Should you or shouldn’t you have a prologue? This is a question I’m asked often.
Although some in the industry advise writers to avoid prologues, I like them—when they are done right. A prologue should be intriguing, something to hook the reader. It should not be written only because the first chapter is dull. Oftentimes, I hear authors say they want a prologue in order to start the story with something exciting, and I think that’s the wrong approach. The first chapter should grab readers as much as any prologue would.
The right approach is to use the prologue as something that is essential to the story, or something that will become important later on.
My favorite prologue is from The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It starts off:
The small boys came early to the hanging.
It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting.
As the first line indicates, this prologue is about the hanging of a man in a public square. The sense of dread increases in the second paragraph through Follett’s word choices—the darkness, the blemish on the snow, the silent marketplace, and the waiting gallows.
There’s a small mystery later—why did a foreigner steal a chalice that he would not be able to sell? The prologue ends with a young woman cursing the three men responsible for the man’s death—a knight, a monk, and a priest Follett also brings it back to the small boys:
The people shrank from her in fear: everyone knew that the curses of those who had suffered injustice were particularly effective, and they had all suspected that something was not quite right about this hanging. The small boys were terrified.
Not only does the prologue open with great narrative tension, but the reader immediately knows the curse will be important to the story. In fact, this opening is crucial to Follett’s epic historical novel. And the prologue is only two pages long. Another tip for prologues: keep them short!
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.