You’ve decided to give your novel a prologue. Can’t blame you. Romeo & Juliet had one, and so did Pulp Fiction, so that pretty much covers all your bases right there. Face it, prologues are just cool… that is, if they’re done right.
Prologues are called the first of two beginnings for a reason. A good prologue is a paradox — part of the story and apart from the story, the beginning and not the beginning. That might sound heady, but all it means is that with prologues, you need to strike a balance. If you don’t, it can trip up your story before it even gets moving. That’s because a prologue is like any other writing device: it can enhance your story, but should only be included if it serves a specific narrative purpose.
If you're intent on using one, here are some tips for nailing your prologue.
Novels, without the assistance of visuals, can be confusing when jumping through time. Prologues, however, often assume a shift in time. Take advantage of your audience’s expectations and use the prologue to show a point in time that might not fit comfortably into the rest of your story.
I mentioned Pulp Fiction for a reason: it’s a nonlinear narrative where the prologue is both past and future. It opens in a diner on two robbers. They aren’t main characters; in fact, they never show up again… until the end, when it is revealed that they are robbing the very diner the two protagonists are at. This is a great example of a prologue’s potential to be two things at once.
The famous prologue of Nabokov’s (in)famous novel Lolita is not told by the devious narrator Humbert Humbert, but, rather, from the perspective of a fictional psychiatrist giving his psychoanalysis of the paedophile. This serves the purpose of framing both the protagonist and the story in a different way: a person of interest and an autobiographical transcript, rather than just a character in a book.
Motifs are another literary device that can affect the story in a cool way — they are a recurring element that connects back to the theme. But, sometimes, they can be tricky to work into your book. Present a motif in your prologue in a way that illustrates your story’s big ideas, and then, when the motif returns throughout the story, the connection will be that much clearer.
Take for example the prologue of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It consists only of the protagonist reading the myth of Narcissus. This never becomes a plot point, but it does illustrate the novel’s themes of self-help and cautions against self-love.
The golden rule of writing, but it always bears repeating. If your story takes place in a different world, such as high fantasy or science fiction, a prologue can be a great chance to set the scene. However, it must do so succinctly and delicately, and there are definitely some pitfalls to using your prologue as exposition.
Think about the prologue to the Pillars of the Earth. A priest, a knight, and a monk are cursed by the lover of a man they’ve just wrongly executed. This doesn’t factor into the plot of the book, but rather, it illustrates the world the book takes place in: a world of desperation where wealth is meaningless and hangings are children’s entertainment… but also one where humanity can transcend even the harshest reality.
Write a scene that isn’t directly related to the main story, but nevertheless shows something about the world that does impact the story. Your readers will be rewarded when they make the connection themselves.
If your prologue doesn’t do any of these, it’s probably best to just leave it out. And if it does any of the following things… definitely leave it out.
Now, let’s cover what not to do when writing a prologue.
If you use a prologue to get all the exposition out of the way before getting to the fun stuff, the reader may also skip it and miss out on crucial information that you should just work into the narrative — or worse, they might slog halfway through and then give up on the book altogether.
There’s a way to do this artfully, but if you’re not William Shakespeare, telling the reader your whole story before it even gets started is inadvisable. Instead, find a way to show them the same things in the story proper that you would’ve told in the prologue.
The prologue is one of two beginnings for a reason — it can’t be the only one. Think of the prologue as the start to your book, and your first chapter as the start of your story. If you’re not confident in your first chapter, try to rework your prologue materials into it, rather than split them up and run the risk of losing your reader twice.
The worst thing a prologue can do is lose momentum before it has even gained any. The start of the story is a crucial point where you must either hook the reader in or accidentally let them loose. An easy way to grab readers' attention is to set an exciting pace out the gate, but a prologue can sabotage that. If it feels like your prologue is dragging, just skip to your first chapter — otherwise, your readers will.
Like any other element of a novel, there are two sides to a prologue — so be sure to err on the side of caution when writing one. They are among the coolest tools in a writer’s kit, but if you’re only including it because it’s cool, it will freeze your story in its tracks. If, however, you take full advantage of the options it affords you, it will start your story with a sprint and the reader will never look back.
Casimir Stone is a writer for Reedsy, the world's largest marketplace of professional editors, book designers and ghostwriters. He also curates a series of free webinars and online courses designed to teach writers how to create and publish better books.