I love reading and writing prologues.
When I first read ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho, about twenty years ago, the prologue blew me away. So simple, yet so poignant! So short, yet so full of substance! The book was already a multiple award-winning best-seller at that time. Perhaps, that level of expertise was an unrealistic goal for an aspiring writer. I had taken a couple of writing courses and I had not written more than 2-3 short stories before then. But I remember thinking that it was a wonderful prologue.
I wanted to write a prologue like that.
This post will NOT talk about all the literary and non-literary criticism, or the general aversion of the publishing industry towards prologues.
By the end of this post, as a writer, you should:
know what is a prologue,
when to use it effectively,
know the significance, main purpose & benefits of prologues,
understand the basic structure, word count, and context to the main story,
and understand the difference between a prologue and other story elements.
If it also helps you make an informed decision on whether your book needs a prologue or not, then please share your experience with us at The Writer Community.
What is a prologue?
The dictionary definition of a prologue is:
| a separate introductory section of a literary, dramatic, or musical work.
Wikipedia calls it
| an opening to a story that establishes the context and gives background details.
In my experience, a prologue is NOT limited to an introduction or an opening to a story (in this case, a book). A prologue can be - a single line, a poem/song, a diary entry, a news clipping, a well-known legend, a favorite fairytale or even a set of instructions to a game.
It can be anything the author wants it to be, in context to the main story.
For me, the prologue is an extra piece of information about the book I am reading. A good prologue can boost a book’s performance. But there are still many great, best-selling books that don’t use prologues.
5 favorite books that DON’T use a prologue
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
5 favorite books that DO use a prologue
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
As you can see, from the above two lists, there is no pattern to using a prologue. It can be used or avoided in any genre, writing style, or story.
When to write a prologue?
First question that any author should ask is - do I really need it?
You need to do a lot of research to figure out this part. I suggest a top-down approach to your research. First, get a thorough understanding of your genre and target reader. Check the list of top books in your genre on amazon or goodreads or any genre-specific book lists.
Do these books use prologues? Do the readers like prologues?
If not, then please don’t write one. Majority of your target readers will skip your beautifully written prologue. If, on the other hand, you find that 3 out of 5 books in your genre do have a prologue, then move on to the next question.
Is the prologue vital to the plot in your story?
Everything depends on your plot and storyline. Perhaps, what you are planning to write can be restructured to :
the opening chapter of your book
or the backstory for a character
or a storyline for a prequel.
Let’s understand how to figure this out.
Why write a prologue?
Let’s cover the importance, purpose and benefits of writing prologues.
Some benefits that I found through my own writing experience:
It’s extra writing practice. The more you write, the better for you.
It’s full of characterization. You could have written a piece that illustrates a key aspect of your main character’s (MC) personality. Or you could have introduced your villain in a dynamic setting, which explains why he/she turned evil.
It adds to your word count. Are you doing Nanowrimo this year? Or do you like doing writing sprints every week? Or you just want to finish your first draft?
It's a new plotline for Book 2 in a series! Woo-hoo! So exciting! Even if you decide to delete it in the final draft of your current WIP, you could use it to write a new book or a spin off story.
I can keep listing the benefits here. But you get the point, right? Great!
A good prologue has any one of three key features:
It works like a precursor to the main story. It must summarize the premise in a way that anticipates the key trigger to the plot.
It contains background information on the main conflict throughout the book. It must narrate a set of prior events that took place before the main story, possibly leading to it.
It sets the theme or context of the entire story, helping the reader to figure out if your book is a comedy, a sweet romance, a tragedy or a mystery.
Wonderful! But does it have a particular purpose? Yes! Every piece of writing has a purpose.
The purpose of a good prologue would be:
to engage the reader’s empathy for the MC
and to heighten the reader’s interest in the main story
How to write a prologue
Structure, word count and story arc.
So, for the sake of this post, I will focus on the basic type of prologue - a story.
In this case, the standard structure of a story-type prologue must be similar to any other chapter in your book. In fact, you need to make sure it does not deviate from the overall structure of the book.
Introduction - Focus on, at least, one MC. Establish the premise and the POV.
