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Do You Really Need That Prologue?

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Planning

It can make or break the opening of a book. They can be the difference between getting a reader salivating for more and forcing their eyes to glaze over with disinterest. They can be done right...and they can be done atrociously wrong. The choice of including a prologue is not a straight-forward one. You must juggle the allure of 'setting the scene' with the pragmatics of 'cutting off the fat', and whilst some stories's needs sit clearly in one camp, there are others which are less obvious. Would your story benefit from this tricky technique?



What is a Prologue?


Like many English words, the word 'prologue' derives from Greek and essentially translates to 'speaking before'. As such, this literary device comes at the start of a story typically to give information that will be relevant for the story ahead. Separate from - and typically followed by - Chapter One, a prologue may be a chapter told from a different viewpoint as the rest of the story, portray a flashback or flash forward, lay out a sequence of events or show an inciting incident. There should be a clear distinction between the prologue and proceeding chapters, either through style, voice, timing or some other form which the reader can easily identify as different. Opinions on whether or not prologues should be used is varied - many hate them, others love them, and most of us would say they are only wonderful when done properly. But what does a well-written prologue actually look like?


What's the Temptation?


As different as writers can be, there is one common thread: we want to impart information. Whether that information takes the form of background facts in a biography, the colour of the sky as a protagonist makes a daring escape at dusk, or the details of a court ruling in a newspaper, the desire to give our readers as full a picture as we can is incessant. No, obsessive. This is where the best of intentions can shoot us in the foot. Prologues tend to be wielded as a setup: a historic event which will impact on our main plot or a glimpse into the world ahead. The temptation is to see certain information as too vital not to share, conveniently imparted by means of a prologue. After all, surely a reader will be more likely to continue reading if they already have surrounding knowledge, right? Additionally, a prologue can be viewed as an interesting way to convey necessary knowledge without 'info-dumping', which we all know is a cardinal sin of fiction writing. So far, so tempted. The audience must know! So say many writers who think of their readers as children who need to be drip-fed instead of trusting their ability to read between the lines. The 'show, don't tell' mantra seems to imply a reader will much prefer an action scene in the form of a prologue rather than a little exposition later in the story. So with all that now said, why not choose a prologue when it is possible? The truth is, it depends on the story you are telling, what you would want to include, how you plan to link it to the main plot, and the reality of its impact. This will ultimately decide whether it is a good idea or not. Let's break it down:

✔️A Good Prologue...✔️

  • Is crucial to the story, providing something which can’t be given elsewhere in the story but is necessary to accomplish something later.


  • Is active and interesting for the reader, giving them a taste of what they’ll get in the main story and make them want to read on.


  • Could use POV to their advantage, taking the opportunity to tell events through the eye of another character for their unique perspective before switching to your main protagonist for the rest of the story.

  • Strikes a good balance between interesting and setting up for the even better story to come.

A Good Prologue Is Not...

  • Only there to set up tone/theme/atmosphere.


  • A history lecture, void of action outside of a narration of events which only aims to provide exposition. Readers don’t want to spend their opening minutes in your book getting a lesson on the backstory, they want to be in a scene! Don’t info dump, especially so early and risk losing readers.


  • More exciting than the main plot, otherwise you have chosen the wrong story to tell.


  • A false start or an excuse for a mediocre Chapter 1.

  • Something you should need to question - if you aren’t sure if it’s needed, it likely isn’t.

Why Think Twice?


Remember: A reader’s experience begins on your opening line - don’t waste it! It is claimed many readers skim through prologues (or skip them altogether) to get to the ‘real start’ because prologues have a bad reputation for being used poorly. Don’t be a writer who used a prologue without good reason. However, if you have pre-story events you want your reader to know or a tantalising future scene you can splash into for allure, a prologue might be for you! Be active, not passive. Throw your reader right into the thick of the action, maybe even from the view of a villain or key character who will be relevant later. And if you think the story would have worked okay without it, swallow your pride, and delete.


