Prologues are one of the most divisive literary elements in the writing world. Some, especially literary agents and publishers, strongly disapprove of them, while others feel that (good) prologues prepare them for the story ahead and make them excited to keep reading. If you’re wondering whether or not your story could benefit from a prologue, read on.
What is a prologue?
A prologue is simply a piece of a story that comes before the first chapter where the main action begins. Some use prologues to give the reader necessary background information, while others may introduce their main characters or conflict. But always, an effective prologue should set the tone for your story and open a window into the world you’ve created.
A prologue can also be viewed as an introduction for your story. Think of it in terms of an essay’s introduction: its goal is to establish the main points of the essay, perhaps asking some essential questions or making a definitive statement that you’ll then prove. Something my high school English teacher taught me about writing introductions is to get right into it—put your most important, gripping information first. Don’t fuss around with generalities or ambiguous statements, because usually, they’re pretty boring to read. You want to make your reader care about what you’re writing immediately. You have no time to waste to grab their attention. Same goes for a prologue, if you find it necessary to write one. You have to make sure it’s not just providing information, but that it’s presented in an enticing way.
The Prologue Discourse
Here’s the thing: literary agents hate prologues. It’s generally known in the publishing world that if your story has a prologue, it is much more likely to be turned down. Why, though?
The main argument against prologues is that they are usually poorly written. It’s not necessarily the language; you may write the most poetic, gorgeous description of your story’s setting, filled with luscious imagery and sensory details. But readers will still get bored if that’s all there is. Information dumps of exposition and setting descriptions are usually what kill prologues. The same rules of storytelling still apply: balance is key to engaging prose. It’s easy to rely too heavily on prologues to set up your story. You may have the most entertaining, fascinating story on the other side of that page, but your reader won’t get there if they put the book down after reading a dragging, subpar prologue.
I’m not here to tell you that you shouldn’t include a prologue in your story, but it’s important to understand why so many people, especially agents and publishers, are against them, so that if you do decide to write one, you know what to avoid. Sometimes, writers are worried that if their readers don’t know all the exposition up front, they’ll get confused and stop reading. But mystery and suspense are one of the biggest draws for readers—we don’t want to know what’s going to happen before it does because that defeats the purpose of the story. So oftentimes, the best use of a prologue is to ask a question, rather than giving an answer.
The prologue, reimagined
If you’ve read this far and are still thinking “Yep, I definitely need a prologue for my story,” then keep these tips and ideas in mind to make sure your prologue is the best it can be.
Keep it as short as possible! You shouldn’t need more than a page, or even a few paragraphs to set up your story. Give the reader a small taste and leave them needing more
Write a scene instead of only including exposition or setting description. That way, you’re making sure the prologue is balanced and background information is spread out. Maybe there’s an event in your protagonist’s past that plays an important role in the main story, so you include a small snippet of it in your prologue, just enough that the reader is invested and can remember it when it comes up later.
Consider referencing an event that comes later on in the story, almost like a preview. Nobody said that a prologue has to include information from the past! You can use this as an opportunity to tease readers of what’s to come. Again, just give them enough to keep them interested without giving too much away.
Write the prologue after you’ve finished writing the story. That way you can be sure that the information can’t come anywhere else.
If you want to learn more about prologues and how to write them, check out our Back to Basics course coming later this month!
About the author: Lindsey is currently working towards her BA in English and Creative Writing at Brandeis University. She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. She is also an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.