Event - This could be a romantic scene, a fight sequence, a tragedy, or a chase scene. Anything! This part doesn’t have to be connected to your main story.
Climax - The event in the prologue reaches a dynamic showdown or a mysterious plot twist. Death of a minor character? Two lovers torn apart? Natural calamity? It’s not part of the main story but it should echo the premise of the main story.
Main Story Trigger - The second climax of your prologue is the trigger for the main story. At the same time, it is also a conclusion for the prologue event. But now the reader really wants to turn to chapter one and dive into the main story.
Objective achieved! You know you need a prologue. You know the basic content of your prologue. And you have a structure too!
While I have listed this for a story in particular, it will also work for a poem or a song or diary entry or fairytale or legend or gaming instructions. Try it as an exercise and let me know if it works for you.
The word count of a story-type prologue can be anywhere between 500 to 5000 words.
As I understand, these are the minimum and maximum word count rules for any standard chapter. I would advise you to keep the prologue word count, like I do, at 3000 words. A word limit will help you avoid information dump.
The story arc of your prologue must be the same type as your main story.
You can choose any type of story arc. Just make sure that it’s the same as the one you are using in the main story. In my experience, if it deviates from the main story, then:
I’m creating unnecessary chaos for myself,
I might end up with two conflicting my writing styles inside a single piece of work
or I might risk an information dump.
You want to avoid these as much as possible.
FYI, there are 6 types of story arcs. If you are really interested, you can check out this article - Story Arcs: Definitions and Examples of the 6 Shapes of Stories
A Practice Example (optional)
If you’ve followed and understood everything up till now, then you can skip this part. I just thought it would be useful to show one example.
Here’s a story of a young maiden on a quest to find a magical flower.
We’ll keep it simple. The genre is historical fantasy. Let’s name this young maiden Sasha. The main story is all about her journey through a mysterious land in search of this legendary magical flower. On the way, she finds useful traveling companions who help her battle demons & villains.
Now, we have three completely different options for the prologue -
Sasha is a princess of a small kingdom, where people are dying of a mysterious demonic disease. She learns that there is a magical flower that can cure any disease. By chance, she also finds an ancient map that leads to the flower’s source. However, this map needs a key to unlock the final location.
An old sorcerer is fighting demons who want the locket that hangs around his neck. He has protected this locket for centuries from the demonic world. But in the last battle he is fatally wounded and he needs to find a worthy successor quickly. Using his powers, he finds a young maiden in a remote village, named Sasha. The locket has chosen her as it’s next master. As he is dying, the sorcerer tells Sasha that the locket hides an ancient map that leads to a magical flower. But she must find the key to unlock the final location in the map.
Sasha, a warrior-in-training at the Royal Palace, is keeping her gender identity a secret from everyone because women are not allowed in the Royal Army. However, one day a demon claims that he knows her truth and threatens to reveal it to the King unless she finds the magical flower and brings it to him in three months. He tells her about the ancient map in a secret vault inside the Royal Library that will lead her to the flower. But when she finds the map, she learns that she also needs to find the key.
The first option summarizes the premise (Sasha must find the magical flower). The second option gives background information on the main conflict (Sasha must fight demons to protect the map and the key). The third option sets the context (Sasha must go on a long and dangerous journey). In all three options, we engage the reader's empathy for Sasha and heighten interest for the main story.
Describing Sasha’s original situation and lifestyle makes up the introduction of the prologue. Discovering the legend of the magical flower is the event in the prologue that leads Sasha to her main quest. Finding the ancient map that leads to the flower is the climax for the prologue. Realising that she needs the key to the map is the second climax and main story trigger.
NOTE: This story is entirely of my own making. It should be used as an example for educational purposes only.
Prologue vs Backstory
Backstory is the background or life story of any individual character in your book. All your MCs will have backstories. However, the prologue is the backstory for your main plot.
For example, what motivates Sasha to leave her current life and go on a dangerous quest? That would be her individual backstory.
Princess Sasha can just order one of her knights to go find the flower. So why does she volunteer to go by herself? Perhaps she wants to prove her worth to her subjects as the next ruler?
