Being a Better Writer: The Prologue

This post was originally written and posted January 19th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today we’re tackling one of the most misunderstood (at least in some circles) literary tools in the writer’s arsenal: the prologue.

The question of “what is a prologue?” seems to come up quite a bit in various group forums online, and unfortunately I can tell you that pretty much most things that have been posted in response to those threads have almost always been wrong. For instance, a prologue is not a substitute for the first chapter of a work. You do not title your first chapter “The Prologue” and then “start” with chapter 2. This is not what a prologue is. Nor is it the chapter in which you need to introduce your main character. Nor the chapter where you reveal your plot hook (separate from a narrative hook, a subject for another blog post).

No, a prologue isn’t any of those things. A prologue is actually an introduction, one designed to introduce your reader to a large world and help set the scope of what’s to come. For example, the scrolling text at the beginning of each of the Star Wars films is a quick-and-dirty example of a prologue. Each one catches the viewer up on relevant background information and little bits about the universe that the viewer wouldn’t have known otherwise, before sending them on their way.

This is the purpose of the prologue: To establish a setting and give background details relevant to the world your work takes place in, along with some of the core themes and elements that will come up over the course of that story. Which is why a prologue is often found in larger, more epic-scale works. As the scale of the work and plot grows, there is more the reader must be introduced to in order to understand the impact of later events. Each of the Wheel of Time books, for example, starts with a rather lengthy prologue (some that are more than ten thousand words) that cover viewpoints and characters not ever seen again or only vaguely referenced once the main story starts. These prologues serve as a situational primer for each book—introducing the audience to the current background of the world, and thus shaping the readers expectation of what the world is like before moving into the journey of the heroes through that world.

There was a concept to be infered there that some of you may take issue with: The idea that a prologue does not need to feature the main characters. There are some who hold that a main character must be introduced as quickly as possible, and that a prologue must also introduce that character, or it is not a prologue.

This view is not correct.

While a prologue can contain a main character, more often than not, it doesn’t. If it does, it’s usually in some past form, set years before the main story in order to introduce an aspect of the world as much as it is the character. A prologue is not about meeting the protagonist. It’s about introducing a setting and establishing the pieces that will go into the main character’s journey—pieces that often are outside of the character’s control. Hence why most prologues are from an altogether different viewpoint than the main character. There are prologues that star the hero’s mentor, set years before the events of the main story. There are prologues that are carefully constructed history texts or newspapers, designed to cleverly drop puzzle pieces into the reader’s lap (this is also a way to give the reader clues without having the viewpoint character explain it if said clue occurs in a newspaper or written work). There are prologues that are excerpts from characters—side or main—private journals (these usually lean towards building the theme of the work rather than the world). There are prologues that are from the point of view of background characters, or even the villains themselves. A prologue can be almost anything, as long as it accomplishes its purpose.

So, setting out to write a prologue? First, consider if your work actually needs one. The shorter your work, the less chance you need one. Writing a short story? Forgeddaboutit. Writing a novella? Almost certainly no. A novel? A bit more likely. You can sort of guess at whether or not you’ll need one by asking yourself questions like this: Will your work be enhanced by something that serves only to establish theme, introduce the world, and scatter clues about the overall plot? Are these elements small enough that you can work them into the story of the character itself, or do they require their own backdrop in order to be appreciated and understood? Will the story be enriched by presenting them on their own? Will it assist the reader in their appreciation of early events or give them something to look for before the main character?

If so, then you have good cause to write a prologue. Just don’t forget some of the core purposes of doing so:

  • Introduce the world of your story and establish background in terms of what the world is actually like on a day-to-day basis rather than a lecture of names. For example, in one of the prologues to a fantasy epic that I’ve worked on, the prologue follows the journey of a letter through the Imperial Postal Service. Along the way not only does the reader learn the size of the empire (by how long it takes a letter to get from place to place) but also about the empire itself (the service has almost NEVER lost a letter, quite possibly because the penalty for such is death—which is telling in and of itself about what the empire values).
  • Give the reader a theme of some kind. Rise, for example, starts with the two rulers of a a nation sharing some quality time together as family while discussing the world, one of the core themes of the story is family. The Drizzt series start with a journal entry, almost always the main character musing over some theme that will form the core of the adventure.
  • Drop hints and information towards what is to come. I like to call these puzzle pieces. Little bits of information and foreshadowing that may not make sense for hundreds of pages yet, but give the reader something to think about and look for while reading through the chapters before the inciting incident. Throughout the story, these will suddenly “fit” and give the reader a grand “Aha!” moment. The Way of Kings for example, has a prologue to each of it’s three parts, each of which is absolutely filled with puzzle pieces. None of these puzzle pieces are directly referenced again, but an astute reader who pays attention and remembers the pieces given will soon find places for the them in the main narrative, pieces to mysteries that the main characters don’t have.
  • Include your narrative hook. That first line is important. The plot hook, not so much. The plot hook can appear in the prologue, but often is saved for the end of the first chapter. But the narrative hook? Since the prologue will be read first, have a narrative hook.

A well-written prologue will entertain your reader and send them into the story armed with a bit of foreknowledge and a greater understanding of the world they’ve just been dropped into. It can offer tantalizing hints of what’s to come, grant the reader access to otherwise inaccessible viewpoints, and ease the reader into an otherwise complex, difficult-to-navigate setting. Craft a well-written prologue and your reader will have things to think about, plot to consider even before the inciting incident.

It isn’t always needed, but when called for, a prologue is a powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox.

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