What's the Perfect Length for a Prologue?
Prologues. Some people love them. Some people hate them. Surprisingly few people fall in between those two extremes.
But you’re thinking about writing one for your book and are dead-set on doing it correctly. But you find yourself wondering, “How long should my prologue be?”
You’re not alone in that question, good writer. And I’m just going to get the worst part out of the way quickly: there is no definitive length your prologue should be.
I know, I know—I also hate it depends answers. But I won’t leave you hanging. Through this article, we’re going to figure out exactly how long your prologue should be, ranging from exactly zero words to potentially thousands (but not too many thousands, please).
We’ll do that by looking at:
- The purpose of prologues
- How long is too long for a prologue
- Easy steps to help you write your prologue.
My only advice before we get started is to not look at the word “prologue” too closely. You’ll only start to hate it.
Just me? Okay, enough of that. Let’s get started.
What is The Purpose of Your Prologue?
If you want to figure out how long your prologue should be, you first need to understand why it exists in the first place. Let’s establish a few basics.
A teaser for your story - The stuff you include before Chapter One normally serves to drip some exciting information to your readers. This isn’t a chance to infodump—that’s a forbidden practice—but it can serve to introduce a villain, larger conflict, some worldbuilding, etc. Whatever you include, make it so exciting your reader can’t help but start the next page.
A different time or place - Depending on your tale, not everything is happening in the same time or location as your main plot. A tyrant conquered a far-off land. An assassination forty years ago is the catalyst for revenge. Someone is writing about events (your plot) they experienced in the past and want to preface it. Prologues give you a chance to write outside of the time and place of your story.
An introduction to the big conflict - Instead of just teasing it, you can use a prologue to show the full scale of the larger external conflict. This is easiest in fantasy and sci-fi, where those types of conflicts might be wars or invasions, but it’s possible in other genres, too. This can provide a wider view of the conflict than you might get from your protagonist’s perspective.
A chance to use a different POV - If you’re using third-person limited or first-person POV, a prologue can give you an opportunity to add a scene from a different perspective. This could be a report or journal entry (or some other epistolary method), or could be something like a third-person description of a crime while the rest of the book is told from the first-person perspective of the detective protagonist.
A place to share bonus (but relevant) info - We’ll dive more into this idea later on, but the prologue can be a place to share extra information that is still plot-relevant. Just bear in mind that a decent chunk of readers skip prologues altogether; the information should thus be relevant but not essential to the reader’s understanding.
If we combine all of those tips together (or just the ones that matter to your writing), we can come to the consensus that a prologue should be an exciting introduction to your story that is relevant but not essential to your book.
So what does that mean when it comes to prologue length?
It means you should write something long enough to grab someone’s attention, but not so long that you’re overloading it with too much information—or information that is entirely pointless.
To make it more tangible, let’s figure out what makes a prologue too long.
How Long is Too Long?
Realistically, it’s tough to have a prologue that’s too short. If you follow our definition and make sure your prologue is long enough to a) excite your reader and b) contain some relevant information, then you’ve at least accomplished something with that introduction.
But some writers create a prologue that is far, far too long.
If your prologue is so long the excitement peaks before it's over or your reader has to take a break before getting excited, you’ve gone too far. An easy way to figure out if this is the case is to ask your beta readers if the prologue worked or not.
But I’m not going to make you finish your book before figuring out if your prologue is too long. Here are two quick tips to figure out if your prologue has ventured into “too long” territory.
- Compare it to your other chapters. Your prologue should never be longer than your average chapter length. Heck, I’d even consider limiting it to half as long as your usual chapter word count. That’s because…
- Don’t use more than one scene. If you’re throwing multiple scenes into your prologue, why isn’t it just a chapter or sprinkled throughout other chapters? Remember, we’re going for punchy, exciting material here.
Are these rules that can never be broken? No, but you should ask yourself why it’s okay for you to go against these ideas when almost all authors—including incredibly successful writers—aren’t.
5(ish) Steps to Write a Prologue
Now it’s time to talk about practical steps to help you write the perfect-length prologue. We’ve broken this down into five simple steps with lots of questions to get your mind working, plus a cheeky Step 0 to make sure we’re on the right track.
Step 0: Why?
Before you even consider writing a prologue, you need to ask yourself why. Why are you writing a prologue? It’s not a mandatory element of a book, so what’s the point of including it?
To get to the bottom of your why, here are some more questions to ask yourself:
How come your prologue isn’t a normal chapter? You might want to revisit the earlier section of this article to make sure you know what the purpose of a prologue is. If what you’re writing doesn’t serve those purposes, perhaps it should just be a normal chapter.
