How to write a prologue that isn’t horrible

The received wisdom is that writers should avoid adding prologue. But the humble prologue itself is not the problem – bad prologues are.

It is very easy to write a horrible, story crushing, reader boring, snore inducing prologue and much harder to write a prologue that actually adds something to the story.

What is a prologue?

A prologue is something that comes before chapter one. Chapter zero, if you like. It should follow all the rules of a good opening chapter except that it is not the opening chapter.

Many readers hate prologues. More editors loath prologues. But we writers tend to like making prologues. More often than not, we use the prologue for entirely the wrong reasons.

What a prologue is not

A prologue is not the place for world building, info-dumping, or character backgrounds.

World building should happen organically as part of your story. As the narrative unfolds, so too should our understanding of the setting. If you have put world building into your prologue you either need to edit the story of you wanted an appendix (at the end). Dune by Frank Herbert has four appendixes. If you read them, you get a much richer story but if you do not care, you can skip them.

Information dumps are just bad. Again, you might want an appendix instead but the chances are you are simply not done writing and editing the story.

Character backgrounds belong in your author notes. Anything that the reader needs to know should come out in the story itself. A prologue is not the place for “before you start you need to know…”.

Finally, on no account allow a prologue to answer tension inducing questions that the opening chapter will ask. Those are spoilers and they declaw your story.

What is a prologue for?

Before we can answer this question, we must first look at what the opening chapter or scene is for.

Your first chapter (or first scene) does a lot of things. One thing your opening does is create questions and make promises that you will answer or fulfil as the story goes on.

For example, if your story starts with a man running away from a pack of wolves you are left with a few questions and a promise. You want to know who he is, how he came to be there, and if he will survive. The promise is that there will be more action and answers to come.

The prologue must do exactly the same thing. However, if it raises the same questions about the same situation isn’t it just part of the opening scene?

Ask another question with your prologue

While the opening chapter has questions it asks, your prologue could ask another question about something else. If you do that, your reader goes into the story with two sets of questions and two promises that they expect to see addressed.

In our example, if in a short prologue we see a woman stealing a valuable painting, we go into the chased by wolves scene wondering who this woman is and what she has to do with the man running away.

The whole story can now be about how these two opening scenes relate to each other. You may wish to not resolve that connection until the closing chapters.

If the man later encounters the lady thief, we readers know what she is. When the man trusts her it adds tension to the story. We want to know if he will find out. The prologue has built up the story by adding this extra layer to it.

Do you use prologue?

Do you use prologues in your writing?

If so how do you go about adding an extra layer with them? How do you make the prologue work for you?

If you don’t use them, is this on purpose or might you consider one for your next story?

Tell us your thoughts on prologues in the comments.

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