The Prologue - When to Use One, How to Write One

What is a prologue? When should you use one? Should you forget about a prologue and simply start at Chapter 1?

All too often we pick up a published book and read the prologue, then wonder why it was there at all. It doesn't seem to do anything that Chapter One couldn't have done - or that couldn't have been worked in during the story itself. Or the prologue is a scene taken directly from the book - a few paragraphs inserted only to make us keep reading. I feel cheated if I get to a point halfway through the book - or near the end - and find that the prologue is nothing more than a word-for-word excerpt from the book. (Seems like 'entrapment' or something!)

Some writing tutors maintain that a prologue should never be there just to provide atmosphere and to 'hook' the reader. I don't agree; it depends on how it is handled. I think there is a place for a prologue to act as a drawcard for the rest of the story - but please, don't be obvious about it. Don't 'cheat' by just copying a short scene from a 'cliffhanger moment' near the end, pasting it in before Chapter 1 and calling it a prologue.

A prologue should reveal significant facts that contribute to our understanding of the plot. It should be vivid and entertaining in its own right (who wants to read a boring prologue, no matter how much of the background it explains?) It should make us want to read on.

What Is A Prologue?

A prologue is used mainly for two reasons.

  • To outline the backstory quickly and economically, saving the author from having to resort to flashbacks or ruses such as conversations or memories to explain the background to the reader. This is commonly done in science fiction and fantasy to show why a certain quest is being undertaken or what will happen in the future. The prologue is a better option than a first chapter bogged down in detail.

  • To hook the reader and provide the story question right up front, giving them a reason to keep turning the pages to find out the answer. Quite often the prologue relates to a scene near the end of the story, and the story itself then shows what has led up to this moment. When is this justified? Perhaps when you want to introduce your characters in a more leisurely fashion, and your reader's experience with 'meeting' them will be enhanced by some sort of foreshadowing of what is to come. Apart from these two reasons, a prologue can be used to introduce a certain character's viewpoint on one occasion only. The rest of the book may be told from just one other viewpoint, or from several different viewpoint characters that are in some way removed from the one you've used in the prologue. The prologue can bypass the danger of viewpoint violation.

    Do You Need a Prologue?

    The points raised above will probably give you a good idea already of whether you really need a prologue. If you're still not sure, then simply ask:

    • What if I just call the prologue Chapter 1? Will the story flow smoothly from that point anyway? (If the answer is "yes", ditch the prologue.)

    • Do I need to give the readers a fair bit of background information for the story to make sense? (If "yes", the consider doing it in a prologue before the 'real' story starts.)

    • Am I thinking of using a prologue just to hook the reader? (If "yes", then ask yourself why you can't do this just as effectively in Chapter 1 anyway. Do you need to brush up on your technique for creating suspense and conflict? Does your plot need revising? Are you starting your story too early?)
    Perhaps the best way to illustrate the use of a prologue is to actually show one. I've chosen not a prologue to a fantasy - the need for a prologue tends to be more obvious in speculative fiction - but a contemporary novel, Mary Stanley's Revenge (Hodder Headline 2003) Prologue

    Millicent McHarg sat on an iron chair on the patio in the back garden where the Buddha with its green lights resided. She was wearing her winter coat, her grandmother's furs and her felt hat with an ostrich feather. As she said herself, she only wore that particular feather when she was feeling triumphant. Nonetheless she was in a thoughtful mood. Her height, her elegance, her fine-boned features were elegant even in repose.

    The funeral was over and she was planning on how to proceed. She looked up at the house with her apartment attached at the side. The lights were already on and the warmth from inside almost drew her in. Then she turned and looked down at the orchard. For a moment she thought there was movement among the trees, but not being given to fanciful thinking she quickly dismissed the possibility of a ghost. She had other things on her mind. She thought of her granddaughters in the main part of the house and she considered the options.

