This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
By Anna Bell
Prologues in novels are one of tricky to get right. Sometimes they’re a help to the story, sometimes they’re a hinderance. But the main question is: how do you know whether your novel needs a prologue?
When I ask myself these questions I tend to think about examples in novels I’ve read recently. A great example of a novel using a prologue to brilliant effect is Me Before You by Jojo Moyles. The reader gets an insight into the life of main male character, Will, when he’s a successful businessman, and they also get to watch as his life implodes. The novel then starts in chapter one focusing on the protagonist Louisa, and how she comes into Will’s life years later. The prologue was not only used to hook the reader, but it gave the reader a look at what Will’s life was like before everything changed, so that when they’re introduced to him again later, they have a better idea of how his life has been altered. It’s a great example of how a prologue is used to give a bit of backstory, which takes place outside of the main events in the novel.
There’s another type of prologue which sees the reader fast forwarded into the heart of the novel, usually to a scene where the protagonist’s world is unravelling, giving us a glimpse of what was to come. It’s reminiscent of what you might see on a TV programme or film. I’m not a massive fan of these types of scenes as, although they do hook you, I believe that you shouldn’t need to get an advert of what’s to come to make you read on – the first chapter should do that naturally.
It’s also worth thinking about prologues in novels that haven’t helped move a story along. I read one fairly recently where the prologue talks about a stranger coming into town and, even at the end of the book, I couldn’t work out why that scene was there. I couldn’t see any connection to the story and it served only to confuse me as I kept expecting this mysterious stranger to appear in the major climax of the novel (which he didn’t).I’ve only used a prologue once in one of my novels – Millie and the American University. The main story starts when Millie’s heading out on her first night at an American college. Each of my subsequent chapters started with an email from Millie to her friends back home in England, filling them in on what was going on in the USA. Initially, I hadn’t written a prologue, but the overwhelming feedback from my test readers was that there needed to be more of Millie’s back story and they wanted to know who the friends were that she was writing the emails to. I decided to address both issues in the prologue by writing a scene where Millie is with her friends at her British university when she finds out what university she’s going to spend her year abroad at. I feel that it ties the loose ends together and gives a good starting point to the book.
Whilst I appreciate that sometimes a prologue works really well, I often think they can delay the action. I’d much rather know what’s get going on and get straight to business.
Do you like a prologue? Do you think it gives an extra dimension when trying to hook the reader? Are there any rules of thumb on how and when to use one?