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.