A prologue is like a short story—a small glimpse, set in your story’s world, written in the same style as the rest of your book but with clear separation from the start of your story.
Maybe it’s an entire literary device, like a flashforward of your protagonist that gives the reader a taste of the world, some crucial information for the plot, and will make sense later.
Maybe it’s an event from thousands of years ago that sets the wheels in motion for your story’s inciting incident. Maybe it’s a background prologue your reader needs to settle into a fantasy or sci-fi universe (but not an info dump).
Maybe it’s a snippet of your story from a different perspective—for example, this could be used if your story needs information from when your perspective character was a child who couldn’t understand what was happening, or if they simply weren’t present for the event.
If you’re struggling to connect the reader to your story with enough necessary information to understand what’s happening, maybe you need a prologue.
A prologue should read exactly as if you were writing a short story without a true ending—your prologue should leave the reader questioning and curious.
Note: Any questions you create in the prologue must be resolved by the end of your story.
How to Make a Prologue Stand Out
The prologue should stand out from the rest of the book in a significant way.
If it fits seamlessly into your story and the reader can’t tell it’s a prologue without a label, that isn’t a prologue.
While it should be written in the same style as the rest of the book, here are examples of how it can stand out:
Time difference. Your prologue could be set in the past to reveal an important event. It could jump into the future and the rest of the story becomes a sort of flashback up to that point. Oftentimes, you won’t even see the future-set prologue in the book, because the story will end before it reaches that point, but the book should show a logical progression to your future-set prologue.
Different perspective. Maybe your story is in first-person and your prologue is an event from a third-person omniscient perspective. Maybe we get a view of the main character from the perspective of a friend or parent. Maybe we see a character’s perspective who never actually shows up in the story.
Your reader should see a distinct difference between the prologue and the rest of your novel, else why is it a prologue instead of the first chapter?
You also don’t hop back into this perspective at any other point in the book—if you can, then why did you need the prologue in the first place?
If you go back to that perspective, you likely could include the information in the story itself instead of separating it into a prologue.
How to Know if it’s a Prologue
There are many ways to start a book besides jumping into the story. Let’s look at a few options to establish the differences between them.
Preface or foreword
A preface is basically the author explaining something to the reader about how the book came to be, who was involved in creating it, and other information about the book’s creation. A preface is not a part of the story, and it can be skipped without damaging the reader’s understanding.
A foreword is similar, but written by someone who is not the author—a foreword is typically a reflection of how the book relates to society and readers.
It gives the reader supplemental information, and it usually isn’t crucial for the reader’s understanding of the rest of the book.
A prologue is typically used only in fiction. It gives the reader information about the story, in the same form of the story.
So the prose of a prologue will have the same writing style and vibe of the rest of the book, even if it’s in a different timeline or perspective. If a reader skips reading the prologue, it will affect their understanding of the book.
How to determine if your book needs a prologue
Not every book needs a prologue and if yours truly doesn’t, the actual prologue can then take away from the book, giving away too much or being irrelevant in general.
So let’s figure out if your book actually needs a prologue or not.
Why should you write a prologue?
If something happened far out of the context of your story that is CRUCIAL to understanding it. If you have the information you must convey to the reader that can’t be worked into the main novel, you may need a prologue.
If the story doesn’t make sense without the prologue. If you can remove the prologue (or a reader can skip it), and their understanding is not damaged, a prologue is not necessary.
If you can’t weave the prologue’s information into the story without muddling your plot. If working the prologue content into your story is unnatural or confusing, you may need a prologue.
Why shouldn’t you write a prologue?
If your story makes sense without it.
If the content could be included in the main story.
If it’s a copout to writing an interesting opener.
If you’re just writing it because you think you’re supposed to have one.
If it’s just an exposition dump.
If it’s just for world-building.
If it’s just to set mood or atmosphere.
If it’s to supplement a boring first chapter opening.
Note: prologues can certainly be used for mood, atmosphere, world-building, and clever exposition, but these shouldn’t be the sole purpose.
So clearly, there are more reasons not to write a prologue than there are reasons to write one. Be very critical of your prologue to be sure you should include it.
But if you decide your story does need a prologue, here are five tips to write a great one.
How to Write a Good Prologue for Your Book
Not every prologue is created equal.
Just as a great prologue can make a book, a bad one can ruin it completely. Here are some tips to keep it fresh, exciting, and influential to your book’s story.
#1 – Keep it brief
Your prologue shouldn’t be longer than your average chapter length.
It should be one event (maybe two), it shouldn’t bother with developing characters, and it should only include the crucial information.
#2 – Keep it interesting
If your prologue is boring, readers will skip it. We all know that the first pages of your first chapter are extremely important.
This is where the reader will either be hooked to finish the book, or where they lose interest.
If you include a prologue, it should be just as gripping as your first chapter.
However, this doesn’t mean you can slack in the first chapter. The two should work together to be as intriguing as possible to yank the reader in and not let them go.
An author who exemplifies this greatly is Jenna Moreci in her novel The Savior’s Champion. The prologue is vital to the story, is written in another perspective, and is just as (I would argue it’s even more) gripping as the first chapter.
#3 – Focus on crisp, original prose
Even if your prologue is historical or in a book genre that’s less “exciting”, or if it’s a document of some sort, keep your prose on par with the rest of your book.
Put special effort into the quality of writing—this is your reader’s first taste of what’s to come!
#4 – End with a burning question
After your prologue, your reader should be so intrigued that they immediately jump into the first chapter.
You want them to say “What the **** is going on?!” so loud it freaks their cat out.