Jul 18 2011

How to Write a Prologue Which Won’t Torpedo Your Manuscript

Published by at 11:58 am under Prologues,Story Structure,Writing Articles

1. Please don’t just write an infodump of background setup.  If your prologue reads like an atlas entry or history report, you’d probably be better off just cutting to chapter 1 and weaving the background information into the story itself.  Readers will have an easier time learning background information (and will be more motivated to do so) if they see how it relates to the main characters doing interesting things.

 

2. Please make sure the information is interesting.  For example, please don’t start with a prologue about how the worlds were created and/or epic wars that happened thousands of years ago without really making the information distinct and/or fresh. Faceless Evil Hordes getting (temporarily) thwarted by Faceless Good Armies with Elven Allies?  Probably not so interesting.  Unless there’s something so unique to this history that it really sets the tone for the work, I’d recommend just cutting to the story or somehow making it more lively.  For example, if the universe was created by gods on a drunken dare, that will probably intrigue readers more than hundreds of words about how the evil gods created the orcs and how the good gods created the elves.

 

3. Keep the main character(s) as involved as possible.  In almost every case, the main character is a better hook into the story than the setting/backstory.  To the extent that the backstory/setting is a hook, you can cover that in the backcover blurb (“In a city where even the pizza boys have superpowers and the Canadian Mafia sells cocaine-laced mayonnaise on every corner, a schizophrenic bartender and his possibly-sentient goldfish must…”). In your story, please show interesting characters doing interesting things (e.g. trying to accomplish urgent goals) as quickly as possible. If main goals are not immediately available, you can use intermediate goals–for example, before Luke Skywalker fights against the Empire, he fights with his uncle about becoming a pilot, which develops his personality and his urgent goal to pursue adventure. If the main character(s) is not present in your prologue, I would highly recommend keeping the prologue as short as possible or eliminating it.  

 

4. If the prologue functions as a chapter, I’d recommend making it Chapter One.  Mark Evans suggests that some readers are so put off by prologues that they just skip past them entirely.  A commenter below adds that readers might skip over prologues because “if the information was actually important, then it would be included in the main book itself.” I don’t know how common that is, but personally I am so used to prologues being boring that I’m filled with dread, ennui, and an intense desire to flee to Somalia whenever I see one. I have read only 1-2 prologues which have actually contributed to the work.

26 responses so far

26 Responses to “How to Write a Prologue Which Won’t Torpedo Your Manuscript”

  1. Wingson 21 Jul 2011 at 10:34 pm

    Only existing story with a “prologue” which I have is Crepuscular, and that was only because the story it was parodying used one*.

    – Wings

    *Stephenie Meyer, a “preface” and a “prologue” are very different things. You’re lucky I’m smart.

  2. Crystalon 22 Jul 2011 at 8:16 am

    Yeah. The only story I have with a prologue so far is one that I wrote in fifth grade. Almost ironically, the font that I wrote it in was Comic Sans MS. (Size eighteen, which is huge – I had about 5,000 words and 60 pages!)

  3. invader-mynaon 22 Jul 2011 at 10:26 am

    xDDDDDD Hahaha, nice! I don’t think I’ve ever written with prologues, maybe once, for a sci-fi story I wrote in eighth grade involving a bunch of chicks who hijack a spaceship.

  4. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 23 Jul 2011 at 3:01 am

    I’ve used a few prologues, my current story has one, but it ended up being more of a “chapter one”. I’ll rename it during editing, because it serves no special purpose, other than introducing the main characters and setting off the main plot. Or rather, it involves a broken wrist, which sets off a conversation, which begins an attraction, which sets off the main plot.

    I cut a whole chunk of text that would have made it more like a prologue, because it felt too much like an info-dump. I figure if I really want to get into things that happened years before the story begins, I can just write short stories as prequels to it. If I want to look more at a side character, I’ll do it in a side story. I think that’s a better thing to do than to drop a bunch of unneeded information on a reader’s head.

