Think of your favorite TV series — specifically an episode that began with a heart-pumping scene that led to a cliffhanger. And suddenly, you see a caption with something like “72 Hours Earlier.”
That’s a type of prologue. In books, it draws the reader right into the story, immediately making them wonder what on earth led to the crisis — and how it will end.
Does a book need a prologue? No. But depending on your story, it might draw your readers in more quickly.
But what exactly is a prologue? And should your story have one?
- What Is a Prologue in a Book
- The Difference Between a Prologue and a Preface, Foreword, or Introduction
- How to Write a Prologue
- Prologue Examples
What Is a Prologue in a Book
A prologue is a section of your story that comes before Chapter One. It introduces the reader to the main character and draws them in quickly, either with a crisis or with information that piques the reader’s curiosity.
What can a prologue do for your story?
Whether your prologue does some or all of these things depends on your goals for it. But every prologue should make your story better than it would be without it.
What is the Purpose of a Prologue in a Book
The goal of a prologue is to get the reader excited about the story and itching to learn what happens.
Sure, you could simply start your first chapter with a sort of “mini prologue” to create intrigue. But many authors choose to write a distinct prologue that stands out from the rest of the story in some way:
They set it apart for a reason: to set the stage for what will happen and to get the reader asking questions. The purpose of a prologue is to make the reader think, “I have to know what happens!”
The Difference Between a Prologue and a Preface, Foreword, or Introduction
In a preface, the author explains something about how the book came to be, what inspired them, and what obstacles they might have overcome in writing it. It’s not essential to the story.
A foreword is usually written by someone other than the author to promote the book. This is also not essential, but the implied endorsement can help with book sales.
An introduction does what its name suggests: introduce the book’s contents and give the reader an idea of what to expect. These are exclusive to nonfiction books.
A prologue is a separate part of the story. It may introduce the main character and something about the story to come, but it stands apart from it in some way. Its power is in its hook: how quickly it draws the reader in and how well it holds their interest.
How to Write a Prologue
Before writing a prologue, it’s essential to know whether a prologue would help or detract from your story.
If the content in the prologue isn’t essential to your story (e.g., if you’re using it to make the start of your story more interesting), or if you can weave the content into the main body of your story without confusing your reader, it’s probably best to go without.
In that case, you can revise your Chapter One to make it more engaging.
But if your story can’t do without that content, and you can’t just plug it into Chapter One (or wherever it might make sense to add it) without creating a huge distraction, a prologue is the best place for it.
Now that’s out of the way, follow these steps to writing a prologue that grabs your reader’s attention and holds on until they reach your story’s end.
Step One: Identify the information and approach your prologue needs.
What does your reader need to know before the story begins? And whose perspective is best-suited to relaying that information in a way that will pique their interest?
Start with a list of the necessary information and brainstorm ways to deliver it. Try different approaches before you settle on the one to use.
Step Two: Introduce your main character(s).
Introduce your reader to your story’s main character(s), keeping to the information (clues, hints, suggestions) that will make your reader feel invested in them. Make the star of your story feel both familiar and interesting. But don’t give away too much.
Share only what your reader needs to know about them before the story begins.
Step Three: Use prose that fits your pace and perspective.
This is not the place for purple prose or long, meandering sentences. The point is to draw your reader in quickly, so keep your prose clear and easily digestible. You don’t want to bog down your reader or give them the impression your book will be a slog.
Make the prose fit the perspective or point of view you’re using. And keep it moving.
Step Four: Keep it short and sweet.
A prologue shouldn’t lag on, and typically, it shouldn’t be longer than the average length of your chapters. It should only contain crucial information that you can’t reveal within the body of your story. Or it should hint at what’s to come in an interesting way.
This is not the place to develop your main character. And ix-nay on the info dumps.
Step Five: End with a cliffhanger.
As mentioned earlier, you want your reader to reach the end of the prologue, thinking, “Well, now I have to know what happens!” An effective cliffhanger will build enough momentum to carry them right into Chapter One and beyond.
A prologue should always make your reader feel invested in the story that follows.
Final Note: Do your prologue justice.
Make sure Chapter One’s beginning doesn’t throw your reader off the scent. Nothing’s sadder than a Chapter One that breaks the spell cast by an effective prologue.
The last thing you want your reader to think is, “Well, they got my interest with the prologue, but after a few pages of Chapter One, I no longer care.” Take the torch and run with it all the way to the end.
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Example One: Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare
Shakespeare uses a sonnet to introduce us to the play and set the tone, even dropping vague spoilers about what’s to come:
- “Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean / From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life, / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife….”
Example Two: Medea by Euripedes
Medea’s childhood “Nanny” introduces the play with a grim litany of wishes, along with her reasons for them and the dread she feels:
- “How I wish the Argo’s sails had never swept through / the dark blue Clashing Rocks into the land of the Colchians; / I wish the pine trees had never fallen / in the groves of Pelion, cut down to put oars in the hands / of the heroes who went after the golden fleece / for Pelias. Then my mistress Medea would not / have sailed to the fortress of Iolcus’ land, / her heart battered by love for Jason…..”
Example Three: The Terminator (movie)
The first Terminator movie begins with a brief prologue that sets the tone and provides needed context for the story that follows:
- “ Los Angeles, 2029: The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight…”
Will you write a prologue for your next book?
Now that you know what a prologue is and what it isn’t, you have a better idea of whether your story needs one or whether a prologue could improve it.
You also know how to get started writing one — and how to make it count. Think of what you want your reader to feel when they’ve gotten to the end of your prologue. What do you want them to think of your main character(s)?
What information (clues, foreshadowing, etc.) will make your reader feel more invested in what happens? Think about this question and write down whatever comes to mind.
May this work in progress be your best one yet.