    She would write the synopsis of a new book, she thought. She would call it Divine Justice, or maybe Retribution. No, she thought. I will call it Revenge. I will never have it published, but I will use it. My God, but I will give it to him, and watch him read it, and then he'll know. I will people it with real characters, and she ran through the list in her mind: Millicent McHarg grandmother and author, known as Grammer to the children

    Maria McHarg her daughter-in-law, known as Mum

    Prunella McHarg eldest granddaughter aged seventeen at the start of the story, known as Plumpet

    Daphne McHarg middle granddaughter aged fourteen and known as Daffers

    Maya McHarg youngest granddaughter, adopted, aged between four and five, known as the Dumpling I'll let them tell the story, Millicent decided. And I'll include Theresa Carmody. She can tell her story too.

    It was very cold on the patio and the plan was forming nicely. The door from her apartment into the garden opened, and Waldorf appeared on the step.

    "Millie," he called, "are you really sitting out there in this weather? Is that really you?"

    "The one and only," she said, which observation pretty much summed her up.

    "I thought I saw a ghost," he commented lightly, "down among the trees."

    "I think not," said Millicent McHarg. "I doubt that a ghost would dare to hover here."

    "Too right," Waldorf replied. A tall thin humorous man, slightly older than Millicent, he talked with a plum in his mouth and was given to wearing a buttonhole, swinging an umbrella and talking in riddles.

    "I'm going in to the girls," he told her.

    "I'll follow in a moment," she replied. "I'm just putting the finishing touches to a new book."

    "I should think you've done enough for one day," he said dryly.

    We'll see about that, she thought.

    The door closed behind Waldorf and she lifted her head. For a moment she thought she could hear the laughter of her granddaughters coming from the house. She sighed, knowing that she had not heard them laugh like that all Christmas, and that it would be a long time before she could hope to hear them laugh like that again.

    ******

    I probably don't need to explain to you why this prologue works so well - but let's examine it in a little more detail anyway.

  • The first paragraph introduces the protagonist - the girls' grandmother and the strongest character in the book. In five sentences we get an excellent sense of the type of woman Millicent McHarg is.

  • The second paragraph makes it clear that this is a significant moment for Millicent. It's after 'the funeral' (whose funeral?) and she is 'considering her options'.

  • She decides to write a book, and the title tells us instantly that she is set on revenge. We don't know yet why, or what she intends to do - but we sure want to find out.

  • She introduces the other main characters and decides she will 'let them tell the story'. We understand instantly that there is a significant story to be told.

  • Waldorf's comment and Millicent's reply arouse our curiosity even more. Why does he say she's 'done enough for one day'? And what does Millicent mean when she thinks, We'll see about that?

  • What has happened to this family to make Millicent think of revenge? Why haven't the girls laughed for so long - and why does she expect it will be some time before they laugh again? After the prologue, the story begins: Chapter 1 - the story of Prunella McHarg. We are happy to settle in and get to know all these characters - because this short prologue has promised us that they will be worth getting to know.

    A Final Test

    Before you make a final decision about whether to write a prologue for your book, do this.

    Spend some time at the library (or at your bookshelves at home, if they are extensive). Pluck books from the shelves, looking for prologues. Read through at least a dozen. More if you can. The time will be well spent.

    Which prologues worked well? Which pulled you into the story? Which cleverly outlined the backstory, getting it out of the way before the story started?

    Which dragged? Which didn't need to be there at all? Which were weighed down by the load of the information they had to carry, and bored you? How could they be fixed?

    Analysis of published work is an excellent way of deciding what works and what doesn't. You are a reader as well as a writer; you know a lot about what readers like. Make sure you're a writer that gives your readers what they need, as well as what you want.

    (c) copyright Marg McAlister

    Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers' tipsheet at http://www.writing4success.com/

    In The News:

    Marilyn's writing debut  Royal Gazette
    Public Writing and the Junior Scholar  The Chronicle of Higher Education
    Writing his way out  Alton Telegraph
    Here Come the Prose Police  The Chronicle of Higher Education
    The Heavy Unseen Labor of Writing Reference Letters  The Chronicle of Higher Education
    The struggles of writer's block and how to overcome it  University of Virginia The Cavalier Daily
    Literal Writing Exercises  The New Yorker
    Scholars Talk Writing: TJ Stiles  The Chronicle of Higher Education
    Tinker, Tailor, Writer, Spy  The New York Times
    Newspaper writers win top awards  Whidbey News-Times

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