  5. WritingNinjaon 29 Sep 2011 at 10:13 am

    I am admitting that I may be a “bad” reader. I always skip prologues. I don’t even know how old I was or how I got the idea in my head. But I always told myself that if the information was really important, then it would be included in the main book itself. I have always related prologues to “nice to know but not needed” information. Maybe I just read a few bad ones which caused me to always skip them. However, I don’t think I will start to read them because I still believe it’s not needed information.

  6. SuperWriter300on 22 Jan 2012 at 1:36 pm

    I write with prologues only when it serves a purpose…such as my first superhero book did not have a prologue becuase from chapter one on up gives the reader everything they need to know about the character and story, however in my second book I am including a prologue becuase it gives something to the story and helps drive it along by allowing the readers to know why certain events are taking place at certain times rather than random events that can happen at anytime. Alot of books can suffer from this when a person says “why is this happening now as oppose to any other time?” When something like that is needed is when a prologue is neccessary.

  7. Juion 31 Aug 2012 at 12:06 am

    The novel I am writing has prologue which is main character’s dream (nightmare) of a horrible incident of his childhood. Does that works?

  8. B. McKenzieon 31 Aug 2012 at 5:36 am

    Possibly, Jui. It’s hard to say without reading it.

  9. Voyeuron 15 Jan 2013 at 4:02 am

    My cousins and I are making interwining stories with different making characters, countries, skills etc. Is a prologue needed before each character story about the country’s lore and skill?

  10. Voyeuron 15 Jan 2013 at 4:03 am

    Main characters*

  11. B. McKenzieon 15 Jan 2013 at 5:13 am

    “Is a prologue needed before each character story about the country’s lore and skill?” No. Generally, I’d recommend incorporating critical information into the narrative (e.g. what characters experience) first.

    For example, if the defining skill of the mythical land of Kentucki is outlandish marksmanship and/or barbecue, you could introduce those through scenes of characters attempting to accomplish goals (which may or may not be directly about guns or barbecue)–e.g. maybe a character is attempting to woo a lady, but makes himself look like an idiot because he’s not very familiar with something that’s a way of life for most Kentuckerosi. For example, if their first date features a gentleman stepping in to save the two of them from a mugging, I would imagine that the lady’s next date will be with the gentleman rather than the victim.

    In general, character experiences > dialogue > narration/exposition > prologues centered on main characters > getting shot in the face > prologues removed from main characters.

  12. Voyeuron 19 Jan 2013 at 2:47 am

    Hmmm, then for example. If the country skill is range combat and the chapter starts with said country having a festival. Is a scene like one of my main character, along with some soldiers, detonating fireworks from a balcony a good start?

  13. B. McKenzieon 19 Jan 2013 at 7:33 am

    “Is a scene like one of my main character, along with some soldiers, detonating fireworks from a balcony a good start?” What’s the character’s goal? Is there something interesting at stake?

  14. Weson 20 Jan 2013 at 8:10 am

    Hey, I was wondering if you could give me some help with my first five lines.

    I was thinking of doing something of a flashback, where my main character (Phoenix) gets hit on his head escaping from his school, then it goes back to why he was in that predicament.

    Basically my story is about a character named Phoenix, he was born with telekinesis, and gains the abilities of the human torch(to explain it quickly, it’s a little more that that) when he gets knocked unconscious in his school. This is after his old friend, Payne, shows up and sets the place on fire. Payne can manipulate anything by moving it’s shadow, and can teleport in shadows. It’s really intriguing and I have been brainstorming the plot for two years now. I think it would make a really awesome story, it’s just getting it down on paper that’s the problem.

    Sorry for the long explanation, here’s what I have so far.

    Flames licked up the walls as Phoenix crawled through the crumbling school. He could see the exit, partially blocked, at the end of the long hallway. The heat was getting to him, stinging the inside of his lungs and burning his skin, causing him to lose concentration. The hallway seemed to get farther away the faster he went, most likely caused by his head spinning from the lack of oxygen. A loud crack came from above and before he had time to look, Phoenix was out cold.

