You’ve just finished your story. As you begin to edit it, you realize that there is some extra information that a reader is going to need to understand the narrative before they get into the story itself. The prologue in a book is an introduction, before the first chapter, that can introduce these details to the reader.
Prologues can be useful story-building tools because they are a natural introduction. It can be used to provide back story details, world details, or a character introduction within the confines of the narrative.
A prologue can also be very damaging to a book if it is included in an inappropriate manner.
What Is a Prologue and Why Do I Need One?
A prologue only contains “front matter.” It must serve a specific purpose for it to be considered an appropriate prologue. That’s why there are three specific reasons why a prologue will generally be included.
- It offers a different point in time for a character or setting. If the events of a character’s childhood influence decisions that are made within the main text of the story, then including those events in a prologue would be appropriate. This reason also applies to other subject matters in the book, such as a retelling of a nation’s history, so the reader’s perspective is accurate.
- It offers more information that is necessary, but difficult to include. Let’s say you’re writing a story in first-person voice. It would be difficult for you to be able to include certain secrets or details within this story unless you either have the character think about them or tell them to someone. The prologue gives you a new voice to be able to give this reader that information.
- It offers action. When a prologue is used to grab the attention of the reader right away, it can be used to transition the reader toward the conclusion of the story immediately. A typical method of including this type of prologue is to include an action scene from the middle of the story, stop it before it reaches its conclusion, and then start the story at the beginning in Chapter 1.
You can think about it like this. If the story seems incomplete without the prologue, then there is a good chance that it should be included.
When a Prologue Becomes a Bad Thing
There are some good reasons to include a prologue. There are also many books that have bad prologues that are unnecessary. A prologue, unless it contributes something meaningful to a story, is going to be a boring experience for the reader. If you have a bored reader, then there’s a good chance that they’re going to put the book down.
Prologues can also go into details that are far too descriptive for the beginning of a book. You don’t need to provide intricate details and specific character descriptions. Let the reader use their imagination with the specifics. Provide just enough information to whet the appetite of the reader to avoid this common prologue error.
If you include necessary information within the prologue and never revisit that information in the main body of the story, then it can be a bad thing as well. Why? Because many readers readily admit that they just skip prologues because they’re boring, lengthy, or meaningless – or all of the above. Putting essential details into the prologue and nowhere else can cause the reader to feel like something is missing from the story.
How to Take Advantage of the Prologue
Rule #1 of including a prologue: make it interesting. It’s going to be the hook for your story. If you lose the reader in the prologue, it’s tough to win them back.
Prologues should also be a short introduction to the story. Try to make the prologue be about half the length of your average chapter length. Since most books follow a 2,000- to 4,000-word structure for chapters, the prologue should only be 1,000-2,000 words in length.
A prologue should also adopt the same type of tone that a story offers. If the book is serious, the prologue shouldn’t be funny. You don’t have to keep to the same perspective, but you do need to create consistency.
In many instances, a prologue is not necessary. When you do need to have a quality introduction because there are details a reader needs to have, then an interesting and brief prologue is an excellent option to include that information. That way each reader can engage with your story in their own way.