Literary devices is the term used for the techniques and structures writers employ to convey their message and story. When done well, the use of literary devices can alter, manipulate and challenge the way a reader perceives any work. Mastered literary devices influence how a story or essay can be interpreted and analysed, as well as how much the reader enjoys the work.
To find out more about other literary devices, click here.
What’s past is prologue” – William Shakespeare
This comes from Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, spoken by the character Antonio who suggests that the events of the past set the stage for the present. The quote is engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, which houses the most important of the United States’ historical documents. But in a literary work, while the prologue itself precedes the beginning of the story, it can contain events of the past or the future.
What is a prologue?
The prologue serves as an introduction, giving readers important information from the past or the future about the text that follows. It may establish the setting, introduce the characters or indicate a theme or moral in the story. Generally, the prologue is short and will only cover one or two pages. Most prologues are written by the author of the work.
A prologue can foreshadow events and conflict in a way that beginning in the middle of the action can’t. It is used when material that you want to include in the opening is out of time sequence with the rest of the story, giving readers information that is otherwise unobtainable within the normal structure of the novel. A prologue must also be a vital part of the whole text, not just added on before the opening chapter for no reason.
The Redwall Series
Popular children’s author Brian Jacques used both a prologue and an epilogue to frame each story in his Redwall series. Jacques uses the prologue effectively to establish the setting and introduce readers to minor characters with a meaningful story to tell. In these opening scenes, the dialogue between the characters is intended to draw the reader in, as much as it does to the characters who are listening in the story.
The Noon Lady of Towitta
In Patricia Sumerling’s mystery, The Noon Lady of Towitta, the unusually long prologue describes the events leading to the arrival of the police on the farm at Towitta, an isolated town in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. The prologue is straight-forward and written in third person. The story that follows is told from the first person perspective of Mary Schippan, the lady suspected of murdering her younger sister. Mary Schippan could not have given readers a clear picture of the events preceding the police investigation as she was not present, so the author chooses to employ a prologue. Without it, readers don’t have the necessary background required to understand the story and so obtain it outside of the first person structure of Mary's narrative.
The Da Vinci Code
In Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the prologue is employed firstly to establish the plot and setting of the book. Opening at the Louvre Museum in Paris, readers are presented with an event at a specific time and place around which the entire novel is plotted. Jacques Sauniere, the curator of the museum, is shot by a mysterious man and must use his dying breaths to keep his secret alive.
A collection of the world’s most famous paintings seemed to smile down on him like old friends.” Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code
The prologue also establishes a significant theme throughout the novel – the importance of art. As he bleeds to death, Sauniere is surrounded by many famous artworks, one of which, we can assume, is Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, a painting that plays a critical role in the author’s plot.
Writing an effective prologue
The most important feature of a prologue, like any literary device, is that it serves a purpose. Check to see if your prologue is doing a job. Does it establish the setting? Does it introduce characters, or a theme, or a moral? What does it add to the whole work? If it doesn’t have a clear purpose, you don’t need it.
Tip: Read prologues written by your favourite authors
Search for prologues written by the authors on your bookshelf. They’ve been published, so you can assume that the prologue is well written and employed. Look at the length and the style of the writing. The more prologues you read, the better you will understand when and how to use them effectively, if at all.
Tip: Practice writing first lines
Essentially, if you’re using a prologue, you are starting your book twice so you’ll need two great opening lines. It can be useful to practise writing clever opening lines, enticing the reader to continue. If you’re already working on something, ask yourself if the first line is the best it can be. Shuffle the words around. Try a selection of synonyms. Work with it and keep practising.
Tip: Write a prologue for a book that doesn’t have one
Choose a novel without a prologue and consider how one could be used. Try to find something in the text to link with your prologue – a theme, the setting, or even some additional background information. Be creative! You could give a character a secret that affects how they respond to events in the story. Don’t feel discouraged if you find that your new prologue doesn’t work - this just means that you are improving your ability to detect ineffective use of the device.