Sasha from the remote village can just throw away the burdensome locket. So, why does she keep it? Perhaps she is bored in her village and wants to explore the world?
Warrior Sasha can just kill the annoying demon. Not only does she let him go, she also agrees to his terms. Why? Perhaps, through this quest, she wants the King to acknowledge her and all women as capable of becoming warriors in the Royal Army?
Can you see the difference? Both the prologue and the backstory happen before the main story. Both lead the MC towards the main story. However, the backstory helps the reader to understand the choices made by the MC while the prologue helps to understand the reasons for the main conflict.
FYI, you can check out this post - How to Write a Backstory
Prologue vs Opening Chapter
The Opening Chapter is literally the beginning of your book. Ideally, it should introduce all the MCs, strategically placed in regards to the plot.
But even if it introduces only one MC that’s fine too. You can show the MC right in the middle of the action. You can show the first meeting between the love interests. You can show the MC’s current lifestyle and the reasons he/she arrived at this.
You are no longer merely engaging the reader. You are enchanting the reader to read the entire book.
For example, where is Sasha now? Has she found the key to the map? Has she found her traveling companions or love interest? I would put her right in the middle of a demon fight at the location where the key is hidden. Either she finds the key and resumes her journey or gets captured by the main villain who pockets the key for himself.
We can also introduce the premise here and add a bit more suspense.
Sasha admits to the other characters (or the villain) that she needs the key to unlock the location of the magical flower. However, there are rumours that no one has ever returned alive from such a journey.
Can you see the difference? The prologue happens before the main story while the opening chapter is the beginning of the main story. Your MC’s personality has progressed. The premise is more elaborated. The prologue was mainly passive while the opening chapter is more dynamic.
If you want to learn more about how to write the best opening chapter, you can refer to this post -
Prologue vs Prequel
The Prequel is the precursor to any individual character’s backstory.
Unlike the prologue, the prequel is a separate book entirely. You can have a prologue inside the prequel, too.
For example, let’s take a look at the old sorcerer who has been protecting the locket for centuries until he finds Sasha in the remote village.
Backstory - Why has he given up his entire life to protect the locket? Perhaps, he is suffering from a curse because he stole the flower from the demon world?
Prequel - How did he find the flower and steal it? Why did he hide it? How did he create a key and map, and hide the map inside the lock
Prologue for the prequel - How did he learn about the magical flower and what made him decide to steal it?
Can you see the difference? The Prequel uses certain elements from the main story but is not directly connected to it. Even the MC, characters and locations are completely different. However, the prologue must be connected to whichever book it is a part of.
Are you thinking of writing a prequel? Read this article first - Writing the Prequel
Thank you for reading up till now
When I first started writing my debut novel, The Last Nautch Girl, I didn’t write a prologue. Never mind all my initial aspirations. I started writing at chapter one. Four drafts and numerous rewriting later, I decided to turn chapter one into the prologue. After all my research into historical fiction books and murder mysteries, it just didn’t make sense to me as an opening chapter.
It narrates the secret events, inside the Gold House, right before the murder of Major Harold Armitage, introduces the heroine Mrinalini, and some of the key characters. It is the backstory for the main trigger event in the plot - the Major’s murder. This backstory is mentioned a number of times throughout the book by various characters, through various POVs, as Captain White investigates to figure out how his mentor ended up dead on a street in Kolkata.
So, the prologue is just like a sneak preview or a teaser or a trailer for the full book. Effectively, the reader can skip it completely and not miss much of the main story. If the reader does read it, he/she can enjoy an extra story that showcases the MC’s character.
Hope you enjoyed the article and please get in touch if you have any questions.
Meet C. Phillip
C Phillip is a self-published author, an entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India, and proud Brand Ambassador for The Writer Community. She writes historical fiction and fantasy with a generous helping of romance, suspense and strong female leads. The Last Nautch Girl is her debut novel. Books & More is her official Blog and bimonthly newsletter, which includes book reviews, offers on new book releases, indie author interviews, snippets from her WIP and the FIRST READS collection. If you're an indie author and you would like some free promotion in her blog & newsletter for your latest book release or your WIP then get in touch with her for details.