5 Strategies for Writing a Prologue
Before I get into strategies for writing a prologue, I want to address the whole prologue thing. Basically, agents like them or hate them. Readers love them or skip them. People have strong feelings about prologues and you should be aware of the general discussion before you publish a book with one or start sending out queries.
So, let’s talk briefly about why some agents don’t like them and why a reader might not read yours. Remember, your first pages are marketing copy. They sell your book. They need to be an 11 out of 10. And it can be a challenge to reach that high bar when opening with a prologue.
The main reason for this is that prologues are often backstory. Important backstory, maybe, but offering your reader a big hunk of background data upfront can be unpalatable to them. They want to dive right into the fun, the drama, the entertainment of your story. They don’t want to dive right into information or education.
Some readers have it in their mind that prologues are dull. This is probably because they’ve read unnecessary ones or ones that are poorly written. If you want to avoid that trap, don’t let your prologue be merely set-up, don’t use it to write an entire scene you could just describe in a sentence or two later in the book, and don’t let it be too long.
But, if you’re undeterred and leaning toward writing a prologue for your book, consider the following strategies that can help you go about writing one that will win over readers and agents alike. My examples come from books you should be able to find at your local library.
Strategy 1: Make it necessary
Here’s a test: Cut your prologue and see if your story still makes sense to the reader. If it does, you don’t need it. Don’t keep it because you like it. Don’t keep it because it was fun to write. Keep it because your story relies on it. And if what’s contained in your prologue can be divvied up and woven in elsewhere, that’s probably better. Backstory is often best doled out in small doses.
In Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, a crime novel, the prologue begins with the body of a famous actress surrounded by police and paparazzi. In the opening pages we get hints that this suicide might not be what it seems, which lays the groundwork for an investigation led by an unconventional private investigator. Galbraith presents the death upfront, so that the real action of the book, which begins to unfold three months later, can start in the first chapter.
Strategy 2: Make it compelling
We’ve all had the experience of a friend saying they have this crazy story to tell, and they start telling it, but stop right away and say, “Wait, let me back up.” They have context and history they want to give first. And maybe it does help explain their story better, but it’s always kind of a letdown to have to wait to hear what happened while you get that background info. Most of the time we’re thinking Hurry up. Get on with the real story.
If you’re writing a prologue that you’d categorize as background information, take a lesson from Toni Morrison’s Sula. It begins with a description of the beginnings of the Bottom, a black neighborhood that was very much alive before it was leveled to “make room” for a golf course. Her resonant prose inverts the setting—the Bottom was actually undesirable hilltop land that a white man tricked a black man into taking. And this inverted world mirrors the inversion of good and evil that will play out in the rest of the book. Not only does the town lore prime us for the experience of vibrancy and destruction of people and place, our title character shows up in the last sentence, and we’re swept away into chapter one.
Strategy 3: Use a flashback
This is tricky because a flashback can often be backstory that does not need to be delivered in a scene that opens your book. I’d say it’s the rare case where this would be the right move. But let’s talk about that rare case. Sometimes a scene in your book will be outside of the time sequence of the main narrative, like in the Galbraith example above. It will be so central to the plot or to the identity of your protagonist, that opening with it is the linchpin to making your book work.
Louise Erdrich’s Plague of Doves centers around a decades-old unsolved murder and the vengeance meted out in its wake. In the one-paragraph prologue, we get a dramatic glimpse of the murder scene. Not the whole shebang, but just enough of what happened to leave us shocked at a crime that will haunt the story.
Strategy 4: Use a flashforward
This can be a great technique for foreshadowing, for building anticipation and suspense. Sometimes a dramatic event that happens further on in the book doesn’t need to be saved until later. Sometimes revealing the event in an opening provides you with a great hook and structure. Your book might be less about *what* happened and more about *how* it happened.
My favorite example of this is in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Here’s the first sentence of the page-and-a-half prologue: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” Changing your book from a who-done-it to a why-done-it might be just the right maneuver to get your reader invested in your story.
Strategy 5: Do something magical
Maybe you have in mind some sort of metaphor, some mesmerizing vision that orients the reader’s emotions in just the right way. I’m talking a vital immersion that fixes a lens for your reader. I’m talking art here.
If this is getting at what you’re trying to do, take a look at the prologue in Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I can’t do it justice in this short space, but in literal terms, an entire city of people are looking up at a man tightrope walking between the towers of the World Trade Center. In terms of art, McCann hushes the world of his story and at the same time fills it with the cacophony of the essence of the lives of strangers. This is the heart of his entire book.
The bottom line about writing a prologue is—readers want an experience, not information. So if your goal is to give them information, your strategy when writing a prologue had better be to make it such a delight they don’t realize what you’re doing. Writing is magic, after all. And as the magician, your number one task is to deliver the magic without letting the audience see your tricks.