It can make or break the opening of a book. They can be the difference between getting a reader salivating for more and forcing their eyes to glaze over with disinterest. They can be done right...and they can be done atrociously wrong. The choice of including a prologue is not a straight-forward one. You must juggle the allure of 'setting the scene' with the pragmatics of 'cutting off the fat', and whilst some stories's needs sit clearly in one camp, there are others which are less obvious. Would your story benefit from this tricky technique?



What is a Prologue?


Like many English words, the word 'prologue' derives from Greek and essentially translates to 'speaking before'. As such, this literary device comes at the start of a story typically to give information that will be relevant for the story ahead. Separate from - and typically followed by - Chapter One, a prologue may be a chapter told from a different viewpoint as the rest of the story, portray a flashback or flash forward, lay out a sequence of events or show an inciting incident. There should be a clear distinction between the prologue and proceeding chapters, either through style, voice, timing or some other form which the reader can easily identify as different. Opinions on whether or not prologues should be used is varied - many hate them, others love them, and most of us would say they are only wonderful when done properly. But what does a well-written prologue actually look like?


What's the Temptation?


As different as writers can be, there is one common thread: we want to impart information. Whether that information takes the form of background facts in a biography, the colour of the sky as a protagonist makes a daring escape at dusk, or the details of a court ruling in a newspaper, the desire to give our readers as full a picture as we can is incessant. No, obsessive. This is where the best of intentions can shoot us in the foot. Prologues tend to be wielded as a setup: a historic event which will impact on our main plot or a glimpse into the world ahead. The temptation is to see certain information as too vital not to share, conveniently imparted by means of a prologue. After all, surely a reader will be more likely to continue reading if they already have surrounding knowledge, right? Additionally, a prologue can be viewed as an interesting way to convey necessary knowledge without 'info-dumping', which we all know is a cardinal sin of fiction writing. So far, so tempted. The audience must know! So say many writers who think of their readers as children who need to be drip-fed instead of trusting their ability to read between the lines. The 'show, don't tell' mantra seems to imply a reader will much prefer an action scene in the form of a prologue rather than a little exposition later in the story. So with all that now said, why not choose a prologue when it is possible? The truth is, it depends on the story you are telling, what you would want to include, how you plan to link it to the main plot, and the reality of its impact. This will ultimately decide whether it is a good idea or not. Let's break it down:

✔️A Good Prologue...✔️

  • Is crucial to the story, providing something which can’t be given elsewhere in the story but is necessary to accomplish something later.


  • Is active and interesting for the reader, giving them a taste of what they’ll get in the main story and make them want to read on.


  • Could use POV to their advantage, taking the opportunity to tell events through the eye of another character for their unique perspective before switching to your main protagonist for the rest of the story.

  • Strikes a good balance between interesting and setting up for the even better story to come.

A Good Prologue Is Not...

  • Only there to set up tone/theme/atmosphere.


  • A history lecture, void of action outside of a narration of events which only aims to provide exposition. Readers don’t want to spend their opening minutes in your book getting a lesson on the backstory, they want to be in a scene! Don’t info dump, especially so early and risk losing readers.


  • More exciting than the main plot, otherwise you have chosen the wrong story to tell.


  • A false start or an excuse for a mediocre Chapter 1.

  • Something you should need to question - if you aren’t sure if it’s needed, it likely isn’t.

Why Think Twice?


Remember: A reader’s experience begins on your opening line - don’t waste it! It is claimed many readers skim through prologues (or skip them altogether) to get to the ‘real start’ because prologues have a bad reputation for being used poorly. Don’t be a writer who used a prologue without good reason. However, if you have pre-story events you want your reader to know or a tantalising future scene you can splash into for allure, a prologue might be for you! Be active, not passive. Throw your reader right into the thick of the action, maybe even from the view of a villain or key character who will be relevant later. And if you think the story would have worked okay without it, swallow your pride, and delete.


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