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How to Write a Prologue (and whether or not you should)

To prologue or not to prologue?

Either you’ve asked this question before, or you’re wondering why I’m asking it now.

I was part of the latter group until about a year ago--I had no idea a debate on this topic even existed.

Boy does it ever, and boy is it a big one.

Largely, there’s two types of readers: those who read every page of a novel, and those who skip to the meat of story on Chapter 1.

I’ll admit, I’m part of the group that reads every page of a novel. It’s been difficult for me to understand why someone wouldn’t read a prologue because, to me, it’s part of the story. I also always read the acknowledgements because I’m weird like that...

But there’s a large population of people who skip the prologue completely (and sometimes the epilogue if there’s one at the end of the novel). While I’m not part of this group, I understand everyone has their own reading preferences.

While not everyone will read this bonus chapter at the beginning of a book, a prologue serves as a sneak-peak to the drama that awaits the reader. It doubles a palate cleanser before the five-course meal.

But does your novel need a prologue? Often, the answer is no (there are some who believe NO novel needs a prologue, but I’m not so extreme).

I think the better question to ask is “Would your novel benefit from a prologue?”

This depends on a lot of things.

Some genres are more prologue-heavy than others. Thrillers and crime novels seem to be a more acceptable place to use prologues, as past events more often come into play (a twenty-year cold case resurfacing, a two-hundred-year-old myth of a ship that sank with treasure on board). While some may consider this a cheap way to catch the reader’s attention, others appreciate it for its long-term effect on their reading experience.

Science-fiction and fantasy writers may use a prologue to uncomplicate a detailed world or legend. This can save the writer from using too many info-dumps.

As a prologue-lover, I hunt for any piece that connects to that tiny chapter I read in the beginning of the novel. Until the last page I read, that prologue is at the back of my mind, working its magic.

But there are those who couldn’t disagree more.

There are those who think prologues are lazy, plain and simple. Any content in the prologue should be woven into the length of the novel, and if it can’t be, then the content must not be important.

Some writers use prologues to better hook the reader when a story starts up at a slower pace (I was guilty of this). This can end up biting the writer in the booty for those readers that skip the prologue. If Chapter 1 doesn’t have its own hook, a prologue-skipper won’t find your story gripping.

Is the information in your prologue all-important to the story? Do you really not want people to skip it? Then ask yourself if it should really be Chapter 1 instead.

I always talk about Harry Potter (sorry, not sorry), but this is a great example of what could have been a prologue. (This isn’t to say that Rowling was originally going to make the first chapter of the first novel a prologue and changed her mind.)

The first chapter in the series takes place ten years before the rest of the story, successfully hooks the reader, and provides important information necessary for understanding the plot. Since it occurred ten years prior, some might try to use this as a prologue. It serves better as Chapter 1 though.

If you can finagle your prologue to be Chapter 1, do it. This ensures the reader won’t skip a hook present in your prologue, and that they read any important information that affects your plot.

Write a prologue if you want to. A lot of writers, myself included, later realize that the prologue isn’t necessary. Most of the information in that prologue has been revealed more organically through the main story.

It won’t hurt your story if you write it, but that doesn’t mean you should always keep it.

While it’s always tough to trim your novel (especially entire chapters, it hurts!), you can still put that prologue to use!

I realized early on that my prologue (that’s still on my website) might not be necessary, and might actually confuse the reader. This is because mine wasn’t a true prologue and was more of a flash-forward. It messed with the chronology of my novel so it had to go (err..still has to, I need to move it!).

I’m not deleting it, though. That baby will survive online forever as a deleted scene. Readers love extra tid-bits like that, both while they’re waiting for the release of the novel, and after they’ve fallen in love with it.

Could you imagine if J.K. Rowling released all the scenes she deleted from her novel? Insanity would ensue. (This point is obviously reliant on you writing an awesome story people can fall in love with.)

While I love prologues, my novel won’t have one. This is because what I would use for a true prologue would be a reveal of a prophecy. Prophecies are a little overdone, though, and I wouldn’t want someone to think the first few pages are clichéd.

In the end, it comes down to personal preference. If you hate prologues, don’t write one. If you love prologues, write one. If you’re somewhere in the middle, ask if it will benefit the reader’s experience.

If you decide to take this path, tread lightly. There’s sinkholes and venomous snakes that could jump out and kill your story before it begins.

  • In general, your prologue should be shorter than your average chapter length. It should be quick and pack a punch, with significant details that help the reader better understand the story. Most often, the core of the plot is revealed--the big question, or the seemingly unrelated event (think butterfly effect here) that later forced your character into the plot.

  • Allow an appropriate amount of time for backstory, if that’s what your prologue will be used for. Science fiction and fantasy authors might feel tempted to info-dump their entire world or magic system. This isn’t necessary, and information that’s left out or not fully explained will help create some mystery to your novel, keeping the reader turning those pages.

  • Be sure to prune excess information out of your prologue. As stated earlier, many writers finish their first draft and realize their prologue is no longer needed. They’ve explained all the information throughout their novel and can simply delete it.

If you find there’s still information in your prologue that’s nowhere in your novel, edit out the details that are. Getting rid of the excess strengthens your prologue and provides better literary punch in those first few, critical pages.

As I said earlier, make sure your Chapter 1 also has its own hook to account for those that skip prologues.

Prologues are strangely a finicky topic. Many agents and publishers (from what I’ve read at least) seem to hate a novel that starts off with a prologue. Editors often advise against using them at all.

I did a tiny poll on Twitter and of 65 people that voted, 58% voted that they always read the prologue, 34% said they sometimes read prologues, and 8% said they never read them.

Interesting stuff!

I’m curious: are you a prologue-reader or a prologue-skipper?

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