If you’re a fiction author, you might consider adding a prologue to your next novel. Prologues can be a great way to introduce your audience to your story’s characters, setting, or other important information. Since this is the reader’s first glimpse into your book, it’s especially important that it’s engaging.
In this post, we’ll explore different types of prologues before sharing some examples of the kinds that work.
Types of Prologues
A prologue is an introductory section that sets up the story to follow. Prologues can be anywhere from a few sentences to even a few chapters long, and they’re always placed at the start of a novel.
The four most common types of prologues are:
Flashback: A prologue that explores an event that happened in the past, prior to the main story. This is usually something the protagonist experienced, and its influence or repercussions can be explored throughout the rest of the novel. A flashback prologue can help flesh out your characters and make them feel more real.
Flashforward: While a flashback prologue takes place in the past, a flashforward prologue takes place in the future. It’s set after events that happen later or at the end of the story. The purpose of a flashforward prologue is to intrigue the reader and make them want to find out how this future will come about.
Exposition: Most commonly used in historical fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi, this is a prologue that establishes the rules and background of the setting where the story takes place. If your story relies heavily on worldbuilding, you might want to try writing this type of prologue.
Alternative perspective: This is a prologue told from a different perspective than that of the protagonist. It can occur before, during, or after the main events of the story, and it’s often used in crime and horror fiction. Alternative perspective prologues can provide the reader with information that the protagonist is unaware of, or they can introduce your story’s antagonist.
Next, let’s see how these types of prologues can work on the page by taking a look at some examples.
1. Flashback: Affinity
Sarah Waters’ Affinity is a historical novel set in the 1870s. It follows the story of Margaret Prior, an upper-class woman visiting a women’s prison following a personal tragedy, and Selina Dawes, a spirit medium imprisoned for the murder of Mrs. Brink, her patron.
The prologue is told in the form of a letter from Selina, written on the night of Mrs. Brink’s death. Selina recounts the events of the evening, beginning when a young lady named Madeline Silver comes to witness her psychic talents. The interaction goes wrong, however, and Madeline faints. Mrs. Brink, startled by the commotion, runs into the room, and she’s so horrified by what she sees that she dies soon after.
Throughout the letter, Selina refers to a man named Peter Quick. She claims it was he who startled Madeline and caused her to faint. Later, we learn that Peter Quick is a ghost that Madeline supposedly channels.
As the prologue is written in the first person, we get a close insight into her thoughts, feelings and responses. This establishes several things about Selina’s character and backstory, which lead to many well-planned plot twists later in the novel.
2: Flashforward: The Book Thief
Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief is set in Germany during WWII and narrated by the personification of Death. In the prologue, titled ‘A Mountain Range of Rubble’, Death begins by talking about the three times he encounters the protagonist, a girl named Liesel:
First, when he comes for a body on a train
Second, when he comes for a crashed pilot
Third, when he visits the wreckage of a bombed town
The first encounter is a flashback, but the third and second refer to major events that happen later in the novel. No specific details are provided, so we’re left feeling curious about the circumstances under which Death meets Liesel, and why he has a connection to her.
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3. Exposition: The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien’s first installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy contains a great example of an exposition-style prologue.
This prologue is helpful for those who haven’t read the prequel (The Hobbit) because it goes into plenty of detail about what exactly hobbits are, where they live, and how they behave. It also summarizes the plot of The Hobbit and introduces Bilbo Baggins and his nephew, Frodo Baggins, the novel’s protagonist.
One of the things that makes this prologue work so well is that, through the information provided about hobbits, we get glimpses at how the wider world of The Lord of the Rings works. We’re informed that it’s called Middle-earth, that there are many other races living in it (such as men, elves, and dwarves), and that, most importantly, there is a certain magic ring that’s about to reveal its secrets.
The prologue to the Fellowship of the Ring, then, achieves several things by:
Introducing the main characters
Explaining how their society and culture works
Exploring the wider world and history of the story
Setting up the conflict that will be faced
If you’re writing an exposition prologue, it doesn’t have to be as long or as in depth as Tolkien’s. Remember, though, the information you give should be relevant to the story you’re about to tell.
4. Alternative Perspective: Jurassic Park
Michael Crichton’s dinosaur thriller Jurassic Parksets the scene with a prologue told from the perspective of Bobby Carter, a first aid worker on an island near Costa Rica.
While working at a remote hospital near a small village, Bobby encounters a seriously injured man. She’s told that he was involved in a construction accident, but when Bobby inspects his wounds, she realizes they must have been made by some kind of animal. She takes photographs of the wounds, but her camera is later stolen.
Eventually, the man succumbs to his injuries. As he dies, he says something that Bobby believes to be the phrase ‘lo sa raptor’. Her coworker believes the man was talking about a spirit known as a Hupia. Bobby looks up the word ‘raptor’, only to come across the definition ‘bird of prey’. Of course, for anyone familiar with Jurassic Park, it’s clear that the man was trying to say ‘velociraptor’!
This prologue establishes a sense of intrigue – what killed the man, and why does it seem like his death is being covered up? And as the prologue is told from a minor character’s perspective, the protagonists are unaware of the danger they’re about to encounter, thus ramping up the excitement.
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