How to Write a Prologue

novel writing process Oct 01, 2021
you don't need to write a prologue in the same style that your novel is written

Are you curious about how to write a prologue for your novel? From ancient Greek theatre to William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald to Heather Morris and even The Canterbury Tales, the prologue has long been a way to introduce remarkable events readers are desperate to follow.

The prologue is where a page turner starts!

An interesting prologue can draw readers into your main character’s perspective, or offer a different perspective to the one we’ll follow in the main story. In short, there’s no single step by step process for how to write a prologue, but it’s a great way to stir up the most important and key questions of your story in the reader’s mind.

Go beyond thinking of it as a throat-clearing exercise (a prologue is not that) or the opportunity to share backstory (not that!) or give historical context (they can use Google if they’re interested) and other background details you feel you want to get out of the way. A background prologue or preface that is not an integral part of the reading experience is merely an unnecessary (and annoying) redundant first chapter that prevents engagement with the actual story, so save time, win readers and set that preface aside.

The prologue is your fast track to the reader’s time and attention.

Even if it isn’t something you’ve considered yet, thinking about how to write a prologue is a useful exercise. Writing a one-page attention-grabber to preface your main story is a handy way to test its potential.

Having a go at these opening lines also places you in a great position to plan your first draft, or revise the second into a fresh, bold piece of writing. The key ingredients, your story’s most important details, will be laid out for you to weave cleverly through your tale and hook the reader’s interest from the first page.

This post breaks writing a prologue up into five easy steps, and offers examples from contemporary literature.

How to write a prologue in 5 steps:

  1. What is the question you’re asking your readers?

  2. What’s at stake?

  3. Who are we?

  4. Where are we?

  5. An ominous or dramatic change

What is the purpose of a prologue?

Prologues are only ever looked down upon where they’re an indulgent or expository preamble.

A good writer never wastes a reader’s time, and a good prologue is no different. 

Consider the Look Inside feature on Amazon, or a reader browsing in a bookshop. Think too of the submissions package most literary agents and publishers request. Almost everyone who comes across your story will start at the very beginning, with the first page. 

Prologues are the perfect literary device to hook prospective readers into fiction books. They’re different to the opening chapter of a novel or the start of a short story, because they have all the juicy good stuff right there, on one page ideally. The reader simply has to find out more.

A good writer never wastes a reader’s time, and a good prologue is no different. 

Setting aside whether prologues are fashionable or not, they make great sense for any literary work, especially those where suspense is part of your pitch. If you’re writing crime, thriller, mystery or suspense you should consider packing a prologue. Reel them in real fast.

1. What is the question you’re asking your readers?

Establish this first. It’s the heart of the matter of your story. It’s where your story begins and one of the most important steps in how to write a prologue.

It seems so simple. It should be simple.

Remember the word quest is contained in question. We turn the pages on our own quest to follow our hero’s quest, whether it’s to find out whodunnit or learn if their romantic interest is worth the trouble.

So write down on a small card or post-it note why your reader is bothering to read your story. Simply put. Don’t make it philosophical or academic. If they want to find out how to live in peace and harmony with others, or how cryogenics work, they will be reading self-help or nonfiction books.

But these special readers are fiction readers. They read novels. They want to be teased all the way to ‘THE END’. That’s your job. That’s creative writing. That’s storytelling.

Remember when your parent closed the book at bedtime and said you’ll find out more tomorrow? Storytelling.

So whether the question is ‘who is Gatsby?’ (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald) or ‘will Ayoola kill again?’ (My Sister the Serial Killer by Oynikan Braithwaite) or ‘whose body is in the swamp?’ (Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens)  – know what it is and keep it simple.

Remember the word quest is contained in question. We turn the pages on our own quest to follow our hero’s quest, whether it’s to find out whodunnit or learn if their romantic interest is worth the trouble.

A good writer will keep that ball in the air, before the readers’ eyes, to keep them turning the pages. And if you choose to write a prologue before diving into the main story, you should use your prologue to throw that ball up.

When you join us for our online creative writing course, one of the first questions we ask is what your driving question is. That way, we can guide you on how to prepare your one-page story outline before you meet your writing coach and start writing.

As a team, we look at each and every plan to see what the question is to make sure you’ve got the essential ingredients for a great story. We don’t leave stories to chance, neither should you!

a prologue can introduce the reader to the narrator for the rest of the novel

2. What’s at stake?

Life and death stakes make a big difference to your fortunes as an author.

Bestselling novels pack serious stakes. A bestseller presents its reader with an emergency. Someone is dead, or about to die.

