How to Write a PrologueOct 01, 2021
If you're wondering how to write a prologue for your book, then whether you publish your book with one or not, the one-page attention-grabber is a great way to test your story's success and prepare your plan to rewrite it for a new fresh, bold draft, as the key ingredients will be laid out for readers from the first page.
This post will break up the steps of writing a prologue into five easy steps. Those steps are as follows:
How to Write a Prologue:
- What is the question you're asking your readers?
- What's at stake?
- Who are we?
- Where are we?
- An ominous or dramatic change
What is the purpose of a prologue?
Prologues are only ever looked down upon where they're throat clearing, or a preamble that does not serve to engage the reader in the story. A good writer never wastes a reader's time. Consider the fact that with the Look Inside feature on Amazon, or whether your reader is passing by the books on a table in a bookshop, they and potential literary agents and publishers are going to start at the very beginning, with the first page. A prologue is a great way to sell prospective readers in on your novel. It's different to the opening of a novel or story, because it's got all the juicy good stuff right there, on one page ideally. The reader simply has to find out more.
Setting aside whether a prologue is fashionable or not, it makes great sense for all novels, especially those where suspense is part of your pitch. If you're writing crime, thriller, mystery or suspense you should be packing a prologue. Reel them in real fast.
Establish this first. It's the heart of the matter of your story. 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 whether 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 works they will be reading self-help or non-fiction. 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 storytelling. Remember when your parent closed the book at bedtime and said you'd 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.
A good writer will keep that ball in the air, before the readers' eyes, to keep them turning the pages.
When you join us for our novel-writing course, this is one of the first questions we ask you when you join us and we guide you how to prepare your one-page story outline before you meet your author tutor, 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!
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 in your prologue. If you're a smart cookie, you could pack that into your title. It's no surprise some of the bestsellers and all-time classics include the word Death or Dead! (Death in Venice, Death of the Nile, Death in Holy Orders, and the Peter James entire 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 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 above for Delia Owen's bestselling novel, the word death is used to make the stakes plain.
3. Who are we?
While novels can be considered individual moral journeys – our hero goes on a journey of discovery and changes throughout the course of the story via a combination of place, people and events – they are usually driven by a singular and vital relationship at the core of the book. Introduce into your prologue people we are likely to care about. 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. Both the books above do this very well. Introduce the key players who occupy the sweet spot of your story. No need to give us detail, a prologue is not a first chapter. It drops us into a story that's started, and creates an impression of real people (in trouble). In the prologue to the New York Times No1 Bestseller The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides we are being asked why Alicia won't speak and the clue is given as being contained within the relationship with her husband. The word darling is used to convey care and affection and the word love is repeated a number of times. So within one single page we are introduced to the problem – an extended version of the question – given these two people have a loving relationship, why won't Alicia speak?
4. Where are we?
The setting of your novel serves the story's purpose. Many writers begin with the setting. Three of our author tutors at The Novelry say that's where they begin. A place can throw up problems. Either because it puts pressure on people to be better or worse, either they can't leave or can't bear to leave. 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. So though you can leave the detail out of the prologue, a sense of how the setting serves the story is helpful, where the setting is especially crucial to the story.
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. In our creative writing course for beginners, the Big Idea, we show you how to get your story started. When you write a book with us, we will help you develop your plot to ensure the events at least to the midpoint of the book make things harder for our hero.
Of all the five ingredients for a prologue, none is more important than the inclusion of a humdinger of OMG! What happens next? And 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 it a prologue, not 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:
Writing a prologue is a great way to keep your eyes on the prize, and 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 writing advice and stay on track to write your book with our novel-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.