In the beginning was the prologue. And it was … good, according to some, useless according to others.
The pros and cons of including a prologue in your novel are many. If you’re struggling with how to use this most divisive literary device, or just want to figure out why some prologues are enticing and others are boring beyond belief, read on.
What is a prologue?
The word “prologue” comes from the Greek word “prologos,” and originally referred to the speech given at the start of early theater productions just before the chorus took the stage (“pro” meaning “before,” and “logos” meaning “word” or “speech”).
In other words, a prologue is an introduction. In works of fiction, they’re positioned before the first chapter. Prologues are there to provide the reader with context before the story begins.
Though prologues, prefaces, introductions, and forewords all come before Chapter One, they aren’t exactly the same.
Prefaces aren’t part of the story. They’re written as a message from the author to the reader, usually to explain what inspired them to write the book, what they want the reader to get out of it, and so forth. Thus, they’re a little piece of nonfiction that precedes the fictional narrative. They’re similar to introductions.
Introductions are generally reserved for nonfiction books. Like prefaces, they’re a message from the author to the reader and stand apart from the main text of the book. Since they typically precede nonfiction texts, they’re less about authorial inspiration and more about the book’s subject, origin and research, and overall purpose.
Forewords aren’t written by the author at all; they typically come from someone who wasn’t involved in the book’s creation or publication, like a critic, scholar, or translator. They’re included to give the reader a high-level view of how the text fits into the broader cultural or historic landscape, and to lend gravitas to the book.
And with that, we return to the beginning: prologues!
Five types of prologues
Like the rest of your story, the prologue offers an opportunity for you to flex your creative muscles. Plus, as Tal Valante notes, it “gives you the chance to begin your story twice, at two different points.”
But the prologue isn’t a literary free-for-all. There are five basic types of prologue; choosing which will best serve your story is your first (and most important) task.
1. Backstory Delivery
Description: Is there an important incident or crisis that affected the world of your story or the main character, but it happened before the action begins in Chapter One? Then a Backstory Delivery prologue may be the smoothest way to bring your readers up to speed. Essentially, this is a flashback that happens before you’ve got a plot to flash back to. It prevents clunky dialogue like, “As we both know, ten years ago when your father died, I married your stepfather, which caused you to run away from home.”
Purpose: Delivery of important plot and character background.
It’s done its job if: Your reader understands the situation and empathizes with the protagonist when Chapter One begins.
It’s good for: Character-driven stories, sci-fi, fantasy, historical novels, and sequels.
2. Spoilers Ahoy
Description: Some stories begin with a bang, others must build slowly to a fever pitch. If yours falls into the latter category, a Spoilers Ahoy prologue can be essential to pique your reader’s interest. This type of prologue teases the reader with an intriguing, exciting, heartwarming or disturbing event that will happen later in the book. It promises that the story is worth sticking with, telling the reader, “Trust me, you won’t want to miss this.” It gives your unfamiliar story a reputation before it even begins. I used a Spoilers Ahoy prologue in my novel, False Memoir, that was just 15 words long: “Nine days and three dead bodies later, I would wish I’d never met Jack O’Lies.”
It’s done its job if: It entices your reader to keep turning the pages.
It’s good for: Literary fiction, psychological thrillers, suspense, and slow-burn stories.
3. Unexpected Clues
Description: If your story’s veering dangerously down the path that leads towards the dreaded deus ex machina conclusion, the Unexpected Clues prologue can set you back on course to a satisfying ending. Instead of giving your readers a look at a pivotal scene from the past or the future, you let them in on an important secret that the protagonist doesn’t know … at least, not yet. This secret is a clue, planted at the outset of the narrative, that will later help the protagonist solve the crime, defeat the antagonist, or otherwise save the day. This type of prologue offers dramatic irony, giving your readers a thrilling feeling of suspense as they know something important the main characters do not.
Purpose: Bring the plot full circle while avoiding a deus ex machina.
It’s done its job if: The reader feels a satisfying sense of revelation when the clues planted in the prologue are brought back into the story.
It’s good for: Mysteries and thrillers.
