The prologue is an introductory section that comes before the story or book. It can be used to set up the backstory for what happens in the main text, or it can also be used to introduce a character. Some people think prologues are unnecessary and should not be included, but they have been around since Homer's time! Today we will explore why you may want to include one in your own work of fiction - along with tips on how to write them!
This article discusses what makes a good prologue for stories and books, including when you might want one and how you should write them.
The history of prologues in literature
Story prologues were first used in the epic poems of the ancient Greeks. Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey both began with prologues that set up what was to come in the work, giving background information on the events leading up to them so readers could understand why things were happening as they did.
Nowadays, prologues are used very often in all types of story mediums. They're used in both novels and films, as well as comic books and graphic novels. However, they aren't always necessary for a great story to be told or enjoyed!
The difference between a prologue and a preface
Prologues seem to be used interchangeably with prefaces, but they are definitely not the same.
The difference between a prologue and a preface is that a prologue is typically at the start of a story, while a preface comes before the story content.
A preface of a story is typically a formal explanation by the storyteller that sets up and describes the work to come. It does not contain any action or characters, but it can set up what is going to happen in an interesting way. Prologues often do this also, though prologues are typically written from a character's perspective whereas prefaces tend to be more third person (telling rather than showing).
A prologue typically tells of past events before those narrated in the body of a book; sometimes these events will involve characters who may become important later on, thus enticing readers with information about their backgrounds. A preface, however, usually comes after all such backgrounding has been accomplished and stands as part of some larger statement made by the writer/story.
Do you really need a prologue?
Prologues can provide the reader with valuable information about where the events take place, what era it is set in, who characters will meet throughout the book/film etc. This means that readers don't need to spend time learning this through context clues - we get all of this info upfront so we know straight away.
But having a prologue in your story is not always necessary. It's important to remember that there's a lot of information the reader needs to know and sometimes it can get bogged down if everything is explained at once, so having an extended prologue might not always be helpful.
The prologue in your story should help move things along rather than slowing them down - if you feel like the only reason you're using one is that you just want to add a cool scene to your story, then it might not be necessary.
To figure out if your story needs a prologue or not, ask yourself what purpose it's going to serve. What kind of information does the prologue need to convey? Is there a better way for this info to be delivered? If you're having trouble figuring out whether or not your story needs a prologue, try reading it without one and see if anything gets lost or confused.
Types of prologues
There are several types of prologues you can use in your story. Some examples are:
- Past Protagonist
- Future Protagonist
- Alternative Viewpoint
Past Protagonist Prologue
The past protagonist type of prologue is great for elaborating on the protagonist as a person and what makes them unique.
This type of prologue is great if you want to give your characters depth and really make them stand out. It gives them a backstory, helps the reader understand what they're going through, and gives us an insight into how much our protagonist can change over time, but still maintain some of their core values.
There are countless examples of this from many stories. One of my favorites is from the movie, The World's End, where the main character, Gary King, recants a story of he and his friends partaking in a bar crawl when they were teens and sets up the rest of the story. This prologue shows you what Gary values in his life, (having fun and partying), how he is stuck in the past and wants to relive his glory days of being young and free.
Read these tips on Writing a Flashback.
Future Protagonist Prologue
The future protagonist type of prologue is essentially a flashforward to the end of the story. This type of prologue is great if you want to give your reader an idea about what they can expect from the rest of the story and also pepper in what is at stake for the characters when they are at their low point or when they've already lost it all.
An example of this is from the movie, the Hangover, where the prologue is a scene that takes place at the very end of the movie. The scene is Phil calling Tracy to finally admit to her that they lost her fiancé, Doug, somewhere in Las Vegas and that their wedding is not going to happen because of it. This sets up what we as the audience should expect at the low point of the story and shows us what's at stake in order for the problem to resolve.
Alternative Viewpoint Prologue
This type of prologue is a scene that does not include the main character but sets up supporting characters and some of the stakes of the story.
The alternative viewpoint prologue is great for horror stories–a scene of anonymous grave robbers break into an Egyptian tomb and unleash the mummy from its long slumber. This can set up the villain of the story and introduce the obstacles your characters have to face.
By using this type, you can begin with action or suspense and immediately engage the reader before they even realize what it's actually a prologue.
The informational prologue is meant to set up the world of the story from a third-person point of view. This is great for giving a brief history of the world, the villain, or any other backstory your audience should know about before jumping into the story.
My favorite example of an informational prologue is the prologue for the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. It builds the world of Middle-Earth for the audience, tells the backstory and motivation of the main villain, and sets up the main story to begin in the Shire with Bilbo and Frodo. This can be seen as a mixture of the Alternative Point of View prologue and the Informational since the narrator of the prologue is actually Galadriel–a character who takes part in the actual story later on.
How to make a prologue stand out
If it is necessary for your story to have a prologue and you've figured out which type you want to go with, below are some tips to make it memorable.
Create intrigue right from the start
A good way to create intrigue in your prologue is to start in the middle of an event. This will not only make the reader want to know what is happening, but it can also give you a chance to foreshadow crucial plot points in your story.
Another way to write a prologue with intrigue is to use the Future Protagonist prologue type. This will let readers know that something big is going to happen, but they won't know what it is until later on in the story.
Keep your prologue brief
It can be tempting to try to give your audience the entire backstory of the world and the main character in your prologue. But please don't! The prologue is supposed to be short because this is not where the story begins and can't lead to the inciting incident naturally.
Write a prologue that only provides the necessary information. This is not a place to introduce all the characters in your book or give away too much information. A good prologue will hint at many things and put questions in the reader's mind, but it shouldn't spoil anything about what comes after.
End with the prologue with a burning question
Really make your prologue pack a punch by introducing a question for the reader to wonder about for the rest of the story. Pique the reader's curiosity and write a prologue that makes them want to know more about what caused a particular event. This is particularly handy for mystery stories or novels where suspense is key.
Don't make your prologue an exposition dump
If you're using the informational prologue, make sure not to laden it with too much exposition. You need to find a creative way to get that information to the reader without making it seem like they're reading from a school textbook.
In the case of The Fellowship of the Ring informative prologue, it was written to be exciting. That prologue included a climactic battle and led the audience on the journey of the Ring so they didn't feel like they were being lectured on exposition–they were experiencing an event.
Don't provide a resolution in your prologue
If your prologue has a resolution, then isn't it just its own story? If that's the case, just write two separate stories!
The point of the prologue is to NOT have a resolution. Its purpose is to build up the story it is starting and for the story to resolve itself and the prologue.
Giving your prologue a sense of tension leads the reader on to chapter one and beyond with a burning desire to see how the problem is solved.
The bottom line is that prologues are not for everyone. They can be a really great way to set the tone of your work, but they don't always have much impact on reader sentiment or even word count. If you want to write an amazing prologue, make sure it's interesting and engaging enough to keep people reading!