A Prologue's Purpose: Use It Well (or Lose It)
Updated: Sep 27
After sorting through my small library of hard copy works and setting aside boxes of book donations for my community, I found almost no prologues in any of the books I kept as personal favorites. There are fewer than ten prologues in the hundred-plus books on my shelves. In fact, I can think of only three formal prologues and another two introductory paragraphs serving as prologues in my book collection.
And I am not alone.
Starting your book with a skimmable prologue is not a great way to garner interest when trying to entice a reader. Readers and editors alike malign the prologue as mostly unnecessary. Many readers claim to skip prologues entirely or skim them rather than reading them in earnest.
So, where to begin?
The Purposeful Prologue
A good prologue serves a specific purpose critical to the story's understanding or the reader's experience of the work. The paragraph that serves as a prologue for Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" brings in a world of entrapment and magic and serves as a foreshadowing device. In Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants," the prologue sets the stage for conflict and intrigue that the reader otherwise wouldn't see until closer to the halfway mark.
Like every other scene in the novel, your prologue must serve a purpose. Does your prologue:
Hook the reader to an aspect of intrigue or conflict they otherwise would not see or experience?
Provide essential details not easily included elsewhere through dialogue or other storytelling elements without disrupting narrative flow?
Explain or provide clues for the why of the plot and how things came to be?
Foreshadow future events?
The Problematic Prologue
There are nine unnecessary and potentially problematic ones for every stellar prologue I have read. A problematic prologue fails to serve the rest of the story and is a fast way for a book to land in my DNF-and-Donate pile. When editing, a prologue that misses the mark receives a "delete" recommendation.
Here are some prologues to avoid:
The Info Dump. A prologue functioning as a history lesson is boring, and there is almost no reason that all world-building cannot be done within the story's context. In fact, if a piece of information cannot be revealed to the reader through context outside of a prologue, the information is probably not important. Skip the history lesson and get to it.
The Climax Snippet. A prologue that shares a piece of the story's climax often requires the reader to play catch-up in the book's first half (or more) to get back to that mindset. While authors may employ several devices to get the reader caught up, including flashbacks and exposition, none of that may matter if the reader quits before they get there. The reader doesn't yet know or care about your characters, so fast-forwarding through the story's development won't help readers become interested.
Hook With No Catch. When a prologue adds value, the rest of the novel must contain elements that tie up any loose ends or questions posed within the prologue. If the prologue is designed to hook the reader, but there is no substance to chew on later, your reader will be left unsatisfied.
Testing the Value of a Prologue
To determine whether your prologue should stay or go, the quickest way to make the call is to scrap it and see what happens.
If your story loses no meaning and no plot holes arise at the loss of the prologue, it wasn't necessary. If you lose a small bit of meaning or a plot hole occurs, ask yourself whether you need the whole prologue or whether the information could be shown to readers through dialogue or in another creative way within the greater story. If a single, well-placed line of dialogue can absolve the need for a prologue, that is usually the better choice to make.
If you cannot scrap the prologue because it would create a mess for the reader, rename it "Chapter One" and see what happens.
If the story moves seamlessly from Chapter One (your former prologue) into Chapter Two (your former first chapter), even if there is a gap in time, your prologue isn't a prologue. It is a self-conscious first chapter that may need some confidence work but ultimately should not be separated from the larger story.