4. Outsider’s Report
Description: This one can be as inventive as you want. Instead of following the point of view of the rest of the narrative, you offer an alternative view of the situation or characters. This kind of prologue can be told from another character’s point of view, or take the form of a poem, newspaper article, fragment from a historical document, extract from a diary, lines from a play, or just about any type of narrative media. You can use the Outsider’s Report to convey key information, as in the Backstory Delivery prologue, or set the mood and tone of the story via a more artistic effect. Vladimir Nabokov famously used an Outsider’s Report prologue to open Lolita. It took the form of a statement, written by a fictional psychologist, about the ensuing text and the protagonist who purportedly wrote it.
Purpose: Set the stage for the story through the delivery of key information, or establish the mood and atmosphere of the narrative.
It’s done its job if: It intrigues the reader and sets the tone of the narrative.
It’s good for: Literary fiction and meta-fiction, as well as genre fiction including sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction.
5. In Medias Res
Description: Boom! You’re in the thick of a scene with characters you’ve never met who are doing things you don’t yet understand. This is the In Medias Res prologue, my least favorite type of prologue and the only kind that will make me instantly put a book back on the shelf. In medias res, Latin for “into the midst of things,” refers to a way of opening a story in the middle of an action-packed, emotionally charged moment. This kind of prologue presents the effect first, then backtracks in later chapters to explain the cause.
Purpose: To inspire intense curiosity.
It’s done its job if: The reader keeps reading because they are eager to understand what the heck just happened.
It’s good for: Old-school action novels: spy thrillers, military and war chronicles, westerns, and the like. Also sensation-focused narratives, like horror and erotica.
How to write a prologue
Prologues aren’t necessary. But they can be an expert-level addition to your novel if you follow these five simple rules.
1. Immediately hook the reader
Some readers skip prologues altogether. If you’re going to include one, make sure it’s unskippable.
The prologue’s primary function is to captivate your reader and promise them a good story. This is the introduction to your story: use it to draw the reader in and make it impossible for them not to turn the page to Chapter One.
A good prologue includes key information the reader needs to understand the story, is intriguing, and is an integral part of the storytelling structure. A skippable prologue, on the other hand, lacks important information, is unengaging, and is not integral to the story. If your reader can skip the prologue and miss nothing, then it should be cut.
Don’t forget that the prologue, not Chapter One, contains the opening lines of your story. Make these lines completely compelling.
As author Rachel Aaron observes, “a good prologue must be necessary, a vital piece of the whole. It should be unskippable, a joy to read all on its own.”
2. Provide important information … but not too much
Every word of your prologue must be essential, every detail you include vital to the plot, characters and overall structure of your story. Don’t write some random lines simply to establish “atmosphere” or to ease your reader into your story. Be a generous storyteller and provide relevant facts.
But don’t fall into another common trap and use your prologue as a convenient “info dump” filled with pages of backstory, worldbuilding, scientific and technical info, and characters’ relationship histories.
Remember: Your prologue is not a Wikipedia page about your book.
3. Make it stand out, yet conform
The prologue sets expectations that the rest of your story must meet. If the style, content, tone, or theme of the prologue wouldn’t fit somewhere in your later chapters, it doesn’t belong in your story. Your prologue lays the foundation for the story to come, so make sure it’s constructed from the same narrative materials.
But, even though it should fit in with the rest of your novel, it must also stand apart from the story in some crucial way. That is, it must do something that no other section of the book can do. If it can’t, that means it shouldn’t be headed with the word “Prologue,” but with the words “Chapter One.”
4. Keep it short
A long prologue is a tedious prologue. Brevity is your friend.
As Writer’s Digest notes, “If your prologue is longer than most of your chapters … it might be time to reevaluate the structure and pacing of your chapters.”
5. Don’t provide a resolution
A good prologue is like an unfinished piece of flash fiction. There’s a hook, a build-up, and the promise of an intriguing resolution, then … Chapter One. The prologue establishes the tension; the rest of the story resolves it.
While writing the prologue to my YA-for-grownups novel, The Cure for Summer Boredom, I followed all five of these rules.
It opens with an immediate reader-hook: the chase of a naked, drunk man through a small town early on a summer morning — an incident that provides key information about the setting, ancillary characters, and personality of the protagonist, who recounts the incident.
It’s short, just 205 words long, and it’s unskippable because the incident in question influences the plot in ways both obvious and subtle throughout the rest of the book. And the conflict introduced in the prologue (why did this happen and how can we keep it from happening again?) isn’t resolved until the end of the story.
You can check out The Cure for Summer Boredom here to see the prologue in action.
Do you love prologues? Skip them religiously? Give me a shout on Twitter and let me know.
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.