The prologue, the delicate introduction to your novel and a much-debated topic in the literary industry. In many cases, if you think you need a prologue but are debating it, talk yourself out of it. However, if you’ve thought it through, your prologue could bring an initial, powerful layer of intrigue and importance to your story.
Let’s start with what you shouldn’t do. This might anger you enough to do it anyways, but at least you go forth informed–and warned …
Avoid the dreaded info-dump
You do not need to do this–not ever. It’s boring, it’s tedious, and it makes people’s eyes glaze over. So why would you put it at the beginning of the book where you’re developing a relationship with a reader? If you just met someone, do you tell them your life story? (Free Human Interaction Tip: If you do this, stop. It’s unsettling.)
If you feel the need to info dump, do it on a blank document outside your novel. Go through and highlight the top three ideas (maybe even limit yourself to one idea). Then, ask yourself this, do readers need to know this before my story begins? If the answer is yes, think of how you can cleverly drop in these info-nuggets by using the first commandment of story-telling, Thou Shall Show, Not Tell.
Honor your story arc
So, you’re a good writer. You want to dazzle your reader right away with your amazing skills. Action scene, check! Brilliant dialogue, check! Compelling pacing, check! However, if all these sparkly things fail to build the story arc, why include them at the beginning? Are you trying to hook your reader? Well, in all fairness, you should try to entice, but make sure your hook has a purpose. Readers are wise to sleight of hand shenanigans, and they don’t like it.
Avoid ill-timed world-building
This falls into the info-dump category. If you try to set the stage, again, without working towards a central storyline goal, you risk filling the prologue with fluffy, non-nutritious junk food that could have been layered into your story further down the line. We know you want to set the mood, but ease the reader into it. Don’t scare them off by boring them with tedious details.
Here’s a great strategy from writer, former literary agent, and freelance editor, Nathan Bransford:
I think the easiest litmus test is to take out the prologue and see if your book still makes sense.
If, after you remove the prologue, your book feels as if its missing something, consider the following prologue arguments.
Arguments for a prologue:
- A need for a short concise explanation that would have otherwise resulted in lengthy dialogue, heavy explaining, or unnecessary flashbacks later in the book.
- We don’t encounter your antagonist until much further into the story. Alongside their nefarious intentions, the prologue might give us a taste of who we want to hate right away.
- A need to include a unique POV that won’t be seen again. However, this must support the main idea of the overall arc, otherwise, rethink this tactic.
- Foreshadowing to invite questions from your reader. This can be powerful. I, personally, enjoy reading a story that starts with a question.
Finally, here’s one last thing to consider–when you have a prologue, you’re asking your reader to start your novel twice. If you’re going to ask that of someone, make it worth their time and make sure you do so with a clear purpose.