    Now the problem I’m having with is people reading the story from here and asking, “Why didn’t he just use his telekinesis to get out?” That’s one of the reasons I want to do the flashback, the other is I think it would make an interesting twist to the story.

    Thanks for your time,

    Wes

  15. Elecon 21 Jan 2013 at 12:49 am

    Just a quick idea, structure-wise:

    “The heat was getting to him, stinging the inside of his lungs and burning his skin, causing him to lose concentration.”

    If you want to make it perhaps more suspenseful and dramatic, shorter sentences always seem to work well. My suggestions are below:

    1: “The heat was getting to him, stinging the inside of his lungs and burning his skin. He was losing his concentration.”

    2: “The heat was getting to him. It stung the inside of his lungs and burnt his skin. He was losing his concentration.”

    Number 2 is (to me) a more consistent tense. “stung” as opposed to “stinging.” As for the whole “why didn’t he use telekinesis,” I suppose you could justify it by saying that he needs to be concentrating, cool, calm and collected. While this is a little generic, being inside a burning structure probably would tend to stuff up your concentration, and I for one would definitely not be calm, so this could work.

  16. Lizon 23 Mar 2013 at 9:32 pm

    Hey I’m kinda having trouble with my story in general I’ve been with this idea for two years but it just keeps evolving and I’m like I’ll start at the very beginning of this story which is the prologue and see how it goes from their and I’ve re written it to hell and back. Can you tell me what you think?

    Ronny’s cheeks turned pink, “Peck off, Dinah.” Mumbled Ronny as she fiddled with her St. Michael necklace. “ I mean he’s cute as a button even though he has a bit of a napoleon complex.”Ronny had a growl forming in her throat. “Though he’s the best sketch artist Boston has had in ages, isn’t he I don’t know a little snarky, even for you?” Ronny gave her the bird. It was no secret that she had her blue eyes set on the sketch artist. As they walked down the steps of the Boston Police Department Dinah leading the way suddenly stopped causing her partner to almost fall over. “ Holy shit…” Breathed Ronny. Right at the bottom of the steps was a dead man blindfolded, his hands bound behind his back, a red crown painted on both cheeks, and right next to him written in blood was, “ Do you know who Red king is?” Dinah had the answer. “Dad”

  17. B. McKenzieon 23 Mar 2013 at 10:21 pm

    Hello, Liz. Some impressions:

    –I don’t think this is actually a prologue (which is generally a good thing). It’s a scene with characters (presumably the main characters) doing things. Most prologues DON’T show the main characters doing things.

    –Though the characters are police officers, I think, they sometimes sort of sound of like they’re significantly younger, maybe high school or college. E.g. I’d recommend rephrasing “Peck off” as the more mature-sounding “Screw you.”

    –Personally, I would prefer if the characters had anything to talk about besides romance. Preferably something which established a character’s personality in an unusual and memorable way. Alternately, if you’re dead set on the characters talking about romance before discovering the body, I’d recommend having them do and/or say more memorable things before discovering the body. For example, could you do something more interesting with the sketch artist than just mentioning that he might have a Napoleon complex? E.g. maybe give an interesting detail here, like “I asked him once if he needed help reaching a case file from the top shelf, and he didn’t speak to me for a week!”

    –It may help to develop the characters a bit more before launching into the Red King investigation.

    Possible rephrase:

    “One, he has a Napoleon complex. I asked him once if he needed help reaching a case file from the top shelf and he didn’t speak to me for a week.”

    “You are a bitch sometimes,” Ronny explained to her partner.

    “Granted. Two, he’s a sketch artist,” Dinah accused.

    “He’s like the Michelangelo of sketch artists.”

