The opening of your novel is key in engaging your reader. Writing a prologue for your novel can be very risky – it is a double-edged sword; if not used properly it will be a weight around the neck of your story, used correctly on the other hand and it becomes a very effective literary technique.
What is a Prologue?
In its simplest definition a prologue is a literary device that appears at the beginning of a book and allows the author to explain something integral to the story. For a prologue to work it must possess one (if not all) of several attributes
- There must be a purpose to the prologue and a reason why it is singled out and standing alone at the very beginning of the novel
- The prologue must reveal significant facts that could not be revealed with as much impact using other literary devices or woven into the story
- It must contribute to our understanding of the plot or the character
- Above all the prologue must be compelling – you are giving your reader two beginnings therefore each has to work equally hard to hook the reader
When Should You Use a Prologue?
There are many examples of extremely successful authors who have included a prologue in their work to great effect. Despite ongoing speculation that it is something literary agents hate to read and readers skip over, it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed as a device.
There are a few standard situations where you can use a prologue effectively:
1. The Prologue for Out of Sequence Material
One of the most common uses of the prologue is when some aspect of the story needs to be explained that is out of sequence with the rest of the novel, or at the very least, with the opening narrative.
The prologue can be referring to events in the past that will explain the motivations for a character, the reasons behind a mission or how high the stakes are for the protagonist.
The prologue can refer to events that happen in the future, encouraging questions and intrigue to keep the reader reading. Often in this instance, the revelation in the prologue will relate to one of the later scenes in the novel as the plot begins to unfold.
2. The Prologue for Switching Narrative
Something that needs to be handled with great care is the technique of using the prologue to switch to a different point of view to that of the rest of the story. This could be used to show:
- A character plotting something to befall the protagonist but as yet unknown to them
- Something happening in another location that drives the story and that the protagonist couldn’t know about – particularly useful if writing the rest of the book in first person narrative.
Both of these instances help to increase tension as we are given an insight into how high the stakes are for the protagonist.
3. The Prologue for Putting the Novel in Historical Context
A prologue works well when the novel is set in an era where we need to remember what else was going on at the time. This is mostly seen with historical fiction where to fully understand the motivations of the characters and development of plot we have to understand the cultural and political nuances of the era.
When You Shouldn’t Use a Prologue
There are many instances when an author introduces a prologue for the wrong reasons. This is usually where the problems begin.
Think carefully about writing a prologue if yours falls into one of the five categories below:
When you are treating the prologue as a hook
A prologue should not be there solely to hook a reader – that is the job of chapter one. If your chapter one isn’t achieving that examine your starting point. Could you begin your novel somewhere else where the action is more likely to hook a reader?
When you are using the prologue as a brain dump for background story
This is one of the biggest turn-offs at the opening of a novel. Background stories should be woven into the plot, into the personality of the characters and into the way they react to events and people around them. It should never be spoon-fed to the reader as lengthy narrative or explanation at the beginning of the book. For more details on background stories take a look at our article on explaining your character backstories.
When you are repeating word for word a scene from later in the book
A reader will feel cheated if the prologue is just the repetition of a scene later in the book. The prologue must give us additional information that we could not find out any other way. If you are just repeating a scene from later in the book, are you doing this to set the scene and the atmosphere? If that is the case, that really should be the job of chapter one – see point number one. Ideally the prologue should be something that if removed, would affect the subsequent understanding of the chapters.
When your prologue flows nicely into chapter one
It may sound strange, because after all what we want is flowing material, but if your prologue flows nicely into Chapter One, then this should be written as your chapter one, not as a prologue.
When your prologue is unwieldy and complicated
When you write a prologue, you are asking the reader to do a few things:
- To commit to memory people and events that probably will not be referred to until much later in the book
- Trust you will answer their questions
- Read on without context
All of this you are asking of your reader before you have built trust with them through voice, character and plot. In the meantime, the reader will likely be distracted trying to match up the prologue with subsequent events and characters making it more of a hindrance than a help. Make sure that your prologue only enhances and does not distract or detract.
If you are going to use a prologue, make sure it is a well thought out risk you are taking. Don’t ask too much of your reader at this stage and keep the prologue short and sweet and entertaining. Give it purpose and keep it to the essentials only. Remember that your reader wants to get started on this journey with you as quickly as you want them to keep turning the pages.