Prologues get a bad rap in the writing world, but they have their uses. What we write in a prologue is often important information we want the reader to know, we're just not sure how to get it in there. Next time you feel the urge to write a prologue, go for it. You might just be clarifying vital background material about your novel.
A Long Time Ago in a Story Far, Far Away...
I've written many a word that never made it into the final draft, not because they were badly written words, but because it was me figuring things out about the story or a character. Sometimes we need to let the ideas pour from our heads and see where they go, like brainstorming on paper. The trouble starts if we try to keep all those brainstorming words in the final text. While some might work just fine, most of them can usually be stuck in our NOTES folder.
When you write a prologue, look back and decide if you really need that actual scene, or if you were just clarifying your thoughts. Does it...
1. Show a critical piece of the protagonist's history that plays a vital role in the story?
If so, there's a a better than average chance that this is more for your benefit than the reader's. This is probably your protagonist's motivating secret, flaw, or past shame. This event shaped them as a person and plays a huge role in how they see themselves and the world around them. It's probably something they have to overcome or face, very likely part of their internal character arc. But it probably doesn't belong at the start of the story, even though you needed to write it to fully understand what's driving your protagonist.
Instead, look for ways to hint at this past that directly affect the opening scene:
- What quirks or behaviors might have resulted because of this past?
- What fears can you show that are relevant to what's going on in the preset day?
- What stimuli in the present day might trigger a past memory?
- What memories might cloud the current judgment of your protagonist?
- What single scar (physical or emotional) is your protagonist still carrying from that event you might show?
2. Show a critical piece of the world's history that plays a vital role in the story?
If you're writing fantasy or science fiction, you're probably fleshing out your world building and pinpointing that major moment that set the plot events in motion. While it's good for you to know these things, the reader won't really care. They're interested in the characters about to be slammed by these events.History only matters when it plays a role in something readers care about, and until they meet and bond with a characters, those details are just words.
Instead, look for ways to show the results of this history in the opening scene:
- What customs resulted because of this event?
- What myths evolved that might be apparent in how people act?
- Are there any foreshadowing details that can hint at what's coming?
- Are there any forbidden elements that are still practiced today?
- Did any slang term or common sayings result from this history?
3. Show a critical piece of information about a non-protagonist character that plays a vital role in the story?
Perhaps it's the antagonist, or the love interest, or some character that holds a key piece of information the protagonist needs to win. Writing out these scenes can help you understand who this key player is and how they fit into the tale. But seeing the scene probably isn't critical for the reader, and often spoils the surprise and kills the tension.
Instead, look for ways to build mystery about this person as the story unfolds:
- How does this person feel about your protagonist? Your antagonist?
- What hints can you leave that would suggest this scene?
- Where might this person's plan be used to complicate your protagonist's plan?
- When would be the worst moment for your protagonist to find out about this person and their plan?
- When is a good moment for this person to reveal that they're up to something and up the tension?
Try this article for more on determining if you really need that prologue or not.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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