Do you start your novel with a Prologue? Or do you dive right into Chapter One?
The choice can determine whether readers are drawn in or never get past the first page.
I lean away from a Prologue whenever possible. When I do use one, it’s only because there’s backstory the reader cannot do without.
That should rarely be the case.
If you do resort to a Prologue:
1—Don’t label it as such. Readers tend to skip preliminary material. Let them be pleasantly surprised when they come to the end of it and find Chapter One.
2—Don’t use it as an excuse to do something you wouldn’t do on page one, chapter one. It should be every bit as engaging as your opener, all showing and no telling.
What a Prologue Is Not
- A preview
- A scene from the middle of the story
- Facts you could weave into the story
- An information dump
Use a Prologue only to motivate the reader to keep reading.
Do You Really Need a Prologue?
Determine this by asking yourself:
Do I have information the reader absolutely must have before Chapter One?
Ideally, you want to work everything into the first chapter and, as Les Edgerton implies in his writing book Hooked, don’t underestimate your reader.
Too many beginning novelists, he says, don’t give readers enough credit to be able to deduce what’s going on without all manner of backstory.
Naturally, he leans away from Prologues and toward strong hints at backstory in your opening chapter, setups that will be paid off later.
My Best Tip for Writing an Effective Prologue
Make it captivating—a scene as strong as any in your novel.
This becomes your opener, carrying with it all the import your first few paragraphs demand. This is not the place for narrative summary. Grab readers with an evocative scene that forces them to keep turning pages.
If your Prologue fails, you’ve likely lost your readers for good.
- The Valley of the Dry Bones by yours truly
- The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
- Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
- Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (one of my favorites)