Where to begin your novel is always a daunting decision. You want to begin with an interesting scene to draw in your reader and set the stage for your story. But sometimes your reader might benefit from more information before they are introduced into the world you have created or so that they may understand the importance of what is happening. This is where a prologue can come into play. But do you really need one? And if you do, how do you decide what to include in the prologue?
Before we begin, lets us start with the basics. What is a prologue?
A prologue is an opening to a story that establishes the setting and gives background details.
Various purposes of the prologue
- Give background information. For example, in a sci-fi book, it may be useful to introduce the alien world in a prologue so that the reader is not confused when they enter a completely foreign world in the first chapter.
- Grabs the reader’s attention with a scene from the story. I can think of numerous movies that do this. They start with an exciting scene and then pause to go back and fill in everything that led up to that scene.
- Describe a scene from the past that is important to the story, such as the death of the main character’s mother, which is motivation for the action in the novel.
- Give information from a different point of view. If the story is written in first person and the prologue in third, the prologue could give information that the main character would have no way of knowing.
- It expresses a different point in time. The prologue could be the main character when he or she is older and reflecting back on another event, which begins in Chapter 1. (Think of the opening scenes in the movie Titanic.)
So with all these good reasons for writing a prologue, what is the downside? Well, often prologues are boring. If too much history is put into the prologue, it can turn off readers. And many readers say they skip the prologues so if you include an essential part of the story here, your reader may not get it. But the main reason not to include a prologue is that they are often unnecessary. Many of the purposes of the prologue can be accomplished in the actual novel.
So before writing a prologue, ask yourself, will this fit in Chapter 1? Is this essential to the plot? If the answer is no, skip it.
Now, I wrote prologues for each book in my trilogy. The prologue in Summoned is used to introduce the dragons which don’t appear again until the very end of that book. It also hints to the prophecy (essential to the story) that the dragons know about but the humans don’t. (You can read the prologue and first chapter, here.)
In Quietus, the prologue is part of the journal of the last Elemental (a race of people who controlled the elements) and expands on the prophecy. And since I had done prologues for both Book 1 and 2, I did one for Book 3. The prologue in Destiny doesn’t focus on Lina, the Elemental mentioned in the prophecy, but on how those who control magic set the prophecy in motion.
I think in each case, the prologues add to the story. It contains details that would be hard to add to the story in another way (though if forced to I could have found a way to do it.) If a reader skips the prologues in my trilogy they will not be lost but it does add something to the story.
And so, if you too decide to add a prologue to your novel, here are some things to consider.
- Keep it short. You don’t want the prologue to drag on for half the book.
- Keep it interesting. This is the first thing the reader will read so you want to hook them with this passage.
- Think of the prologue as a separate entity from the novel. Just because the prologue has a hook doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one in your first chapter.
- Limit background information. I have read prologues that are dull and boring histories which I ended up skimming. You can weave background information into your novel so don’t dump it all here.
Overall the prologue, when done correctly, can enhance your story and further your plot. But when done incorrectly, it can put your readers off so consider carefully before you include a prologue.