How to Write a Prologue That Gets Readers Amped
Not sure how to write a prologue? You’re in good company.
This unit of storytelling is a tricky one. It needs to be valuable but not essential. It has to be gripping and draw the reader in but must be short and raise more questions than it answers.
A great prologue has the potential to convert intrigued readers into frantic page-flippers. It can spotlight a fascinating new world, subtly introduce compelling themes, and tease heart-stopping conflict.
In short, a great prologue tells readers, “Stick around—this is about to get good.”
But a not-so-great prologue can be a long, rambling backstory that leaves the reader wondering if you’re ever going to arrive at the point. That kind of prologue is easy to write, even by accident. I know. I’ve done it.
Now I want to help you not be like me.
You’re about to learn everything you need to know about how to write a prologue well. We’ll talk about:
- What a prologue is exactly
- The advantages and disadvantages of using a prologue in your novel
- The elements of a solid prologue
- How to write a prologue that hooks your reader
Let’s start with the basics.
What Makes a Prologue a Prologue?
A prologue is a section of writing that comes at the very beginning of your novel, before the first chapter. It introduces information that’s relevant to the story but not crucial.
Because here’s the thing: some readers skip prologues. They assume it’s all fluff or only valuable to the kind of reading purists who get stoked when the author includes a map or family tree in their front matter.
So you’re working a tricky balance here. You never want to put anything in your book that doesn’t serve a clear purpose. But your prololgue’s purpose can’t be so important that readers will be lost if they skip it.
All this information might have you wondering:
Does Your Novel Even Need a Prologue?
This is a great question to ask. In many cases, the answer is no. Authors often find that whatever they might explain in a prologue could just as easily be worked into the first chapter.
But sometimes a prologue adds to your story and invites the reader to engage with it on a deeper level.
How are you supposed to know the difference?
We have an entire article dedicated to determining when you should write a prologue. In the meantime, it might help to know how a prologue can benefit your book and how it might hold your story back.
When a Prologue is a Good Thing
A prologue can be useful for setting up the larger social or political context of the story, as we see in the famous crawler that opens Star Wars.
It’s also an opportunity to share the perspective or experience of a character whose point of view wouldn’t be shown otherwise.
Perhaps a glimpse of the childhood tragedy that defined the villain’s dark world view. Or the day the protagonist’s mother realized her three-year-old was a Rubik’s Cube prodigy.
Mystery writers sometimes use the prologue to give the reader a sneak peek at the crime or a moment related to the crime. This clever maneuver gives the reader something special—knowledge that not even the sleuth possesses.
On that note, a prologue offers an opportunity to drop clues or foreshadow future disasters. Or introduce a key character who won’t show up for another 84 pages, like the hermit witch destined to help your protagonist on their quest.
And let’s say your story ultimately takes place in a dark fantasy world but opens with your main character working at The Gap. A prologue could tease the magical world that lies ahead.
Finally, you can do The Beauty and the Beast thing: put the essential backstory in a prologue so the chatty wardrobe doesn’t have to squeeze it into her dialogue.
Now, those all sound like great reasons to write a prologue. But before you go all-in, you still need to consider the disadvantages.
When a Prologue Becomes a Problem
The best and most common reason for not writing a prologue is not needing a prologue.
There are plenty of ways to work essential backstory into your main narrative. (In fact, we’ve written a guide on how to do this.) And when we search our own writerly hearts, we often find that a prologue is only our attempt to avoid figuring out how to sprinkle in exposition artfully.
Next thing we know, we’re infodumping. That’s when you unload a ton of details on your reader at once. Instead of telling them a story, you’re explaining the world, the political climate, the intergalactic wars, whatever.
It’s no wonder so many readers think of the prologue as skippable. That’s another bullet point in the “con” column; when you write a prologue, you write something not everyone will even read.
This pre-story opener can also slow the pace of your novel before the real tale even begins.
Finally, many writers (myself included) gravitate towards prologues because they’re certain the reader needs to know the full backstory to enjoy the novel. That’s almost never true. In fact, we can usually hold their attention better by maintaining a little mystery.
Now, after all that, if you still feel a prologue is right for your novel, it’s time to learn how to write one.
What Should Be Included in Your Prologue
I can’t tell you exactly which details to include in your prologue, because that depends on what you want your prologue to do. Maybe this is where you establish the world of your novel, maybe it’s not. Maybe you need to introduce your protagonist now, maybe you don’t.
So we’re going to focus on the high-level must-haves for any solid prologue.
Or at least a character. The important thing is that you give the reader someone to care about and connect with.
Just as you would with your first chapter, you want to hook your reader with the prologue. And the only reason anyone picks up a work of fiction in the first place is because they want to experience something remarkable through a character.
This is why infodumping is the biggest potential prologue pitfall. No one wants four pages of political history or landscape description. Start with a living, breathing being. Build everything else around them.
