I’ll start off by saying that I hate writing the beginning of a book. I can’t stop myself from trying to include every detail I think is important or provide as much context as possible to make everything as straightforward as possible. (Clarity is not my strong suit, as Grammarly aptly reminds me even as I write this post). Chapter one just needs a lot of information, especially if you have a huge story in mind. But there’s an option, an option I might consider myself. A prologue.
What exactly is a prologue? A prologue serves as the beginning context for a larger story. An introduction. A smaller story that sets up the main story, providing context without dumping everything in your lap. However, a prologue can easily be written the wrong way. The list below includes the dos and don’ts of writing a prologue for your story.
Explain Important Information
A prologue introduces key elements in your story instead of dumping all the information in the first chapter and slowing things down. Prologues exist to help the reader understand the context of the major events happening later. That way chapter one isn’t stuffed with so much important information the reader is overwhelmed. There’s only so much story you can include in one chapter before it’s clear your book starts off slowly.
Prologues might introduce important characters, establish the setting and worldbuilding rules, or be its own contained story. In any case, it explains what’s happening with the right amount of detail. Don’t use the prologue as an outlet for dumping all your info. Get to the rest later as your story develops because too much detail, especially in the beginning, confuses readers. Ask yourself as you write: what does the reader need to know right now? If you’re nervous about how to include everything necessary, make a list and go down the list a little at a time. You might realize some things can wait for later. Be as clear and succinct as possible. This creates a clear, concise mini-story, setting the stage for the bigger picture.
The important info acts as the context of the story. Context is key if presented correctly, but what should you include? First off, start small. The object of the prologue is to create a small mini-story that helps explain the main story. Focus on the following things in small segments:
1) Characters. This could be the main character (so the prologue sets up what they’ll experience in the main story) or even one or two characters who are affected by the main conflict later on. Use whoever works relevant to the plot, then establish bits of their personality and motivation.
2) Setting and worldbuilding. Start creating details of where the story takes place and how the rules work. This might depend on the genre and how much worldbuilding you have, but insert some details about the society, culture, or the character’s surroundings as the characters interact with them. Don’t explain everything at once. Just write what the readers need to know so that they’re prepared for the first major events of the plot.
Like a first chapter, a prologue sets up important details and context for readers. Readers get a sense of how things work, allowing them to focus on the plot and what’s happening in the story rather than remain confused about the where, the who, and, most importantly, the why. Continue adding more context as you go, but let the prologue create the foundation you build off.
Add A Hook
Don’t forget to make your prologue interesting! Just because it’s not the “main story” doesn’t mean it shouldn’t bring the reader in. Prologues act as the gateway to the rest of your story, meaning your readers need to be invested. Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “First sentences are doors to worlds.” So a great first sentence always helps. Here are a few examples of sentences that hook you in:
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow” – Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (1960)
“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story” – Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)
These first sentences leave you wanting to know more. They build up from there, giving you more information as you go. Do the same in your prologue. Create a strong first sentence, then match that strength throughout. Leave your readers wondering where your prologue leads and what’s going to happen so that they continue reading. Your story will take off from there.
Remember that the prologue act as the first building block of your story. If you make it count, the rest of your story flows in an engaging way. Now you’re free to dive into your main story without worrying about what information you still need to include.
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