, there is dissent on the subject of prologues. Tim Major remarks, “Agents, publishers and readers must be hooked by the first line, paragraph and page of a novel by an unfamiliar author. I suspect that few writers would claim that their prologue represents the most compelling aspects of their novel.” While Andrea Hurst notes: “As an agent, if the intro is short, strong, and adds to the story, I enjoy it.”
If you’ve written a prologue that wouldn’t work just as well as a first chapter, has clear and necessary relation to the rest of the story, doesn’t serve just to hook readers, create atmosphere, or info-dump, and doesn’t begin with, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” then you must be on the right track.