How to Write a Prologue Readers Won’t Skip (with Examples)
As a writer, you know that the opening of your story can make or break the entire experience for readers. This is where the prologue comes in. A well-crafted prologue can set the stage for your story, create intrigue, and introduce your key characters and themes. However, a poorly executed prologue can leave readers bored and disinterested from the very beginning.
Understanding the Purpose of a Prologue
The first step in writing a prologue that will capture your readers’ attention is understanding its purpose. A prologue is an introductory section of a literary work that precedes the main narrative. This section serves to provide essential background information, set the tone or atmosphere, and foreshadow important aspects of the story.
Setting the Stage for Your Story
The prologue can be an excellent vehicle for setting the stage for your story. It can provide crucial context and background information that the reader needs to understand what’s happening. Consider all of the details that will be relevant to your story, such as the time period, location, and culture. A prologue can be an effective way to introduce readers to these elements and create a sense of familiarity with the setting.
For example, if your story takes place in medieval Europe, the prologue can describe the political and social climate of the time. It can also introduce the main characters and their roles in the story. This can help readers understand the power dynamics and relationships between characters before the main narrative begins.
Introducing Key Characters and Themes
In addition to setting the stage for your story, the prologue can also introduce your key characters and themes. This section can give readers a glimpse into the main characters’ motivations, backstory, and relationships. It can also address the primary themes and ideas that will be explored throughout the story.
For instance, if your story is about a detective trying to solve a murder case, the prologue can introduce the victim and the suspects. It can also set up the themes of justice, revenge, and redemption that will be explored in the story.
Creating Intrigue and Suspense
One of the most effective uses of a prologue is to create intrigue and suspense. By starting your story with a tantalizing glimpse into what’s to come, you can hook readers from the very first page. This is where you can introduce a mystery, raise a question, or create a sense of danger. No matter what approach you take, the goal is to leave readers wanting more.
For example, if your story is a thriller about a woman who discovers a dark secret about her family, the prologue can introduce a mysterious object or event that foreshadows the danger to come. It can also hint at the family’s secrets and the protagonist’s motivations for uncovering them.
In conclusion, a prologue is a powerful tool for writers to introduce their stories, characters, and themes. By understanding its purpose and using it effectively, writers can capture their readers’ attention and set the stage for a compelling narrative.
Essential Elements of an Engaging Prologue
Now that you understand the purpose of a prologue, it’s time to dive into the essential elements of an engaging prologue. When crafting this section of your story, keep the following in mind:
Establishing a Strong Narrative Voice
A strong narrative voice will draw readers into your story and keep them engaged. Consider the tone and style you want to convey and how it will set the stage for the rest of the story. Are you going for a light-hearted and funny tone, or a dark and moody one? Think about what works best for your story and what will resonate with your audience.
For example, if you’re writing a mystery novel, you might want to establish a dark and moody tone that creates a sense of foreboding. On the other hand, if you’re writing a romantic comedy, you might want to establish a light-hearted and funny tone that sets the stage for the humor to come.
Whatever tone you choose, make sure it’s consistent throughout the prologue and the rest of the story.
Crafting a Compelling Opening Line
The opening line of your prologue can make or break the entire section. You want to hook readers from the very first sentence and make them want to keep reading. Consider using a provocative question, a shocking statement or an intriguing detail to pique readers’ curiosity and tease what’s to come.
For example, if you’re writing a thriller novel, you might start with a line like, “The scream echoed through the empty streets, signaling the beginning of the end.” This line immediately creates a sense of danger and intrigue, making readers want to know what’s going to happen next.
Remember, your opening line sets the tone for the rest of the prologue, so make sure it’s attention-grabbing and relevant to your story.
Balancing Exposition and Action
One of the most significant challenges you’ll face when writing a prologue is balancing exposition and action. You want to provide enough information to orient readers, but not so much that they get bogged down in details. At the same time, you want to make sure there’s enough action to keep readers engaged.
To achieve this balance, consider starting with a scene that immediately draws readers in and then gradually introduce exposition as the scene unfolds. For example, if you’re writing a fantasy novel, you might start with a battle scene that introduces the main characters and their abilities, then gradually reveal more about the world and its history as the scene progresses.
Remember, your prologue should be engaging and exciting, but it should also provide enough information to set the stage for the rest of the story.
Common Prologue Mistakes to Avoid
Even with the best of intentions, it can be easy to fall into common traps when writing a prologue. Here are some mistakes to avoid:
Overloading with Backstory
One of the most significant issues with prologues is overloading readers with backstory. While it’s essential to provide context, you don’t want to dump too much information on readers all at once. This can make the prologue slow and confusing, and readers may lose interest before the story even begins.