Are you using a prologue as an infodump? If the sole purpose of including a prologue is just to toss more information at your reader, you’re doing your book a disservice. Exposition should be drip-fed to the reader throughout the pages of your story. A prologue is an exciting teaser, remember? Don’t use it to humble brag about your worldbuilding.
Do you want to traditionally publish? For those writers who want to get their book published traditionally, be warned that many agents and publishers see prologues more like a red flag than something to look forward to. This isn’t because they’re all poor quality! But they’ve just read so many cheap, underdeveloped prologues that it’s tough to get excited for them. Make sure you put just as much, if not more effort into your prologue as any other chapter. Or be sneaky and just call it Chapter One when you submit. You didn’t hear that from me (and I didn’t hear it from a certain query-savvy colleague of mine).
Step 1. Start with a Hook
Keeping with the theme of “prologues are exciting teasers,” that excitement should start from the first sentence.
That doesn’t mean there needs to be explosions, sword fights, a plane crash, or so on. It could be a very tense opener. It could ask a question. It could be anything that sinks your nasty author hooks into your reader so they can’t escape.
Chapter One can have a slow start. Prologues should not. Ask your beta readers or a friend to read the first paragraph or two of your prologue. Does it make them crave the next word? If it doesn’t, consider revising it. Or cutting it out.
Step 2. Share Relevant Information Only
Next up, make sure your prologue is sharing relevant information. This goes back to our why. You’re writing this section of your book for a purpose, and that purpose should involve sharing something with your reader.
Many things could be considered relevant: the full might of the villain, the horror of war, an event years earlier that affects the present.
Understand that relevant doesn’t necessarily mean immediately relevant. Perhaps what you’ve written in the prologue won’t clear up part of your story until the third act. If that’s the approach you’re going with, you better make darn sure you’ve rocked your prologue.
Here are some questions to ask yourself about the relevancy of your prologue:
What’s the point? If you can’t clearly articulate the point of your prologue, you likely don’t need it. Share a quick recap with a friend. If you can’t explain to them why you included your prologue, then don’t!
Can it be skipped? Remember, lots of readers skip prologues. The information you include should be relevant but not mandatory. Consider it like a little Easter egg to benefit those who do read it.
Step 3. Be Concise
While writing your prologue, you should be aiming for something short and effective. Concise intros are much more effective at ensnaring your readers than something long and drawn out.
Think of teaser trailers for movies—the ones that are thirty seconds long compared to their minute or two counterparts. Your prologue should be as captivating and concise as a teaser trailer.
Here are some questions to help you keep it short and sweet:
Are you infodumping? Don’t. Save it for the rest of your book. Only share stuff the reader needs to know before the book starts.
Have you trimmed your words? As a decent rule of thumb, most scenes or chapters can be edited down by 10%. So your 2,000-word prologue could likely be just as or even more effective at 1,800 words. It’s not a strict rule but applies in most cases.
Is it more than one scene? Then it should probably be a chapter or spread out across multiple chapters. The most effective prologues are single scenes.
Step 4. Focus on Conflict
One of the most effective ways to use your prologue is to introduce a conflict. Conflicts come in multiple forms, each falling under external or internal.
Your prologue can offer some early insight into a major conflict in your book. This is especially helpful if your main characters are not involved in the conflict at the beginning of their journey. Showing the stakes is much more effective than telling the reader about them.
Some questions to ask yourself:
What conflict should I highlight? External conflicts are easiest to use in a prologue, but they aren’t the only ones. Internal struggles or the catalyst to a character’s internal conflict can be just as effective.
Does this scene tie directly into the larger conflict of the book? Remember to keep things relevant. Don’t show some sort of conflict that has nothing to do with the characters and their journey.
Step 5. End with a Hook
How you end your prologue is just as important as how you start it. For the people in the back: the prologue is only there to get your reader excited to consume more of your story.
That means the last few sentences before your book starts carry a lot of responsibility. You need to write something so compelling, maybe even jaw-dropping, that your reader has no choice but to keep going into Chapter One.
Here are some questions:
Does the end leave unanswered questions? If the prologue wraps itself up nicely and doesn’t propose any unanswered questions, why would someone keep reading? Use the reader’s curiosity to your advantage.
Can you say no? Maybe not you specifically, but check in with those beta readers or friends who are helping out. Ask them if the prologue ended in a way that basically prevented them from closing the book. If it didn’t do that, consider revising a bit.
The Prologue is Just the Beginning
With all this information under your belt, you’re ready to go and write the perfect, most effective—and just-the-right length—prologue possible… or skip it altogether, if that’s what you want.
But there’s a lot of book that comes after that. You need to make sure you nail everything from character development to subplots to worldbuilding, and a heck of a lot in between.
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