Writing a Prologue that Works

Cranky Cat’s busy reading a prologue

To prologue or not to prologue–for many novelists, that is the question. Some say readers skip them, therefore prologues aren’t worthwhile. Others maintain a prologue is fine as long as it’s short. While many writing coaches advise against using prologues, just as many writers feel prologues are crucial to their stories.

Writing Tip for Today: If you are convinced that your story needs its prologue, consider these things:

 What’s Your Purpose? 

Readers will assume the prologue occurs sometime before the main story springs to life. Readers will also assume that any prologue provides critical information. By including your prologue, you’re telling readers that the main story may not make sense without this bit of pre-story info. There are at least four types of prologues:

1) The World Builder Some writers use prologue as a sort of flashback, to introduce the story world and the main character as the story begins. Fantasy and sci-fi novels often employ prologues to illustrate some age-old curse, gift or challenge the Main Character must meet. 2)The Frame Mainstream, literary and even romance or women’s fiction sometimes use prologues to frame the story or to show Main Character’s attitude toward the story and/or life in general.  3) Action Scenes Suspense, Action/adventure, thriller and mysteries may contain “action” prologues that let the readers see actions that the Main Character may not witness, such as a murder. 4) Teaser In rare instances, a prologue might pique readers’ interest by foreshadowing a scene and causing the reader to wonder how the character got into (or out of) the predicament.

Does Size Matter?

Yes! Keep a prologue trimmed as much as possible. Don’t allow it to run on past a few pages–no matter how interesting you feel it is. Remember, your reader doesn’t know your story world or your character yet. Descriptions that enrich the “world” or your character should be carefully chosen, so they stand out to the reader. Avoid putting more than two or three characters onstage in a prologue, lest readers become overwhelmed trying to keep all the names and places straight. Distill your prologue to the vital action and dialogue, which strengthens your reader’s understanding of the situation, builds connection and/or sympathy for the character and builds tension. A prologue that is too long risks readers’ attention spans as well as raises the question of why the story didn’t start there. I think the prologue’s ideal length is one or two pages.

What’s the Purpose?

Your reasons for including a prologue must be logical and enhance the story without bogging it down. Even if your Main Character is not introduced yet, the prologue must connect directly to the main story. Prologues must also propel readers forward by building tension. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to end your prologue with TROUBLE. Either something awful happens or is about to happen. Readers want a sense of what is at stake, even if the main character and/or problem is not yet revealed. Whatever you do, keep the tension taut by resisting any temptation to resolve the scene. A good prologue will leave readers hanging–and begging for more. And for those writers who are certain prologues are ALWAYS/NEVER a good idea, remember: There is only writing that works and writing that needs work.

Your Turn: What’s your opinion of prologues?




About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

6 comments on “Writing a Prologue that Works

    • Judy,
      I used to feel the same way until I found myself writing one too. Thanks for your comment and if you want more writing advice than you ever thought possible, grab a copy of Five Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction, available in digital and print from major retailers!
      Keep Writing!

  1. Personally, I’m one of those people who see a prologue and read the first few lines. If it doesn’t grab me, I then skim it and promptly move on to chapter one. Having admitted that, I never thought I’d be writing one. BUT…
    The timing of this post was perfect for me. I’m writing a YA novel for women. I’ve include spiritual warfare which includes the invisible appearances of angelic and demonic beings in the lives of four young women.
    After reading this post, I have written a prologue that I think will ‘set the stage’ in regards to the mission of these unseen, yet very active spiritual beings. It ended up at a word count of 446. What do you think of that length?

    • Hi Beckie, The 446 word length is only 2-3 pages so it sounds pretty safe. BUT, it also depends on the words themselves. I think the best guideline is to be sure a) readers MUST know the info before the story begins b) you aren’t giving anything away but rather building suspense for the story proper. Thanks so much for dropping by!
      Keep writing,

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