Starting a novel with a prologue can be very risky, so make sure you really know how to write a prologue and whether you should in fact be including one at all (take a look at our article on 5 simple signs that you shouldn’t be using a prologue at all here). The opening of your novel is absolutely key in engaging your reader and a prologue can be a double-edged sword; if not used properly it will be a weight around the neck of your story, used correctly on the other hand and it becomes a very effective literary technique.
What is a prologue?
In its simplest definition a prologue is a literary device that appears at the beginning of a book and allows the author to explain something integral to the story.
Five simple tips on how to write a prologue
For a prologue to work it must possess one (if not all) of several attributes
- There must be a purpose to the prologue and a reason why it is singled out and standing alone at the very beginning of the novel
- The prologue must reveal significant facts that could not be revealed with as much impact using other literary devices or woven into the story
- It must contribute to our understanding of the plot or the character
- Above all the prologue must be compelling – you are giving your reader two beginnings therefore each has to work equally hard to hook the reader
- Don’t make your prologue too lengthy – too long and it will become like a hurdle for the reader to overcome before they really get on to the substance of the story.
There are many examples of extremely successful authors who have included a prologue in their work to great effect. Despite ongoing speculation that it is something literary agents hate to read and readers skip over, it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed as a literary device.
When is it ok to use a prologue?
There are a few standard situations where you can use a prologue effectively:
- 1. The Prologue for Out of Sequence Material
One of the most common uses of the prologue is when some aspect of the story needs to be explained that is out of sequence with the rest of the novel, or at the very least, with the opening narrative.
- Past Events
The prologue can be referring to events in the past that will explain the motivations for a character, the reasons behind a mission or how high the stakes are for the protagonist.
- Future Events
The prologue can refer to events that happen in the future, encouraging questions and intrigue to keep the reader reading. Often in this instance, the revelation in the prologue will relate to one of the later scenes in the novel as the plot begins to unfold.
- 2. The Prologue for Switching Narrative
Something that needs to be handled with great care is the technique of using the prologue to switch to a different point of view to that of the rest of the story. This could be used to show:
- A character plotting something to befall the protagonist but as yet unknown to them
- Something happening in another location that drives the story and that the protagonist couldn’t know about – particularly useful if writing the rest of the book in first person narrative.
Both of these instances help to increase tension as we are given an insight into how high the stakes are for the protagonist.
- 3. The Prologue for Putting the Novel in Historical Context
A prologue works well when the novel is set in an era where we need to remember what else was going on at the time. This is mostly seen with historical fiction where to fully understand the motivations of the characters and development of plot we have to understand the cultural and political nuances of the era.
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