How To Write A Prologue

Not too long ago, someone commented here asking for an article on writing prologues. I was saddened to reply that we did not have any articles on the subject (I checked), but I promised we’d have one soon. I’m making good on that promise now.

Many authors start their novels with prologues, which they use to set up the story of the novel. The fact that they set up the novel though helps to make prologues very different from other chapters of the novel. So here is some advice that will (hopefully) make writing a prologue easier:

What makes a prologue different from Chapter One? Good question. Sometimes there’s not much difference, but most often there’s plenty of difference. Usually though a prologue is a special scene at the beginning of a story that is set aside from the main body of the story. The events that occur in it often contain a catalyst that propels the events of the novel along. In the book Eragon, for example, Arya is attacked by agents of the Emperor and has to jettison Saphira’s egg with magic to a safe location. This allows Eragon to come across the egg in Chapter One, which begins his journey to become a Dragon Rider.

Does the prologue need to feature the protagonist or other major characters in the story? Not necessarily. Depending on how the author chooses to plot the story, the prologue may or may not feature any major characters. The example I used above only featured Arya and Durza the Shade, a supporting character and the antagonist. Eragon and Saphira don’t show up till later in the novel.

Of course, there are prologues that feature main characters. In my recently-published novel Snake, my protagonist shows up in the prologue, helping to give the story the mood and cementing the Snake as not the kind of guy to be trifled with. Like I said, it depends on who’s writing the story and how they want to write and plot it.

Can a prologue be more than a single chapter? Most prologues tend to be a single chapter. However, I’ve read several books where the prologue is divided into a couple chapters. This usually occurs in books where a single story is divided into certain parts, each part detailing a different section of the story. I actually wrote Snake that way, with the prologue covering the first four chapters before moving into Part One.

Like other aspects of writing a prologue though, it’s all dependent on what the author decides to do in writing his/her story.

How should a prologue set the mood of the story? Let me use a bit of an unconventional example: when Igor Stravinsky’s ballet and orchestral concert work The Rite of Spring was first performed, it began with a low bassoon, followed by several other woodwind instruments. For a ballet/orchestral concert at that time, it was a very unusual introduction, but it fit in considering that for its time, The Rite of Spring was a very unusual production (so unusual in fact, that a riot nearly broke out in the audience when it first premiered at a Parisian theater in 1913).

Similarly, the prologue of your novel should set the tone of the story. If you’re writing a horror story, the prologue should let people know that something awful is going to happen soon and it’s going to be quite terrifying. If you’re writing a fantasy story, the prologue should either give some history on the world the characters inhabit (al a the opening of the Lord of the Rings films) or explain straight away that this is a fantasy realm and that someone’s going to be going on a journey soon. In short, make sure the prologue is what you use to say, “This is the kind of novel I’m writing. It has such-and-such an atmosphere, such-and-such characters, and you can expect more of this throughout the story”.

What makes a good prologue? Now that’s not an easy thing to pin down, and depending who you ask, you’re going to get different answers. The best advice on that I can give you is that in order to write a prologue, read plenty of novels with prologues. See what works and what doesn’t work for you. And then write your own prologues, seeing what works for you and what doesn’t work for you.

If that reader who asked the original question on prologues is reading this post, then I hope that you found this article helpful. Prologues can be very important for your story, because they set up the rest of the novel. I hope that after reading this article, you and anyone else reading this article, can write excellent prologues for your stories.

15 Comments

  1. ronfritsch says:

    Rami, I think you’ve described very well what a prologue should do. I especially thank you for this post because it gives me a chance to ask a relevant question. In every novel I’ve published and in my WIP, I’ve begun the book with what I consider a prologue–but I don’t call it a prologue. It’s simply the first section of the first chapter. I haven’t used the word “prologue” because I’ve assumed contemporary readers might consider it old-fashioned. I’m probably wrong about that. But is it okay to include a prologue-like first section and not call it a prologue?

    1. I don’t think it’s a question of right or wrong. I guess you could call it a stylistic choice, so it’ll be up to your critics to say whether or not what you do with your first section of the first chapter is good or bad.

      And I don’t consider prologues old-fashioned. If anything, the fact that I wrote a post about them makes them very relevant to literature and readers today.

  2. My prologue was the first three chapters, establishing my antagonists by going into the past. If I’d started out with my protagonists at the same time fifteen years earlier, they would have been kids around ten or eleven.

    1. Illustrating two of my points. And somehow I have a feeling that if your protagonists were around at that age and near your antagonists, something awful might happen to them and we’d lose a novel.

      1. Considering my antagonists are terrorists, yes!

  3. Ali Isaac says:

    I think prologues work very well in some genres for example fantasy, but would not work in others ie romance. My books are contemporary fantasies based on Irish mythology. For me, the prologue introduces the myth that novel is based on whilst showing it is not an actual part of the story. I would even say that for some genres, a prologue is expected!

    I think there is a much greater issue about epilogues. This is where an author can go seriously wrong and completely mess up an otherwise great book, or series of books. The ending of the Harry Potter series springs to mind…

    1. Yeah, I could not imagine a prologue for romance or erotica, unless it’s something like the protagonist losing their spouse and being deeply affected by it or how they came to like a particular fetish. And I can’t even imagine what one for literary fiction would look like!

      1. Ali Isaac says:

        Haha! Now you’ve conjured a picture, lol!

  4. jlknapp505 says:

    I used a prologue for Darwin’s World. The book, absent the prologue, is almost pure survivalist adventure. But the setting, on a parallel Earth where humans died out without ever progressing beyond the earliest hominid stage, needed an introduction, an explanation of how the protagonist(s) got there. That makes the book technically science fiction, but after the prologue I could get on with how someone with modern sensibilities would fare after being transplanted there. Think of it as a variation on Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, but in the Pleistocene. Not knights to contend with, but sabertooth cats, dire wolves, short-faced bears, and mammoths!
    And of course, to make it even more fun, the characters are alone and have only a knife and hatchet when they’re dropped off in the middle of a wilderness…

    1. Sounds like an interesting story.

  5. I really like prologues in horror, thriller, fantasy, and science fiction if they establish something the reader should know but the main character doesn’t, especially if it’s some dangerous element that comes up later in the book. This is a preference I have as a reader. 🙂 But it’s not a hard and fast rule.

    Mostly in romances, I wouldn’t think they do much, though I did one in one book only because the hero’s first wife died in the prologue and he vowed to never love again. Then I started with chapter 1 which shows how he ended up falling in love again despite his decision. I can’t remember another time I ever used one in the other romances I’ve done, though.

    Like you said, it all depends on how it’s to be used in the story. 🙂

    1. I just gave that example to another reader, of a protagonist losing their spouse as a prologue for a romance! Must be the only one for romance or something.

  6. giantblister says:

    Thank you Rami! Yes, this article helped me, thank you!

    1. Glad to have been of some service. And thanks for reading.

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