For example, imagine you’re reading a prologue that takes place in a fictional world with its own unique history, culture, and language. While it’s essential to establish the setting, you don’t want to spend pages and pages describing every detail. Instead, focus on the most critical aspects and let the rest unfold naturally throughout the story.
Creating False Suspense
Another mistake writers make when crafting prologues is to create false suspense. This means introducing something that seems exciting or mysterious, only to reveal later that it’s not significant to the story. This can leave readers feeling cheated, confused, and disinterested in the rest of the story.
For example, imagine you’re reading a prologue that starts with a character running through the woods, pursued by an unknown assailant. The scene is tense and exciting, and you’re eager to find out what happens next. However, when the story proper begins, it turns out that the prologue was just a dream sequence or a flashback that has little bearing on the plot. This can be frustrating for readers who invested time and energy into the prologue.
Writing a Prologue That’s Too Long
An overly long prologue can also turn readers off. While it’s essential to provide essential information, you don’t want to bore readers with too many details. Keep the prologue concise and engaging so that readers will want to keep reading.
For example, imagine you’re reading a prologue that spends several pages describing the protagonist’s childhood, family history, and personal quirks. While this information may be interesting, it may not be relevant to the main plot and can slow down the pace of the story. Instead, focus on the most critical aspects of the character’s past and let the rest unfold naturally throughout the story.
By avoiding these common prologue mistakes, you can create a compelling opening to your story that hooks readers and keeps them engaged from beginning to end.
Analyzing Successful Prologue Examples
One of the best ways to learn how to write a prologue that readers won’t skip is to analyze successful examples from published works. Let’s take a look at three examples that demonstrate the different ways to create an engaging prologue:
Example 1: A Gripping Historical Fiction Prologue
In “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah, the prologue sets the stage for a powerful and emotional story. It opens with a statement: “If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love, we find out who we want to be; in war, we find out who we are.”
This statement immediately grabs readers’ attention and creates a sense of intrigue. We know that we’re going to be reading a story about love and war, and that it’s going to be an emotional journey. The prologue then goes on to introduce the setting, the main character, and the central conflict, leaving readers wanting more.
The story takes place in France during World War II and follows the lives of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle. Vianne is a mother and wife who tries to keep her family safe during the German occupation, while Isabelle joins the French Resistance and risks her life to fight against the Nazis. The prologue sets the tone for the emotional journey that readers will embark on as they follow the sisters’ stories of love, loss, and survival.
Example 2: A Mysterious Fantasy Prologue
In “The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien, the prologue sets the stage for a vast and complex world. It opens with a declaration: “This book, which deals with the events of the War of the Ring, contains the finest account of Bilbo Baggins’s adventure that is obtainable.”
The statement immediately lets readers know that they’re in for a grand adventure, full of conflict and intrigue. The prologue then goes on to provide essential backstory and introduces readers to the characters and setting, creating a sense of familiarity and intrigue.
The story takes place in Middle-earth, a fictional world created by Tolkien. The prologue introduces readers to the history of Middle-earth and the events that led up to the War of the Ring. It also introduces readers to the main characters, including Frodo Baggins, who inherits the One Ring from his uncle Bilbo and must embark on a dangerous journey to destroy it before it falls into the hands of the evil Sauron. The prologue sets the stage for the epic adventure that readers will embark on as they follow Frodo and his companions on their quest.
Example 3: An Emotional Character-Driven Prologue
In “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, the prologue sets the stage for a character-driven story. It opens with an observation: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The statement immediately introduces the central theme of the novel and sets the tone for the story. The prologue then goes on to introduce the key players and their personalities, creating a sense of familiarity and connection with the characters.
The story takes place in 19th century England and follows the lives of the Bennet family, particularly the second eldest daughter, Elizabeth. The prologue introduces readers to the social norms and expectations of the time, where marriage is a woman’s only means of securing a stable future. It also introduces readers to the Bennet family and their personalities, including the witty and independent Elizabeth and the proud and wealthy Mr. Darcy. The prologue sets the stage for the character-driven story that readers will embark on as they follow Elizabeth’s journey of self-discovery and romance.
Writing a prologue that readers won’t skip takes skill and practice. By understanding the purpose of a prologue, crafting essential elements, avoiding common mistakes, and analyzing successful examples, you can create an engaging and compelling opening that will hook readers from the very beginning. With these tips in mind, you’ll be ready to create a prologue that sets the stage for a fantastic story.