How to Write a Prologue

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