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A Purposeful Prologue: Illuminating Four Types

While every story does not need a prologue, many writers feel compelled to include one despite not being sure of its true nature. So, they haphazardly write them as an afterthought because of what they have seen or read, and then become discouraged to learn that some readers bypass the prologues to dig into Chapter 1. What is a prologue, and what is all the fuss about?

A prologue is the essential introduction or prelude to a story. It is the beginning of a story and often contains relevant details about the setting, time frame, and characters. It is the writer’s job to figure out if his or her story requires one and does said prologue serve a significant purpose to contribute to the plot. When done right, a quality prologue will illuminate key background information, a different perspective, a defining moment, and/or a current or future situation.

Background {e.g. Star Wars}

The author provides key background information readers need about the characters and events that are about to unfold. Without this information, readers may become lost about the events or character’s actions. Writers use prologue to advance the plot by highlighting an event that occurred off stage before the story begins while staying true to the essence of the story line. Often times, writers do not include this information in the heart of the story because it may detract or confuse readers in that moment, and since it is information readers need, writers opt to place it in the prologue to provide readers with clarity. Depending on the author’s intentions, both the setting and the time frame can either be the same or different from the rest of the story.

Different Perspective (POV) {e.g. The Canterbury Tales}

Although the story is told through one set of eyes such as the protagonist, the writer may need a different voice such as the antagonist to provide readers with a different perspective of events that have happened, are happening or will happen. This foreshadows what’s to come and acts as a device to draw readers into the plot. In addition, readers are privy to information the protagonist may not know yet.

Defining Moment {e.g. Batman}

The author uses a key moment that typically occurred in the past or somewhere in the main story to make readers aware of an event or habit that directly correlates to the story line. A writer might need to establish the protagonist as a justifiably selfish person who became that way because of another character or event that happened two years prior to the start of Chapter 1. If this information was left out, readers would be confused as to why the protagonist acts a certain way toward others and be unable to relate to or understand said character.

Current/Future Scene {e.g. Jason Bourne Books}

We see this type of prologue in movies all the time where we are made privy to current or future events before the heart of the story plunges into the past. In other words, readers learn the ending first. For example, we see a splatter of blood all over the main character who is standing near a dead body. Chapter 1, along with the other chapters, will lead up to that moment and explain what came after. Writers use this as an attention grabber to draw readers into their world. Another example would be a character who is thinking back on his or her life, and the writer uses the prologue to set the scene for what is to come.

In a nutshell, a good writer understands that a quality prologue serves four main purposes and is more than an informational wasteland of his musings that did not make the cut for the story. Prologues are meant to enhance readers’ knowledge and enjoyment for the story they are reading. In addition, they provide readers with relevant information about the characters, settings, and/or plot to help them situate themselves in the timeline.

So, the next time you think about creating a prologue, ask yourself why you want to create one, and will it contain relevant and useful information readers need? After all, you want readers to begin with the prologue and not skip to Chapter 1.

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