In a novel, the prologue – a section preceding your first chapter – is a powerful literary tool. When utilised correctly, a prologue can elevate your novel to the next level.
Fiction or non-fiction, crime or fantasy, a prologue sets the tone for the reader from the very outset.
The blank-canvas nature of this opening section affords each writer the creative licence to implement their own unique, individual style within the typical one- to five-page structure.
Not every novel requires a prologue. Purposes for which a prologue may be necessary, however, include the following:
- Presenting crucial information that does not fit within the novel’s timeline or structure
- Making sense of the storyline
- Laying out clues for a later stage
Below, we'll provide you with a number of key perspectives to help you decide whether to include or avoid a prologue in your novel.
When to include a prologue
When you want to provide a glimpse into your world
Within every novel lies a unique and individual world, found only in the story you create. The prologue represents the first point at which you have the chance to convey the context and features of this world to the reader.
This can include the primary location (urban, rural, local and international), the age range of the characters, the era, the living conditions, the scope of the storyline, and many other key aspects.
Consider The Fellowship of the Ring. Through a detailed prologue, Tolkien introduces the reader to the magical and troubled world of Middle Earth, establishing key background on hobbits, elves and an all-powerful ring.
This prologue provides the first-time reader with vital information on a world previously unknown to them.
With this addition of context and explanation, the reader not only expands their understanding of this created universe, but can also begin to visualise the world in their mind.
This is the opportunity that a prologue affords writers: a chance to establish your novel’s world before you even need to get to the crux of the storyline.
From real-life drama to international conflict to far-off worlds of your creation, gift the reader a glimpse into your world with an engaging prologue – but don't get too bogged down in detail too early!
When you want to establish your style
Each writer has their own unique style to bring to the table. Particularly in the case of a first publication, you want to convey your style to the reader almost immediately.
As the first point of interaction for the reader, the prologue is your first chance to establish the written style and format of your novel.
Unlike the first few chapters, in which the proverbial table of the story is set, the prologue offers you a unique opportunity to showcase your skills and unique approach to creative writing.
A prologue can allow you to jump straight into the action, whether it be the description of a crime committed or an important interaction that sets up the narrative to come.
This unique approach to the novel's opening allows you to establish your distinctive style and the form your novel will take. It's a true chance to grab the reader’s attention from the very first page.
When you want to set the tone
Even if your prologue does not directly relate to the linear structure of your narrative, it can work to set the overall tone of the story to come.
Establishing this tone allows the reader to understand the mood and feel you intend to create throughout your novel.
In a crime novel, for instance, the prologue often features a crime being committed or its aftermath. The tone is immediately established and the reader is aware of the novel’s area of focus.
Whether light and breezy, dark and ominous or reflective and intellectual, your tone can be embedded in your prologue in subtle or overt fashion.
The process of setting the tone is an effective approach to truly engaging and hooking in your reader from the very first page.
Descriptive writing, action sequences, historical information, conflict or peace – the establishment of tone can be achieved in a wide variety of ways.
When you want to throw readers off the scent
While your prologue should relate to the overall storyline in some form or fashion, one method you can choose is an opening section that throws the reader off the scent of the true factors at play.
An excellent prologue can both capture the reader’s interest and keep them guessing for the entirety of the novel until its connection to the storyline is revealed.
This could manifest as a memory or past event relevant to your characters, an occurrence that will ultimately serve a later purpose, or an event that the entire narrative will build up to.
A prologue designed to keep the reader guessing throughout is an excellent tool to pique their interest and keep them reading.
If it takes place in a different time, place or point of view than the main story, the reader can enjoy the process of piecing all the parts of the puzzle together.
This method is also an opportunity for you as the writer to flex your skills as you weave together characters and events to create an intriguing mystery or collection of clues.
When to avoid a prologue
When you have strict linear progression
A common feature of a prologue is that it takes place in a time or place out of context to the linear progression of the main storyline.
The purpose of many prologues is to describe an event that does not fit within the constraints of the logical timeline of the narrative.
If this manifests in the form of a character’s backstory, for instance, this backstory can slowly be revealed in a later chapter or a memory sequence.
If the prologue does not exist outside of the logical linear confines of the storyline, it may be better utilised as the first chapter, particularly if it's told from the same character viewpoint as the entire novel.
When you want to create a slow burn
The principal purpose of an excellent prologue is to hook and capture the reader’s attention and imagination from the very outset.
If your prologue takes too long to reach its punchline, it can cause the reader to lose interest and miss out on all that's to come.
While the prologue can be descriptive in nature, consider the progression of events. Is there enough information, intrigue or excitement to keep the reader engaged throughout?
If not, this may render your prologue null in void. Ultimately, if readers may feel that the prologue takes away from the flow of the rest of your story, it may be worth cutting it out entirely!
When you're just following the crowd
In certain genres, the addition of a prologue is commonplace. This does not mean, however, that you should feel pressured to follow suit.
Prologues are typical tropes of crime and fantasy novels, but this does not mean that they are effective in all cases.
If you have already written the bulk the novel without the consideration of a prologue, and then attempt to add it purely due to the genre, this is probably a good sign that you might not need one.
At the end of the day, your novel should be unique to your own preference. Remember not to feel pressured into the addition of a prologue if it ultimately feels unnecessary or out of place.
Tone-setting, world-building and background information can be achieved through a prologue, but can also be features of your writing throughout the entire novel!