    “If he offers you a private sketching, haul his ass to County.”
    Ronny flipped Dinah the bird as they walked down the stairs to the Boston PD’s main evidence locker [OR SOMETHING ELSE WHICH BUILDS UP THE PLOT OR SOMEHOW TIES INTO WHAT THEY’RE DOING].

    “Holy shit!”

    A dead man’s body was bound and blindfolded at the bottom of the stairs. Ronny didn’t find a pulse. The victim had a red crown painted on both cheeks. On the wall, the killer had scrawled in blood, “Do you know who the Red King is?”

    “Dad,” Dinah answered.

  18. Owenon 19 Sep 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Hi, I have an idea for an opening but I’m not sure if it should be the prologue or chapter one. My story idea is a supervillain (with ice powers) who tries to go legit, facing conflict from his family, friends, and archnemesis. I think of the opening scene as similar to the opening of one the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films.

    The idea I have for the opening is to have a jewel-store robbery where the heist crew have hired the main character in case a superhero shows up. They get into a gun battle with the police, but are beginning to make their getaway when a superhero (the main character’s archnemesis) shows up. Cue super-fight. Some of the crew escape, but some don’t – including the main character.

    The next chapter begins with a conversation between the main character and his prison psychiatrist, two or three months later. It’s here that I start putting in exposition, detail about the character’s mindset/backstory etc.

    Any advice?

  19. B. McKenzieon 19 Sep 2014 at 8:34 pm

    “Hi, I have an idea for an opening but I’m not sure if it should be the prologue or chapter one.” Personally, I’d recommend making it chapter 1. I would say the two main characteristics of prologues are 1) relatively removed from the flow of the book* and 2) boring/irrelevant, and neither one of those sounds applicable here.

    *E.g. centered on someone/something besides a main character, set years before most of the rest of the book, generally NOT centered on characters accomplishing goals or overcoming obstacles, generally making characters take a backseat to narrators compared to the rest of the book, etc.

    “The next chapter begins with a conversation between the main character and his prison psychiatrist, two or three months later. It’s here that I start putting in exposition, detail about the character’s mindset/backstory etc. Any advice?” Some suggestions…
    –To help keep the dialogue natural, I’d recommend making sure that you are giving the characters good reasons they’d want to discuss the exposition/backstory in question. A (preferably at least partially hostile) conversation between a prisoner and a psychiatrist strike me as a promising way to bring up the character’s backstory while keeping it relevant to the “now” of the story.
    –I believe that making the “now” of the story more interesting will probably make readers care a lot more about the backstory. Giving each character a tangible, high-stakes goal(s) will probably give you more to work with there — e.g. perhaps the psychiatrist has been assigned to coax some important piece of information out of the prisoner and/or the prisoner is angling to use this conversation to gain ANY sort of leverage, information, or perk that could be used to facilitate a breakout attempt or some other shenanigans. For example, if the guards have completely cut off his contact with the outside world, he might claim to the psychiatrist that it’s eating away at him that his (INSERT FAMILY MEMBER OR OTHER VAGUELY LIKABLE FIGURE) will never know (INSERT VAGUELY HEART-WARMING DECEPTION) and work towards asking the psychiatrist to pass a message to that person that sounds innocuous but might either be a prearranged coded message to an accomplice (or an intermediary) or an improvised message meant to convey useful information to an ally on the outside. In trying to use the psychiatrist, the character is likely to expose at least a little bit of himself to the psychiatrist — e.g. there is some risk that the psychiatrist or a superhero will figure out what’s really going on and/or identifying that the intended recipient of the message is actually involved in an ongoing criminal effort.

  20. Yochananon 15 Mar 2015 at 4:18 pm

    Okay, about prologues: What if the prologue contains the protagonist? It shows Siegfried getting nanitic blood in Germany from the time-travelling Christ-like figure, then the rest takes place in a false country north of New Zealand, with Siegfried travelling south. This “prologue” is simply a first chapter.

