When Should You Use a Prologue in Your Book?
Prologues are somewhat contentious amongst us writers; some people love them and some people can’t stand them. The same goes with readers, though they tend to be less vocal about their adoration or disdain for these unique introductions.
Maybe you’re somewhere in between, and that’s totally cool. You might be wondering if your book needs a prologue or would benefit from one. Maybe you’re thinking you have some extra details that don’t quite fit into your story but would elevate the reader’s experience.
Or heck, maybe you’re just curious about prologues.
No matter what brought you here, we’re going to cover both when you should use a prologue in your book and when you absolutely should not. By the end of this article, you will have a firm idea as to which path works best for your story.
And if you’re curious about the best way to write a prologue, be sure to check out this guide.
What is a Prologue?
Before we can determine the when (and when not), we must first establish the what. Here’s a pretty brief and straightforward definition of a prologue:
A prologue is a short introductory scene in your book that is separate from the main events, timeline, or perspective of your story used to enthrall the reader to read more.
This could be a flashback or flashforward, a scene from the villain’s POV, an article or memo about events related to the protagonist’s past, or any number of other interesting additions.
There are virtually endless options when it comes to prologues… if you use them properly.
So let’s figure out how to do that.
The Three Tenets of a Good Prologue
When we discuss the when and when-nots of prologues, there are three immutable tenets of a good prologue. These tenets—commandments, unbreakable laws, core framework of the universe, whatever you want to call these things—are:
- It contributes to a better understanding of your plot.
- It can’t be weaved into your story without diluting your plot.
- It enhances the reader experience without being mandatory.
Maybe I’m being a little dramatic by calling these things tenets (or core framework of the universe), but they are essential if you want to include a good prologue. Let’s give a quick glance to them before moving on.
It contributes to a better understanding of your plot - This should be your main plot or the character arc of your main protagonist or antagonist. If your prologue doesn’t add more depth or understanding to one of these plot lines, it probably shouldn’t be there.
It can’t be weaved into your story without diluting the plot - In a perfect world, all exposition and details will be weaved seamlessly into your primary plot. Good storytelling means integrating the important details into your scenes rather than using a prologue to tack them on the front. If you can do that, don’t use a prologue. But if doing so hurts your story, a prologue might be for you.
It enhances the reader experience without being mandatory - Sorry to all the prologue enthusiasts out there, but the reality is that some readers skip prologues altogether. Since your readers are the ones you’re ultimately writing for, your story needs to be fulfilling for all (or at least the majority) of your readers… including those who skip the prologue. So, if you include one, make the details in your prologue worthwhile for those who read it but not necessary to understand or enjoy your story.
With those three (formerly) unwritten principals of all things good and true, let’s get into when you should use a prologue.
When to Use a Prologue
If you’re thinking about using a prologue, these are the situations when it’s a good idea to do so:
- To set the large scene
- Introduce key characters (aside from the protagonist)
- Establish a particular tone
- Hint or foreshadow
- Open big
Note that not all of these conditions need to be met—or can be in a concise prologue—but some must exist in conjunction with one another.
We’ll cover each in more detail so you can get a clearer picture.
Set the Scene
Worldbuilding is one of the coolest parts of writing, particularly for fantasy and science fiction authors. It can be tempting to want to show that off, especially when you’ve come up with a really cool piece of history or culture that can wow a reader.
But including random worldbuilding into a prologue just for the sake of including it. That’s kinda selfish and weird.
If you’re using the prologue to show off a certain slice of your fictional world, do it for a reason. Maybe your prologue takes place in the lair of a great beast where your heroes will eventually need to journey. Or you can have it show off a prison camp of a despotic regime to prove how terrible things are for folks in your dystopian world.
Setting the scene can also mean showing the reader a snippet from a character’s past that will be relevant as the reader gets to know that character through your story.
If you choose to set the scene with your prologue, this is one of the times when you want to include another element in our “when to use” list; by itself, setting the scene doesn’t justify including a prologue.
Introduce Key Characters
While your prologue can show us part of the protagonist’s past, it really shouldn’t be used to introduce the main character of your story for the first time. Someone so important should be met in the actual story and developed throughout your entire tale.
But the prologue is a great place to let the reader know more about other key players in your book. This could include important secondary characters like a mentor or someone as essential as the antagonist.
To really make use of a prologue’s strengths, write the scene from their perspective. This is extra effective when it’s used to introduce your antagonist, as you get to see how bad or tormented they are first-hand.
This is another “when to use” condition that shouldn’t exist on its own. Your prologue shouldn’t be written with the sole purpose of setting your story’s tone, but that could be one of the main reasons.
As with all things, a prologue should be there for a plot-relevant reason. If you can flavor that reason with tone, that’s even better.
For example, you might write a scene in the slums of a dystopian city during a government raid that kills a bunch of people… including the parents of our story’s villain. A prologue like this lets you establish the tone of the coming story while also including something plot-relevant: what made the villain become so bad.
