There are many instances when you can use a prologue in your novel, but make sure it isn’t for the wrong reasons. A prologue can work – take a look at our article here on when it’s ok to use a prologue, but it needs to be handled carefully. If not, this is usually where the problems begin.
Think carefully about using a prologue in your novel if yours falls into one of the five categories below:
1. When You Are Treating the Prologue as a Hook
A prologue should not be there solely to hook a reader – that is the job of Chapter One. If your Chapter One isn’t achieving that, examine your starting point. Could you begin your novel somewhere else where the action is more likely to hook a reader?
2. When You Are Using the Prologue as a Brain Dump for Background Story
This is one of the biggest turn-offs at the opening of a novel. Background stories should be woven into the plot, into the personality of the characters and into the way they react to events and people around them. It should never be spoon-fed to the reader as lengthy narrative or explanation at the beginning of the book.
3. When You Are Repeating Word for Word a Scene from Later in the Book
A reader will feel cheated if the prologue is just the repetition of a scene later in the book. The prologue must give us additional information that we could not find out any other way. If you are just repeating a scene from later in the book, are you doing this to set the scene and the atmosphere? If that is the case, that really should be the job of Chapter One – see point number one. Ideally the prologue should be something that if removed, would affect the subsequent understanding of the chapters.
4. When Your Prologue Flows Nicely into Chapter One
It may sound strange, because after all what we want is flowing material, but if your prologue flows nicely into Chapter One, then this should be written as your Chapter One, not as a prologue.
5. When Your Prologue is Unwieldy and Complicated
When you write a prologue, you are asking the reader to do a few things:
- To commit to memory people and events that probably will not be referred to until much later in the book
- Trust you will answer their questions
- Read on without context
All of this you are asking of your reader before you have built trust with them through voice, character and plot. In the meantime, the reader will likely be distracted trying to match up the prologue with subsequent events and characters making it more of a hindrance than a help. Make sure that your prologue only enhances and does not distract or detract.
If you are going to use a prologue, make sure it is a well thought out risk you are taking. Don’t ask too much of your reader at this stage and keep the prologue short and sweet and entertaining. Give it purpose and keep it to the essentials only. Remember that your reader wants to get started on this journey with you as quickly as you want them to keep turning the pages.
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