Image: Matthew Loffhagen
A prologue is not essential to a story which is why you need to make sure that “your reader” will benefit from having one. I use the term “your reader” here, as opposed to “your story”, because a prologue should be written with your reader in mind if it is to be written at all.
When done right, a prologue can start your story off with a bang and entice your readers to keep going. But when done incorrectly, it shows your weaknesses and tells your reader that the rest of your book isn’t really worth the effort.
That’s a horrible thought. You’ve just spent the best part of a year writing your book, only for your prologue to let you down. My guess is you want to avoid this from happening, so let’s take a close look at how you can do just that.
Good prologues give your story energy
Prologues should kick-start your story into action by presenting a well-developed scene with a story arc. It’s easy to be tempted to inject a lot of detail and information into your prologue, but try and keep it bite-sized. Think of it as an appetizer—it should leave the reader wanting more, but content with what they have read so far.
The prologue in Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth is no more than two pages long and the scene is used to generate intrigue:
A small boy took careful aim and spat at the prisoner. It was a good shot and caught him between the eyes. He snarled a curse and lunged at the spitter, but he was restrained by the ropes attaching him to the sides of the cart. The incident was not remarkable that the words he spoke were Norman French, the language of the lords. Was he high-born then? Or just a long way from home? Nobody knew.
Follett’s prologue is a stand-alone scene that acts as a springboard to the main storyline. It is fast-paced and energetic while still having a beginning, a middle and an end.
But having a well-written prologue also achieves something else—it gives your reader confidence in your writing and storytelling ability. It says, “Hey, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve done my research.” This shows your reader that you are trustworthy and that spending time with your book will be worth it.
This forms the basis of a very happy relationship.Prologues should kick-start your story into action by presenting a well-developed scene with a story arc.Click To Tweet
Good prologues create a world
Your prologue needs to start shaping the world in which the story will unfold. If your story is set in a particular time period or country, your prologue should mention the pieces of that era or place in a way that invites readers to step into that world and believe the reality.
Sara Gruen invites readers into the loud, chaos of the circus in Water for Elephants:
The other townsfolk – rubes, as Uncle Al called them – had already made their way through the menagerie tent into the big top, which pulsed with frenetic music. The band was whipping through its repertoire at the usual earsplitting volume. I knew the routine by heart – at this very moment, the tail end of the Grand Spectacle was existing and Lottie, the aerialist, was ascending her rigging in the center ring.
Gruen’s choice of words—“big top”, “frenetic music”, “earsplitting volume”—and use of description are evocative and immersive all at once. You immediately get a sense of the buzz and the atmosphere in the big top. It feels tangible and, because of this, it is easy to step into that world and follow the story.
However, Gruen has not simply set the scene—she has done far more than that. She has enriched the story by delicately layering the important information within the scene.Your prologue needs to start shaping the world in which the story will unfold.Click To Tweet
Good prologues need to seduce the reader
A good prologue will hook the reader and haul them into the story. Simply put, the reader can’t put it down, and doesn’t want to either. You can seduce your reader in many ways, one of which can be the use of a metaphor.
Amy Tan uses the metaphor of a swan quite effectively in the prologue to The Joy Luck Club:
The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum. This bird, boasted the market vendor, was once a duck that stretched its neck in hopes of becoming a goose, and now look!-it is too beautiful to eat. Then the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide, stretching their necks toward America.
Tan’s prologue is seductive because it is intriguing. The swan metaphor makes you feel curious to a point that you want to understand what the transformation means and how it unfolds in the story.
Intrigue as well as mystery are at the heart of Mark Edwards’ The Magpies:
She crossed out “Paradise” and wrote “Hell” in its place. The caption didn’t fit the photograph anymore. She felt like tearing up the whole album, ripping each picture to shreds, or throwing it on a fire, watching her memories burn. But even that would not erase the images from her mind: they were locked inside her, and she could only hope that time would erode them.
Edwards uses very strong and emotive language—“paradise”, “hell”, “tearing”, “memories burn”— to draw the reader in. You are left wondering, “What could possibly be so bad that she wants to rip up a whole album of memories?” He has taken the reader’s hand and invited them into this other world, this not-so happy world.A good prologue will hook the reader and haul them into your story.Click To Tweet
Good prologues are consistent with the rest of the book
If you have written your prologue in a style that is a vast departure from the rest of your book, then you are not only doing yourself a disservice as an author, but you are also giving the reader a sense of false hope. Your prologue needs to be written in the tone and style of your whole book; it needs to be consistent. If it isn’t consistent, your readers will be left feeling cheated.
Don’t be tempted to start your book in a certain way just because you think it will appeal to everyone. This will only backfire.Don’t be tempted to start your book in a certain way just because you think it will appeal to everyone.Click To Tweet
What about the people who don’t read the prologue?
You might not dare to think of anything so ghastly, but there is a certain breed of reader who skips the prologue altogether. The idea may not appeal to you, but you should prepare yourself for at least a few of these and cater to them accordingly.
And how do you do that? Well, avoid adding any information that is crucial to the meaning and understanding of the story as a whole. Make sure that your book still makes sense and reads well without the prologue.
If you have written a prologue but feel unsure of its value, ask yourself these questions:
- If my reader skipped the prologue, would he/she still enjoy and understand the story?
- Is my prologue actually interesting?
- Can the information in my prologue be introduced into the main story itself (through dialogue or action)?
- Is my prologue written in the same voice and style as the rest of my book?