So ensure you present clear and present danger as soon as your prologue begins. If you’re a smart cookie, you could even pack that into your book title. It’s no surprise some of the bestsellers and all-time classics include the words ‘death’ or ‘dead’: think of Death in Venice, Death on the Nile, Death in Holy Orders, and the entire Peter James series of bestselling crime novels

With the word ‘Auschwitz’ in the title of her global bestselling novel, Heather Morris made very clear the presence of high stakes in The Tattooist of Auschwitz. The reader absolutely understands that danger of all kinds is bearing down from the start.

The question we are asked in the prologue is whether these two lovers will make it out alive, and the life and death stakes are conveyed by astute and economical emphasis on the functions of the heart both as a metaphor for romance and as the organ of life.

Notice too, how in the sample prologue for Delia Owens’s bestselling novel, the word death is used to make the stakes plain.

 when you write a prologue, don't just focus on background detail a good prologue sets stakes for the main character and other characters and the scene for the actual story

3. Who are we?

In many ways, novels can be considered individual moral journeys: our hero goes on a journey of discovery and changes over the course of the story via a combination of place, people and events.

But novels are also usually driven by a singular and vital relationship at the core of the book. Use your prologue to introduce main characters we are likely to care about. They’re not necessarily likeable, but if not likeable frail and vulnerable.

Think of the reader’s emotions being aroused by being asked to care, as if you were handing them a small baby or a puppy. Introduce a note of tenderness. The examples we’ve mentioned do this very well. Introduce the key players who occupy the sweet spot of your story.

No need to give us background information or info dump; a prologue is not a first chapter, especially in fiction. It drops us into a story that’s started, and creates an impression of real people (in trouble). 

Think of the reader’s emotions being aroused by being asked to care, as if you were handing them a small baby or a puppy. 

The prologue to the New York Times No. 1 Bestseller, The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, offers a good example. In it, we are asked why Alicia won’t speak. We get a clue that the answer lurks in her relationship with her husband through simple literary devices.

For example, the word darling is used to convey care and affection and the word love is repeated a number of times. Within one single page, we are introduced to the problem – an extended version of the question that drives the main plot: given these two people have a loving relationship, why won’t Alicia speak?

 great prologues can be written in the first person or the third person - whatever makes sense to the point of your overall story

4. Where are we?

The setting of your novel serves the story’s purpose. Many writers begin with the setting: three of our writing coaches at The Novelry say that’s where they begin.

When readers start reading they vacate the place they’re in and travel elsewhere in their minds. For many readers, this is one of the great (and therapeutic) pleasures of reading.

A place can throw up problems. Perhaps it puts pressure on people to be better or worse. Perhaps they can’t leave, or can’t bear to leave. Whatever the pressure, it raises the stakes of the novel.

When readers start reading they vacate the place they’re in and travel elsewhere in their minds. For many readers, this is one of the great (and therapeutic) pleasures of reading.

Whether you’re world-building – writing a fantasy, speculative, science-fiction or historical novel – or not, you should aim to drop your reader into that fully formed world with immediacy.

Of course, you can leave the detail out when you’re writing a prologue, and save it for the main body of your novel. But a great prologue will establish a sense of how the setting serves the main story, especially if the setting is crucial to the story.

 Remember an amazing prologue is not an introduction or first chapter, it's written to hook the reader in a way that makes sense

5. An ominous or dramatic change

Stories are driven by change – from the inciting incident that starts the story all the way to the surprise ending with or without a twist whereby our hero’s not in Kansas anymore!

Whether it’s one of the two story types described by Leo Tolstoy (‘all great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town’), a story is all about the way a little change creates big change. 

When you write a book with us, we will help you develop your plot to ensure the events up until at least the midpoint of the book make things harder for our hero.

Of all the five ingredients to write a prologue, none is more important than the inclusion of a humdinger of OMG! What happens next?

This element of foreboding and mystery contains the first part of the prologue, the question your reader is reading to find out too. That’s what makes a prologue distinct from a first chapter. 

If you know the question, if it’s high stakes, you can give it to your reader right between the eyes and deliver it in a small but deadly prologue like this:

the prologue can be set before the first act or first chapter, or after the ending of your final chapter. it can even be written in a different time period

Writing an effective prologue is a great way to keep your eyes on the prize. You could print yours out and put it above your desk while you write your novel, to remind yourself of what it is about your story that means readers simply can’t put it down.

Get great fiction writing advice and stay on track to write your book with our online creative writing courses at The Novelry. We’ll be there to help you plot and plan and see you through from writing the prologue to the end.



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