For anybody who was unsure, from the Greek “pros” (before) and “logos” (story/word). So, literally, “prologue” means “before the story”.
Now that I’ve said that, you should know exactly what a prologue is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be something before the story that adds to the story. I’ve heard it said somewhere that a good prologue is an excuse to have a really boring first chapter, in which you get everything you need into said chapter to be able to continue the story without any problems or any more info-dumping.
NOT TRUE. There is never an excuse to have a boring chapter (a slow one in which not much happens, maybe, but never a boring one – your writing style and characterisation, if not something to do with the plot, should bring it to life somehow). Also, round about fifty percent of readers don’t even read prologues, even if they’re total bookworms. I mean, I’m a bookworm and I have a lot of friends who are. It’s just me and one other who bother to read the prologues out of the whole group of us.
Lesson Number One: A prologue is not there to launch the reader into the story by having something really exciting happen there and nothing happen in chapter one.
Lesson Number Two: Write chapter one as though the prologue and its happenings don’t exist. You still have to catch the reader’s attention in chapter one, especially if said reader hasn’t read your lovingly-crafted and totally awesome prologue.
Following on from lesson number two, you have to make sure to put the right sorts of things in your prologue.
A prologue is not an info-dumping ground for the world you’re creating. It should be as interesting to read as every single one of the chapters in your story, but has to be relevant to the plot as well. As far as I’m concerned, there are three types of prologue:
TYPE 1: A prologue set in advance of the main happenings of the story that, as one reads on, begins to bear relevance on the happenings in the story. The only one I can think of off the top of my head (although this is one of the most common types) is in The Alexander Cipher. The prologue is set just after the destruction of the Greek empire after Alexander the Great’s death. The rest of the book takes place in the modern day. When you go from the prologue to the rest of the story, you don’t initially understand the relevance of it at all, but as the mystery in the story unravels, there comes a point about three quarters of the way through where you click, leap out of your seat and yell “that’s GENIUS!” (well, you do if you’re me).
TYPE 2: A prologue set in which things happen at a similar time to the start of the story, but with a different character or in a different place (usually both) to the main character and whatever happens with this different character sparks off what happens in the rest of the book. The best example of this that I can currently name is the beginning of Eragon, when Arya sends Saphira’s egg to Eragon and is then captured. In the first chapter, the egg appears in front of Eragon. The reason this prologue works is because, after that, the main character in the story is Eragon and everything is narrated (in third person) through his eyes. Arya never becomes the main character. If, however, the character in the prologue becomes the main POV at some point, the prologue usually begins to lose its power. The prologue is like a one-off event, or a manga one-shot. If it becomes too similar to one of the chapters in the story, it’s going to lose its power.
TYPE 3: This type seems to be rarer, but a prologue which is set into the future from the events that take place in the book. They’re probably rare because they’re so hard to pull off well. I mean, most of them say similar things, like “x years ago, I would never have dreamed that this would happen to me”, or info-dump on the story from the hindsight perspective of the narrator. I can’t currently think of a good book where this has been pulled off well, so if you can, please tell me.
The other thing you have to do is figure out whether or not your prologue is actually relevant. You don’t HAVE to have a prologue, and given the number of people who don’t read them, in some ways it’s even advisable that you don’t have one. If you just felt like putting in a prologue, or if you thought it would be cool to give the title “prologue”, “pros legomenon” or something like that to the first collection of paragraphs for the story that you wrote, you probably don’t need that thing called “prologue” (or any variation thereof) sitting there. Quite often, what you decide to do in the prologue can be done in chapter one. Look at Harry Potter: since Harry is only one year old in chapter one, the events in that chapter are sufficiently removed for that chapter to have been put as the prologue. The chapter is told through the eyes of characters other than Harry, whereas the rest of all seven books are told through Harry’s eyes. The happenings of the first chapter are all fundamental to the plot as well. It has the makings of an excellent prologue, but Rowling decided to make it her first chapter, and it is a TOTALLY awesome first chapter. It would work equally well as both, but it suits fine as the first chapter. However, the reason it works just that little bit better as a first chapter than it would as a prologue is because the next chapter or so covers (in flashbacks) various parts of Harry’s early life. If your prologue then leads into a chapter where the character is still not at the right place for the story to start (e.g. is only five in chapter one, seven in chapter two, and finally turns fifteen in chapter three and is fifteen for the rest of the book), it’s probably best not to have a prologue.
With that in mind, look back at your prologue and compare it to HP1Ch1. Does your prologue really need to be titled as a prologue, or could it be a chapter one?
Also, looking at what’s in your prologue, could you drop everything of relevance in it into the story later on with the story still making sense and without the reader going “???”? If the answer is yes, then you don’t need a prologue. I’ve heard a lot of people saying that Twilight doesn’t need its prologue, and I have to say that I sort of agree. It doesn’t really seem to serve any interest other than to try to get us hooked on the plot. Remember what I said earlier about fifty percent of people boycotting prologues? Having an awesome prologue doesn’t make up for having a not-so-awesom first chapter.
So, Lesson Number 3: You probably don’t need your prologue. Think very carefully about its necessity and the information that’s in it. Chances are that half of your target audience won’t read it anyway.
What not to do with a prologue
Remember, whatever goes into your prologue, it is still a part of the story. That means that you need to write it as a part of the story. More than that, but if you have a prologue, it’s more important that this catches a reader’s attention that chapter one. People give a little leeway with chapter one. They don’t with a prologue. Almost every prologue of every decent book out there is like having a chocolate dangled in front of your nose. Readers expect them to be good. They expect them to be phenomenal. They expect them to be interesting.
If you are going to have a prologue, something has to happen. It can’t be that your character decided to eat ice cream or something like that. The prologues that people tend to like involve some sense of mystery and a huge sense of anticipation for the rest of the story. Like, somebody dies, somebody is captured, somebody sacrifices themselves, or (if writing a romance, I suppose) two people are separated and it looks like they will never get back together. Much as I love the Lord of the Rings, do not do what Tolkien did in his prologue. I’m one of the people who does read prologues, but if I’d read that before I started on the rest of the book, I would’ve given up.
Lesson Number 4: Your prologue has to be epic.
Something I’ve seen around (on inkpop.com rather than in published books, it has to be said) is something entitled “prologue” and then “chapter one” following directly on from the ‘prologue’ with the exact same characters. NO. If your character spent the prologue buying a sack of potatoes, describing how he cooked the potatoes in chapter one does NOT merit a prologue. The sequence of events demands that either they all be crammed into either the prologue (and that chapter one has nothing to do with potatoes), or that there is no prologue/a different prologue and the potato plot gets crammed into chapter one to start the story, or that the prologue be renamed as chapter one and the original chapter one be renamed as chapter two. There has to be a distancing factor between the prologue and first chapter, be it time-wise, physical distance-wise, character-wise or something else like that.
Lesson Number 5: The prologue ought to somehow be distanced somehow from the first chapter.
And, in case I didn’t already put it in: Lesson Number 6: The prologue must be relevant to the plot somehow.
#A lot of readers don’t bother reading prologues, so it’s useless to try to use it as a hook if you know your first chapter isn’t up to it.
#Write chapter one as though the prologue doesn’t exist.
#Make sure your prologue is utterly awesome.
#Chances are you don’t need your prologue.
#Distance it somehow from chapter one.
#Make sure the prologue is relevant to the plot.
Happy writing! Over and out.