It’s an unfortunate truth that a lot of writers have trouble writing prologues. A lot of authors are told that they shouldn’t have them, and so they avoid them. But what many writers don’t realize is that prologues aren’t necessarily bad. It’s true that many prologues are poorly written, and serve as nothing more than boring, exposition-filled hooks. But the right prologue can serve as a brilliant way to set the tone of a story and make readers feel like they’re right in the middle of the action. This post will tell you how to write a prologue that’s just right.
Give the prologue a beginning, middle and end
The most important thing to remember with prologues is that you should treat them as another chapter of your book. As necessary as it is to have the reader feel pulled in, it’s just as necessary that they be provoked. A prologue should be slightly difficult to read — it takes a while to get the flow down correctly — which is why a slower or more thoughtful pace is usually better. A prologue shouldn’t simply be a lazy way for the author to info dump. A prologue is a mood setter, a call to action, a chapter that doesn’t quite seem to fit but somehow does, and it’ll be one that functions as a great first step to your story.
A prologue strategy that works well is to start your prologue in media res. By beginning in the middle of the action, a prologue can immediately grab readers, and will give some background information in bits and pieces and flashbacks as you go.
Identify which genre your book belongs to
The very first thing you need to consider when you decide on writing a prologue for your novel is the genre that you are writing. This will aid you in selecting the type of prologue you want for your novel because each genre has expectations that the beginning reader expects to see. The key during your process of deciding how to write a prologue is to understand what will make your novel read smoothly. You need to choose a prologue that will provide an understanding of what the rest of the novel will entail.
It is also important that you address one aspect of all novel writing, establishing time and place. This can be accomplished by setting the stage with a prologue. It can provide background information for the novel. It is important to know your reader so that you can properly establish time and place. An example of a prologue that takes place before the main action of the plot can be seen in John Fowles’ The Collector. This novel is a Gothic novel that describes the character, Miranda. In this prologue, the character is established with an abusive and unstable childhood. This prologue describes both her present, as well as her history with the character of the main character, the collector. This allows the reader to have an understanding of how Miranda is affected by her past and her convictions about the present.
Keep back story to a minimum
Prologues are often used in cinematic stories to get the audience hooked, but as with all long descriptions, you should keep them short and never start your story with one. The focus should always be on your main character and what makes him or her interesting. You want the reader interested in what he/she is going to do, but keep in mind that the main character should not be fully formed in the prologue — you should be introducing him/her in the first person or in third-person limited, with very limited character development until the very end when you can start using your character’s point of view.
You should not mix narrative from the future into the prologue that is introducing a specific setting or character. The good thing about writing a prologue is that you can storyboard them, setting the scene and characters and showing what is important and introducing it, then creating a conflict of some kind that your main character must deal with. The reader will know why the main character is dealing with this conflict, but isn’t shown it, creating suspense, and hopefully, a connection to the main character.
Invest heavily to set the tone
A prologue is meant to be a statement of style for a story, looking at the events and ideas to come. Your intro is a chance to make a great first impression on the reader, and to make those readers feel that your story has merit. As with first impressions, the best method is to make your series of first impressions count, even if you have to slightly recap past events in order to spruce up the current one at hand.
No one is saying you need a historical advisor for your prologue, but it can’t hurt to have one. Use this time to get immersed in your subject matter giving you a great sense of what’s going on right now in that world, whether your story is set in the past, present or future. The prologue is an excellent place to show your reader that you understand the historical context of your story, and that you’re thinking about learning the place you’re writing about. You want your reader to pay attention when they read the first two sentences! They should feel like they’re in safe hands, that the history of your world is strong, smartly executed, and deep. To that end, it can’t hurt to look at any research to get yourself in the right frame of mind for that particular moment in your story.
