Industry professionals give them some major side-eye, readers confess to skipping them, but what if you feel like you need one? How do you know if a prologue is the right fit for your story? First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page (pun totally intended) about what a prologue is.
A prologue is an introductory section, separate to the rest of the story, typically intended to give readers a better understanding of the narrative that follows. Done right, prologues can be intriguing and provide context that enriches a reader’s experience of the rest of your book. Done wrong, they can be boring or actively off-putting, discouraging readers from venturing further into your work.
Some literary agents will say that seeing a prologue in a submission is an immediate turn-off, but that definitely isn’t a universal feeling, and having one won’t kill your chances of selling your book. Before you go diving in though, it’s important to think about the reasons why industry professionals and readers alike are sometimes dubious about prologues.
Reason 1: It all started a long, long… long… time ago
People are mostly aware that it’s a bad idea to start your story with a bunch of exposition. We’ve all heard the advice to start your story as late as you possibly can, jumping right into the action. But for some reason this advice is a lot more likely to be forgotten when people turn to writing a prologue. Maybe it is really important to your story that you explain the entirety of the 400-year-long war your characters have been engaged in, but if you try to get that whole explanation out of the way up front in a prologue your readers are just going to switch off. A prologue can have a different style or tone to the first chapter of your story, but don’t forget it’s still going to be the first thing anybody encounters when they open your book. Some of the same rules apply.
Reason 2: Where’s the story though?
Some prologues have almost the opposite problem to our last point. While you don’t want to start your readers off with a lecture on your story’s context, you also don’t want a prologue that doesn’t go anywhere or contain anything of note. If all you’re doing is setting the scene, scrap the prologue and save it for chapter one. It doesn’t matter how beautifully atmospheric or perfectly crafted a prologue is—if nothing within it has an impact on, or affects the way someone will view, the rest of the story? It should be scrapped. Sorry.
Reason 3: Not everyone is up for a one-chapter-stand
This isn’t necessarily something you can avoid entirely when writing a prologue, but it can be disappointing for readers to get attached to the first character(s) they meet, only to find that they’re never going to show up again after the prologue. In a similar vein, if your prologue is crazy exciting to hook readers in, but then you drop the pace way down as soon as chapter one hits, you’re going to risk losing readers who feel like they’ve been duped. The thing to bear in mind here is that if you write a prologue, your story almost has two beginnings. It’s totally possible to use this to your advantage, and sometimes it might be the best way to structure the opening of your book, but you need to make sure there’s a clear through-line for your readers to follow in that transition from the end of the prologue to the beginning of your first chapter.
So, why would you want a prologue?
Those are some of the fatal flaws of prologues, but what about when they’re done well? A well-executed prologue should hook the reader, provide information they might not be able to get otherwise and/or foreshadow something from later on in the plot.
If your prologue gives your reader a snapshot of either the past or future that will inform the way they see the rest of the story, or certain key events within it, that can be exciting. It can be something you subtly call back to throughout your story, and it will give your readers an angle on the plot that the characters themselves may well not have access to from within it. That can be a powerful tool.
A well-written prologue, one that’s been carefully considered, is a great thing. If you think you need one in your story, or you want to try your hand at writing one, don’t let any of the reasons above put you off. They’re just some things to consider along the way.
How do you know if you should keep your prologue?
Let’s say you already have a prologue, and now you’re wondering if it’s earning its place in your story or not. Here are a couple of things to think about while you decide whether it’s working or not.
You should be certain that the job your prologue is doing could not possibly be done in chapter one. If the main point of your prologue is to be exciting enough to get readers invested, and you’re not actually delivering a perspective or piece of information that couldn’t be revealed later in the book by another means, you should probably just work on making your actual first chapter more compelling and forget the prologue.
The prologue should stand apart a little from the rest of the story. That said, although it will probably feel distinct from the chapters that follow, and may well be written in a different period of time or from a different perspective, it should fit with the rest of your story in terms of tone and style. This is partly to avoid a bait-and-switch, you don’t want to draw readers in with a prologue and then have them discover the things they liked about it aren’t present in the story itself, and also just for the sake of overall coherence of your book. If you’re seeing a massive tonal shift between the end of the prologue and the start of chapter one, something needs to be reconsidered.
How do you feel about prologues?
Have you used any in your own writing? Have you got any favourite examples of prologues in fiction? Let me know in the comments!