Even the whiff of conflict is enough. Give the reader a sense that trouble has just arrived, or that it’s always been there, waiting for the right moment to strike.
The Maid opens with a super short prologue in which the protagonist merely describes her job. But the details she includes hint at the trouble that lies ahead.
“When I’m done with my work… It’s as though you were never here. It’s as though all of your filth, all of your lies and deceits, have been erased. I am your maid. I know so much about you. But when it comes down to it: what is it that you know about me?”
By the way, I read that book because of the prologue.
Like any other scene in your novel, your prologue should give the reader a strong sense of place.
You don’t need to give them a full tour of your world. In fact, it’s best not to. Just offer a glimpse. Show them the shuttered library of the dark house on the hill. Or the bustling kitchen of the diner your protagonist will inherit in chapter one.
You can find some great tips on setting the scene in this article.
You can’t really know how to write a prologue if you don’t know how to establish your narrative tone.
With tone, you immediately establish a perspective. The reader knows they’re going to get the menacing or playful or no-nonsense version of this story. Tone is a great tool for drawing readers in, setting expectations, and establishing the genre.
Learn more about how to do that here.
Foreshadowing happens when you drop a hint about what’s to come.
It can be vague, like the example from The Maid. Or you can be more direct about it, like in Seven Days in June:
“...it should’ve occurred to her to expect a life-altering drama after Tridentgate. After all, she’d had a near-death experience before. And that time—like this one—she woke up to her world forever changed.”
Or you can pull a Romeo and Juliet and tell the entire story in the prologue. But I don’t recommend that approach. I can’t promise it will work for you as well as it did for Shakespeare.
Now that you know all the elements of a killer opening, let’s talk about how to write a prologue.
How to Write a Prologue That Sucks the Reader In
Here’s how to make prologue magic when you get those fingers on the keyboard.
Know Why You’re Doing This
I subjected you to a long list of pros and cons before getting around to telling you how to write a prologue. If you’ve gotten this far, you must have a good reason for adding a prologue to your novel.
Put that reason to work. If you’re using the prologue to introduce the hermit witch who won’t make an appearance until act two, bring that witch to life. Give the reader every reason to look forward to seeing this character again, from the way she talks to the choices she makes.
Let the purpose of your prologue shape the way you write it.
Keep It Brief
Your prologue shouldn’t be long. Keep it at about the same length as your average chapter. Shorter is even better.
Also, limit your prologue to a single scene. Any more than that, and it might as well be your first chapter.
In the menu of your story, this is simply an amuse-bouche, as the fancy people say. Not your first course.
If you’ve learned how to write a strong opening chapter, you already know a few things about how to write a prologue. Most notably, you know you need to seize and hold the reader’s attention so they don’t go anywhere.
I’ve warned you multiple times that some readers won’t bother with your prologue. Here’s another warning: some will. So it’s gotta be good.
A few quick tips:
- Make the genre clear
- Draw them in with an engaging voice
- Give them a character they’ll care about
- Introduce tension right away
- Spark curiosity and raise questions
Check out this article for more in-depth advice on starting a story right.
Tell a Story
Think of your prologue as its own narrative, even if it’s only a page long.
Who is this about? What do they want? What’s in their way? How do they navigate or react to that obstacle?
And—perhaps most importantly for a prologue—what threat still lingers at the end of this little narrative nugget?
Write a micro-story so good it gets your readers more excited for your novel than they were when they first picked it up.
Balance Information and Mystery
I’m going to set down all my warnings about infodumping to acknowledge this:
You’re writing a prologue because there’s something you want your reader to know before you start the story. Dropping deets is part of the goal here.
The trick is knowing which deets to keep to yourself for the time being. Think ahead to your story. What does the reader really need to know upfront? Which information could be teased as a tantalizing mystery?
You want them desperate to know what’s going to happen next.
Show, Don’t Tell
Finally, the ultimate rule of all writing all the time ever: show, don’t tell.
Help your reader experience the story as if they were living it, rather than reporting on it as if they turned on the evening news. As Chekhov explained it, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
This rule is especially important when we talk about how to write a prologue. After all, this is where a lot of writers slip into tell-mode.
So… don’t. Don’t tell your reader there was a robot uprising. Show them the humans clawing at the locked doors of their smart home while Alexa cackles in the background. (And maybe also check out our “show, don’t tell” worksheets.)
Now you’re equipped with everything you need to know to write a brilliant prologue. Or at least the first draft of what will soon be a brilliant prologue.
The whole rest of the novel, of course! And if you could use a little help on that front, I recommend checking out Dabble’s free ebook, Let’s Write a Book!
This thing has more than 130 pages of novel writing guidance. It takes you from brainstorming all the way through the revision process. Snag it here and get started on your masterpiece!
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