A “prologue” is a chapter that appears before the first main chapter of a novel or story, offering background detail before the narrative properly begins. But how do you write a strong prologue to a novel? The following tips may help:
Provide backstory and set the scene for the story that follows.
Hook the reader by hinting at what lies ahead.
Write the prologue from a different point of view.
Don’t use the prologue as an infodump.
Keep it short to keep the reader interested.
Leave editing your prologue until you have finalized the story.
Read on for more detail on writing an effective prologue or watch the video tutorial.
1. Use Your Prologue to Introduce Key Details
A good prologue should set the scene for the story to come. This may include:
Introducing important characters and themes.
Setting out backstory required to follow the main narrative.
Telling the reader something about the story world.
An example of a prologue that successfully sets the scene in this way can be found in Ken Follet’s The Pillars of The Earth. Here, the prologue depicts a priest, knight, and monk being cursed by the lover of the man they have executed. This sets the tone of the story world, which is set in the Middle Ages, as well as offers important backstory for the narrative that follows.
2. Hook the Reader by Hinting at Things to Come
The prologue is the first part of your novel anyone will read, so you will want to make it engaging. And one simple way to do this is to hint at the action to come.
In The Bridges of Madison County, for instance, the prologue takes place in the present, but the first chapter flashes back to the past. The aim here is to set up an intriguing scenario and then ask the question, “How did we arrive here?”
This “flashback” format is a popular way to approach writing a prologue since it lets you jump straight into the action. And this gives the reader a sense of the narrative stakes from the moment they start reading. This will, hopefully, hook their interest and inspire them to keep reading! You can even end your prologue on a cliffhanger moment, leaving the reader to guess what happens next, to maximize the tension.
3. Give a Different Perspective
While the main body of a story will reflect the point of view of the narrator or protagonist, you can use the prologue to offer a different perspective on the story.
The prologue to Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, is written from the point of view of a fictional psychiatrist, who provides an analysis of Humbert, the protagonist and narrator of the novel. On one level, this serves as a framing device for the story that follows. But it also gives Nabokov a way to offer a different perspective on his main character than he could via the first-person narration elsewhere.
Unless your entire novel is written from multiple points of view, then, using a different perspective in the prologue can make it really stand out.
4. Don’t Make Your Prologue an Infodump
While backstory is important, your prologue should be more than just an infodump.
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This means that a prologue can’t just be exposition, where you offer basic facts about characters, the setting, or other background information without making it part of the story. This would be boring for the reader, for one. But it might also overload them with detail that they’ll struggle to remember.
When writing a prologue, then, focus on setting up only the key details a reader will need to follow the story. And, where possible, keep the maxim “show, don’t tell” in mind: this means telling a story through the actions, words, and thoughts of the characters rather than just directly telling readers what is happening.
For instance, rather than just describing the place in which your story is set, you could invent a scene that gives readers a flavor of what it is like. Perhaps it can be a shady deal in a shadowy backroom for a spy novel. Or a character marveling at the architectural wonder of the wizard’s castle in a fantasy story.
The key is to provide enough information to set up the story world, themes, and/or narrative of your novel, without overloading the reader with unnecessary details.
5. Keep It Short
As a prologue is a taster for the whole novel, it shouldn’t go on for too long.
The idea is to hook the reader! As such, you’ll want to focus on a single intriguing scene, or a couple of related scenes at most. Longer prologues that try to set up too much backstory or too many subplots can get confusing.
Moreover, if the rest of your novel is divided into chapters, the prologue shouldn’t be any longer than the other chapters. A few pages are usually enough.
6. Edit Your Prologue Last
The prologue might be the first thing your reader will see, but it doesn’t have to be the first thing you write! In fact, it can be easier to write and edit a prologue once you have the rest of the story fully worked out. That way, you’ll know exactly what you’ll need to set up for it to have the maximum impact on readers.
When drafting your novel, then, don’t stress too much over the prologue. It may help to get a rough version drafted first. But you can always revisit it during the editing process if required! And if you need any more help with this process, or writing a prologue in general, our expert editors can help.