This baffles writers as there are many successfully published books that have prologues. But I understand it, because in the majority of cases – and remember we are reading manuscripts that are unpublished and in development – the writer seems to have a misunderstanding about what the purpose of a prologue is and how to write an effective one.
A prologue in a book is a piece of writing that appears before the first chapter. It is drawn from a tradition in playwriting that can be found as far back as the fifth century BC of presenting context or background information before the main drama begins. In fiction, it signals to the reader that the writer has something they want the reader to know before they begin the story.
I’ve come to understand there are three key functions of a prologue. One is to present information the reader needsto know in order to make sense of the story. This pertains mainly to prologues used as exposition (background context) to set the scene, including world building and backstory. Sometimes writers get carried away and have long, detailed prologues that throw a lot of information at the reader. Editors refer to these as ‘info dumps’. The challenge is to think carefully about what information can be woven through the narrative itself, and what information is necessary for the reader to know up front. Simple rule: the shorter the better.
The prologue to Stuart Turton’s historical novel The Devil and the Dark Water (Raven Books, 2021) is a great example of a concise world building prologue that gives just enough exposition and no more. We learn the year in which the story is set, the geopolitical context, and key information about trading journeys made by ship, including how high the stakes are. Below is the prologue in its entirety. I’m sure there was a careful culling process here to keep it so succinct.
In 1634, the United East India Company was the wealthiest trading company in existence, with outposts spread across Asia and the Cape. The most profitable of these was Batavia, which shipped mace, pepper, spices and silks back to Amsterdam aboard its fleet of Indiaman galleons.
The journey took eight months and was fraught with danger.
Oceans were largely unmapped and navigational aids were rudimentary. Only one certain route existed between Batavia and Amsterdam and ships that strayed beyond it were often lost. Even those that kept between these ‘wagon lines’ remained at the mercy of disease, storms and pirates. Many who boarded in Batavia would never make it to Amsterdam.
This type of prologue provides a frame through which we read the story. We enter the fictional world with the necessary parameters to makes sense of the story as it unfolds.
The puzzle piece
Another type of prologue presents a piece of the story puzzle that incites curiosity. It is usually a scene that raises questions, with the tacit understanding that the answers lie ahead in the story that will unfold. It invites the reader to engage imaginatively – to hold that piece of the story in their mind and look out for where it fits as the other pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
A good example of this type of prologue is in Marian Keyes’s Grown Ups (Penguin 2020). The prologue is a scene rich in dialogue and description of a birthday dinner for the 49-year-old point of view character, with his extended family. One of the characters metaphorically throws a match on the flammable tangle of relationships. The prologue ends at the point where ignition is inevitable, but hasn’t yet happened. Chapter 1 then shifts back five months in time and the narrative takes the reader through the events that led to that prologue scene.
The hors d’oeuvre
Prologues can also be less specific in intent and establish the tone of the fictional world by touching on setting, point of view, and a key event that is central to the narrative. This is the prologue as an hors d’oeuvre that whets the appetite, setting up the taste buds for what is to come. Sarah Armstrong’s latest book Big Magic (Hardie Grant 2022) contains this type of prologue: it signposts the ‘normal’ world before everything changes, introduces the point of view character, sets the scene and incites curiosity about the dramatic event that drives the narrative momentum. It is short – two pages, and begins:
The day my mother disappears, the sky is the most dazzling blue I’ve ever seen it. Our circus has just arrived in Millimba, and our convoy of trucks chugs down the wide main street, making sure everyone knows we’re in town.
Done well, a prologue fulfills its purpose, whether to provide a frame, present a puzzle piece or whet the appetite. But the reality is that there is a higher percentage of prologues in unpublished manuscripts than there is in published books. A lot of them fall by the wayside during the development process. Often I find the prologue is something the writer puts together for themselves rather than the reader, and it can be cut completely without compromising the story in any way.
If you have a prologue, or are thinking of writing a prologue, ask yourself: Does the prologue reveal information the reader needs to know before the start of the narrative? If you leave it out, is there something important missing from the story? If so, is there a better place to put that missing piece? If you turn the prologue in chapter one does it disrupt the narrative flow?
You may not need one at all.