If you’re reading this post to find out if you should include a prologue in your manuscript, the general answer is no. Why add on front matter when you and the reader rightly expect to start the story with a bang on page one? Well, much like eating ice cream directly out of the container: generally you shouldn’t do it, but there’s a time and a place for everything. To find out if your novel needs a prologue, read on.
What is a Prologue?
Dictionary.com defines it as an event or action that leads to another event or situation. This is the key description of a prologue because it requires you to ask the right question about whether you need it or not. Will your prologue give the reader information that will help them understand the course of events that follow? Or could they just wait to read about it in the actual novel?
You don’t want to write two beginnings. You don’t want to be repetitive or boring. That’s why a prologue is much more than an introduction to the text. It must serve a purpose and that purpose is to make your story more interesting. It can provide data unknown to the narrator or protagonist. It can divulge an event that happened in the past, which explains why the characters are in their present state. It can also foreshadow events to come, thereby making the reader wonder when the big moment will happen.
Does My Novel Need One?
I think the better question to ask is: can I avoid a prologue? Or, can I start Chapter 1 in a more compelling place/way? You need a reason to start your book twice (once with the prologue, immediately followed by Chapter 1). That being said, here is a list of reasons to write one:
- Explain an essential element of the world you’ve created. This is especially relevant for fantasy or sci-fi.
- A major event happened in the past and the book opens in the aftermath (and explaining this in backstory won’t do).
- Create a question in the reader’s head that compels them to read on.
- Foreshadow an event that will take place in the future (thereby creating dread or excitement in the reader).
Bad Reasons for a Prologue
Just as important as running through the risk of good reasons for a prologue is to check that you aren’t excusing it with a bad reason. Bad reasons for a prologue include:
- Creating “atmosphere.”
- Desire to start in an “exciting” place.
- Need to “explain” things first.
If there is any way to solve these problems with a more skillfully written first chapter, do that. On the fence? Try to put whatever information you think you need in a prologue into your first. If your opening feels dull, consider opening in a new place. Here’s a great post on writing a compelling first chapter: First Things First – Writing the First Chapter.
Example of a Prologue That Works
Maria Semple’s 2012 bestseller Where’d You Go, Bernadette starts with a prologue. Here is an excerpt of it:
Mom disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it’s complicated. Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try. It doesn’t mean I can’t try.
When the first chapter opens, the mom, Bernadette, hasn’t yet disappeared. Or, hasn’t seemed to yet. This prologue establishes not only voice (in two short paragraphs) but also creates a mystery. What happened to the narrator’s mom? As a reader, the foreshadowing of the disappearance made me all the more curious about when it was going to happen. It didn’t take away from the surprise of it, and it established a narrative thread. Where, indeed, did you go, Bernadette?
The other reason the prologue was useful is that the book doesn’t have a typical narration. Much of the story is told in documents: emails, letters, forms, school announcements, etc. Without the prologue there to anchor the text, chapter one would have been too disorienting. The prologue makes it clear to the reader that there is a point to all of the correspondence and that we should be reading it to understand Bernadette’s disappearance.
For my money, the prologue in Where’d You Go meets all the criteria for prologues. First, it explains an event that will prompt more events. Someone’s mom disappears? That’s going to deliver a “new situation,” for sure. Check. The prologue clarifies, foreshadows, and creates tension. Check. And finally, it served a purpose, not getting mired in the “don’ts” category. If your prologue meets these criteria too, then use it. Check!