Use vivid detail and sensory language
One of the most important ways to power up your prologue is to imbue it with the same sense of urgency and energy that you’ll have in the opening chapters of your book. Always remember that the prologue is a preview of what’s to come. Don’t hold anything back, and don’t worry about writing the detailed parts of the action. Many readers haven’t made it past the prologue yet, and if it’s boring, they won’t make a point to try to find its place within the rest of the plot. What does the character see, hear, smell, and feel? What do they want, fear, or desire? How are they positioned in relation to other characters, the environment, or the plot? Providing an answer to these four questions is an excellent way to give your story an exciting, vivid start.
Vivid detail is an excellent way to bring out the full ‘feel’ of your story. Readers want to be transported into the midst of the action, and everything from the weather pattern, to the setting, to the mood of the characters, should be included in the prologue. And above all, be sure to focus on creating a strong hook in terms of narrative questions. Does the prologue satisfy these basic questions? Who is the POV character? What is the main problem of the story? What is the first turning point? What is her inner desire? All these questions should coalesce into a synopsis of the whole story.
Make it matter
Some of the key elements of strong prologues are suspense and relevance. Both help the reader stay engaged even when the story is starting back — if you do it right, the reader will keep reading just to see how the story gets to the point of the prologue. To that end, make your prologue deliver a particular piece of information the other chapters will need — not just any flashback or structured narrative. Spare your readers from dry exposition by delivering that background information as soon as possible in the story itself.
Don’t load it down with information
Some writers fear that writing a prologue will fill it with unnecessary exposition, clogging up their storytelling. The solution to this problem is to remember that prologues are meant to set a scene without being utterly essential patches of narrative. Rather than spending the entire prologue preparing readers for the moments that will come later, a well-crafted prologue can function like a bookmark to guide the reader into the story. Start with a moment that’s crucial for understanding your story, but that can be safely skipped by readers without missing too much. Don’t use it as a place to dump a chunk of exposition — that’ll come later.
It’s also worth looking at what kinds of prologues not to write. Perhaps the most commonly-critiqued prologue-mistake is the info-dump-prologue. This includes paragraphs upon paragraphs of exposition, including detailed information about setting, characters, history, and motives. While this can work if the narrative is also active, and characters are actually doing something, you can leave out important exposition easily. Just focus on setting the mood and tone of the story in the opening lines and paragraphs. Think tense opening music, or a grabber or ironic quotation. If you’re going for the “historical prologue,” then hook readers in right away with a dramatic situation. You can also begin your prologue underground, in the middle of dramatic circumstances.
Describe any unique elements or world building
Prologues can be used to describe your world, before jumping into the action of the main story. This device is not uncommon and can add to the reader’s overall enjoyment and appreciation of your book. Another common use of the prologue is to establish tone and intrigue in the current story-line. You can use it to introduce conflict or describe events that make the reader want to know more about your story.
If you are unsure of what purpose your prologue will serve, understand that it must be of some significance. A prologue should stay on topic and provide information that is specifically important to the story, as opposed to an addendum to the story itself. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your prologue will cover for weak character development, scenes that are not relevant to the rest of the book or redundant storytelling.
Make your readers curious about the next chapter
The best prologues hook the reader. Remember, they started reading with only a few words from you. Make the most of this attention span you have captured. Your readers shouldn’t be able to glance at the prologue and then flick on happily to Chapter One. Your prologue needs to compel them to look for more answers a few pages ahead. Of course, you shouldn’t give too much away — be mindful of revealing the climax of your entire plot. Just tell a little teaser from a critical scene in your book. Pick a scene that leaves the reader feeling anxious, or introduce a question that leaves them hungering for more information.
Go ahead with a prologue
Perspective is key to a compelling prologue that keeps readers engaged. Don’t make the mistake of being didactic or judgmental about the past or other people. You want to draw the reader in with an interesting scene that piques their curiosity. And you want to allow room for imagination, imagery and perspective to move freely, expanding and enhancing the story. There’s no one way to write a successful prologue, but by following the strategies we cover in this article, you will be writing a prologue that will keep your readers intrigued and turn them into lifelong fans.
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