  21. MWGoffon 23 Feb 2016 at 12:55 am

    My first draft is complete, and I have a prologue and an epilogue. The two endcap the intertwining POV chapters throughout the book with the antagonist’s POV. Thoughts?

  22. BMon 23 Feb 2016 at 6:09 am

    “The two endcap the intertwining POV chapters throughout the book with the antagonist’s POV. Thoughts?” Depending on execution, this may work, but personally I think starting with a/the main character is more intuitive. How well does the villain hook readers into the story?

  23. Tomason 12 Apr 2016 at 7:30 pm

    This is really helpful!!! I’ll shorten the preface and make the connection to the main character more clear

  24. James Dakotaon 14 Nov 2016 at 2:30 pm

    Opinion question: Should there be a prologue to explain why Cassidy (Wildfire/Bonfire, Mercedes’s first and main protagonist) goes insane and tries to burn down the planet? In Zoom they didn’t do this but said later that his brother was exposed to the Gamma13 or something and [i]that’s[/i] why he went a little nutso. But I was thinking that if I switched from Mercedes to Sky and back they wouldn’t really know why she lit up. Any idea?

  25. Vixis Shiar'Deluson 21 Nov 2016 at 3:01 pm

    Would you say that including a prologue specifically because it is “good to know but not needed” is a horrible idea? If I were to write it, which I am inclined to, that’s how the prologue to my story would be. The main story takes place after the majority of the alien invasion that has ravaged the earth has taken place. However, a lot of important pieces of information in the story relate to how the war began.

    The primary antagonist was part of an initiative (the Triumvirate) that attempted to control the worlds technological advancements, including stockpiling nuclear weapons in what were assumed to be secure locations. The Triumvirate was infiltrated by the alien species scouts, who eventually used the nuclear weapons they controlled to destroy major population/political centers around the world.

    The prologue I’d include in the beginning would start with the main story antagonist impatiently waiting for a member of the Triumvirate to arrive. It’s odd though, because she was the one who called the emergency meeting in the first place. He silences the room and attempts to discern her location or any recent activity she’s had, and alerts the guards to search for her and capture her on sight. He gets up to leave, but is stopped by their telecast (two way video receiver and broadcaster) turning on remotely. After this, the wall in front of them is illuminated by an image of constantly changing news channels around the world. After a few more moments, their room is displayed, and the missing member of the Triumvirate speaks. I don’t have a solid choice for this quite yet, but I’m thinking of something like: “The last thing your peoples will have seared into their minds before they burn away is the faces of the cowardly men and women who have led them to their demise.” After that the screens continue changing, with some growing white, others showing images of explosions in other areas, but all ultimately giving the same information. The important thing to note is that while all other members of the triumvirate are crying, gripping each other or gazing on in shock or awe, Jaizon is staring at the screen. Calculating exactly how he screwed up, who it likely was, what they were doing, and how he could stop them. Cold look on his face and fingers crossed.

    Then it cuts to the rest of the story. Again, not entirely necessary. But it does get across exactly why the Earth is so screwed up (combined with terraformation that is explained in the main story) while also getting across some of the personality of the main antagonist.

  26. B. McKenzieon 21 Nov 2016 at 5:48 pm

    “Would you say that including a prologue specifically because it is “good to know but not needed” is a horrible idea?” I think starting with something that actually does convey critical information and/or plot/character development would be a lot more promising. Trying to think outside of our own work, let’s imagine you’re an editor tasked with rejecting 980-990 of the 1,000 submissions you got this week. You reject most of them on page 1, and probably 95% by page 5. If your assessment was that the first chapter (or prologue) was “not needed,” I’m guessing the work wouldn’t make it to page 5.



    If this backstory about the Triumvirate is important enough to cover (and nuclear annihilation probably warrants consideration at some point) maybe cover it during the “now” of the story? Your main character has first-hand knowledge of a lot of what happened, so picking a smoother time to incorporate it (and/or the terraforming) shouldn’t be too difficult.

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