Hint or Forebode
While “hint or forebode” is a little vague, that’s sort of the point.
Remember, every prologue should enthrall your reader and all but force them to keep reading. One of the best ways to do that is to hint at something larger, darker, more sinister, more exciting, sexier, romantic, or whatever it is your readers absolutely crave.
If you can do that, you’ve done the absolute best you can with a prologue.
So use it to sprinkle in compelling questions or little pieces that your reader can’t resist.
Most importantly, use the prologue to open big. Go all out. Make it so exciting it creates momentum that carries your reader right into your story.
One of the best ways to open big is to treat the prologue like a short story. Think of it as being an isolated, albeit connected, story that has its own thrilling climax and no denouement or falling action.
This means considering your genre, too. An epic fantasy story could have a thrilling sword fight in the prologue, but that would seem weird in literary fiction. Similarly, a steamy encounter might work in fantasy romance but be out of place in folk horror.
Whatever the case, a prologue that makes your story open with a bang is one of the most effective prologues you can write.
When Not to Use a Prologue
Now we’re going to chat about when you absolutely should not use a prologue. The thing about prologues is that so many writers think they’re just free real estate to add in extra info, but that’s not the case.
In fact, due to its position before your story, a bad prologue can get your book tossed on a DNF pile before chapter one. That’s the worst-case scenario, but it’s not as uncommon as you might think.
After reading all the ways you could use a prologue, you might be inspired to jump right into it. But don’t get those writing fingers tapping until you’ve learned about all these prologue pitfalls.
If it Slows your Story
The opposite of opening big, you really shouldn’t have a prologue if it is slow-paced. Remember, all prologues—whether they’re introducing a character, some worldbuilding, or a different perspective—are there to hook your reader.
Do you know what doesn’t hook your reader? A slow scene right from page one.
If you force your reader to trudge through some paragraphs for a bit of exposition or insight, they’re going to think your entire book is more of the same. Even if you hint at something exciting happening, that could have been achieved with your back cover blurb or your inciting incident.
A prologue should be un-put-down-able (real word, I swear) long after it’s over. It’s the kind of scene where your reader starts it just before bed and it makes them read ten more chapters before turning out the light.
Sorry, but a slow opening doesn’t do that.
If it’s an Infodump
For the love of all the muses and literary forebearers, do not use your prologue to infodump. In fact, never infodump.
Sharing exposition is an art form, and unloading a little more than normal has its place in many stories. But this can be shown through action, conversations, character arcs, and more.
A prologue isn’t there to house a brief history of your royal family or the scientific names and observations of every animal you’ve created for your sci-fi planet. It can be there to highlight one snippet of those things—a coup by a slighted princess or a strange maneater discovered during the last scientific expedition—but that doesn’t give you the right to unload a boatload of info on your readers.
This goes hand-in-hand with our previous tip. There’s no way to excitingly infodump. Trying to get away with it will be another reason your story is put down for good before chapter one.
If it Confuses the Reader
Remember, a prologue is supposed to add substance to the story. It lays on an extra layer to the reading experience.
Now imagine if it does the exact opposite and confuses readers instead.
Because some prologues are written with mystery and foreboding in mind, some writers can go overboard and pen an introduction that takes away more than it intrigues.
You can also run the risk of readers asking “what’s the point?” when you introduce a villain’s backstory and don’t connect it to that character for 80,000 more words.
Be objective about the value your prologue adds to your book. Better yet, ask your beta readers about the value it brings, specifically, once they’ve finished reading your book.
If it Gives too Much Away
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you don’t want to use a prologue if it gives away too much.
Again, this refers back to the sacred tenet of weaving information into your story when possible. If you’re frontloading a lot of information to the point it ruins a plot twist, your prologue is no longer effective or well-written.
Instead, you’re better off limiting what you’re sharing and sprinkling what was cut throughout your book.
The reader’s experience is not enhanced when you throw so much at them that it removes any form of suspense, surprise, or revelation from the remainder of your book—no matter what genre you’re writing.
So ask those beta readers if your prologue is giving too much away or, better yet, map out the subplots and details in your scene using Dabble’s Plot Grid to get a bird’s eye view of exactly what you’re sharing.
You Need a Book With That Prologue
Now you get to choose whether you need a prologue for your book or if that scene you’re dreaming of can be better slotted somewhere in your story.
I’m also going to toss this here so you don’t have to scroll all the way back up, but check out this article to learn how to write a prologue, if you want one.
The prologue is just one part of your story, though. You still need to figure out how to write all the scenes and plot lines that come afterwards. It’s no easy feat, that’s for sure.
But that’s why we wrote Let’s Write a Book, a completely free e-book that helps you get your first draft done.
If that’s not enough free stuff, we have a metric boat-load of free articles to help you with every stage of the writing process—from theory to outlining, writing to editing, querying to publishing—over at DabbleU. You don’t even need to be a Dabble subscriber to access all that great content.
With all this information available to you, there’s just one thing left for you to do: write!
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