How Long Should a Prologue Be? The Ultimate Guide to Writing One

How Long Should A Prologue Be

Wondering how long should a prologue be? Some simply call it the introduction with others referring to it as the “first of two beginnings.”

However, it is universally agreed upon that a good prologue can be an effective tool in building your novel. It contains information that is vital to the rest of the story, yet it’s apart from the story.

How long should a prologue be? Do I need a prologue or not? These are some of the questions that writers struggle with when writing their fictional pieces. In this article we’re going to answer these questions and give you some tips and tricks to nail your prologues.

What is a Prologue?

The word prologue comes from the Greek term ‘prologos’ that means, ‘before word’. A prologue is a piece of writing that comes before the first chapter and serves as an opening or teaser for the story by establishing the setting and giving some background details.

It can introduce certain characters of the story and highlight their roles but not by making their relevance immediately obvious to readers. This is because a prologue is treated as a separate entity and not part of the story that the writer is about to tell.

You can think of a prologue as an appetizer that, if done right, makes you wait for the main course. If not, it can make your reader lose interest in the novel at the very beginning.

How Is a Prologue Different from the First Chapter?

A prologue is generally kept outside the main plot of the novel. It may feature a scene or characters from the story, but not giving off too many details like you would see in the first chapter.  

It may or may not contain a primary character. You can even use a different point of view from that of the main character or use an omniscient narrator.

Many writers make use of the present tense when writing a prologue. The language can vary from being simple and straightforward to complex and poetic.

The main purpose of a prologue is to pique reader’s interest in the novel

Functions of a Prologue

A well written prologue can perform one or more functions in the story.

  • Giving background information on the central conflict or events that had previously transpired. This is most commonly done in science fiction and fantasy to let readers know why a certain quest is being begun or why it will be undertaken in the future.
  • Grabbing attention with a stimulating scene from the middle of the story.
  • Showcasing an inciting event that may be from the past and serves as a motivation for the protagonist or a foundation for the story going forward.
  • Creating a dramatic irony where readers become aware of valuable information that the main characters do not have. Murder mysteries and thrillers commonly contain such prologues. A dramatic irony may also be a useful means of introducing the antagonist in these genres.
  • Establishing a point of view that’s different from the rest of the story. For example the story is written in first person and the author wants to give some vital information that the main character would not know. In such a case the author would take help of the third person perspective in the prologue.
  • Expressing a different point in time, for example, the prologue could be about the main character who is now old and remembering something from their childhood.

Do I Need to Write A Prologue?

Not all stories need a prologue and if you just try to fit in one, you will end up ruining the reader’s experience or worse, lose their interest.

So how to tell whether your novel needs a prologue or not? To find the answer, you need to be asking yourself some more questions.

Is There Any Information That the Reader Must Have Before Reading the First Chapter?

A prologue must provide information that forms the basis of the main plot of your novel such as a foreshadowing a future event or creating a dramatic irony.

Whatever information you’re trying to give away in the prologue, be sure that it is absolutely necessary and cannot be conveyed elsewhere in the story or it would hinder the narrative if present anywhere in the middle.

You don’t need a prologue just to set the mood or create the world of your story. That’s what Chapter One is for.

Is There Anything That Sets Apart Your Prologue?

The prologue is essentially a paradox. It’s linked to the main story, yet it is different. The difference could be in terms of time, place or point of view so that the prologue doesn’t fit in with the rest of the story.

A prologue cannot simply precede your first chapter. In fact if that’s the case, you don’t need a prologue!

Prologue Blunders You Need to Avoid

1. Too Lengthy

Prologues are only meant to stir the waters and draw readers’ attention. A longer prologue would mean your readers will feel bored reading it and could even miss important details when trying to skim through it quickly. So it’s best to keep them short and to the point.

Depending upon your story, the prologue shouldn’t be more than 1-4 pages.

2. Massive Information Dump

Many writers misuse prologues as means of world building or giving the entire back story before the first chapter. You shouldn’t assume that the reader has to know everything about the setting and the characters before they even begin with the story. Therefore you shouldn’t give away everything or even half of everything in the prologue.

Moreover, prologues can’t be written in an essay format. You have to craft them tactfully in a narrative form that is in sync with the rest of the novel, making sure that your readers stay in the dark.

Read you prologue a few times before finalizing it. If it has a lot of background information, you should probably consider redistributing the information in the main story instead.

3. An Excuse for a Dull First Chapter

A prologue that creates stakes and builds suspense, only to be followed by a dull and slow Chapter One is a sure way to lose your readers.

It’s nice to have a great hook in your prologue, but the first chapter should still be able to entice the readers just as effectively. A prologue that overshadows Chapter One is like giving your readers a false start. Naturally, they will feel cheated and disappointed.

4. Introducing the Main Character

You don’t want your readers to invest too deeply in the prologue. A prologue can feature the main character but be careful as to not give off too many details.

5. Not in Line with the Genre

If you’re writing a suspense thriller, you are expected to be writing a fast paced, action-packed story. Therefore, starting off with a slow prologue can kill the entire mood and the book might end up going back on the shelf!

Keep the length of your prologues short so that they don't bore your readers

Tips for Writing Great Prologues

1. Keep it Short

A lot of readers are already not fans of prologues, so the sight of a lengthy one will definitely annoy them. Chances are that they just skip it altogether.

So your prologue shouldn’t be longer than a handful of pages. Thus, allowing readers to easily move to Chapter One without having invested too much in the prologue.

2. It Should Be a Captivating Start to Your Novel

A well written prologue acts as the first hook to make the readers want to keep reading. Some readers even gauge a novel through its prologue to find out whether they should even invest their time into it.

A little bit of mystery does the trick. It keeps the reader engaged and they can’t wait to read more. You can tie the loose ends later as the story progresses.

You can also give your readers some back story, a little taste of your main characters’ personalities and the world they live in. But don’t overdo it or try to explain everything.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that you have to strike a balance between keeping your reader hooked and not overpowering the first chapter.

3. Keep the Genre in Mind

The prologue should be consistent with the tone, language and genre of your novel. If you’re writing a mystery, use your prologue to set in the mysterious tone for novel.

Also remember that prologues aren’t a requirement of any genre. Don’t feel compelled to write a prologue simply because most of the books in your genre start with one.

4. Use a Different Point in Time or a Different Point of View

A prologue should have something unique to offer that the rest of the story doesn’t. Make use of a time shift to take your readers to a point in time that doesn’t appear anywhere else in the story until the very end.

It will keep your readers curious and also give a sense of meaning and satisfaction in the end.

Similarly, a prologue can be written with the perspective of a character other than that of the main character or as an omniscient narrator, to provide readers some valuable insights that they won’t find elsewhere in the story.

5. Show, Don’t Tell!

Don’t use your prologue as exposition. This is especially useful when writing fantasy or science fiction where you have to introduce your readers to a different world.

You may write a scene that isn’t directly related to the main story and may not even show up at any other place. However, it should still display important characteristics of the world of your story. And going forward, your readers will feel rewarded when they can figure out the connection themselves.

Prologues can be great literary devices to enhance the story and promote your plot in a creative and intriguing manner. However, if they used ineffectively, they can really put off your readers.

So when considering writing one, be very sure that your story requires a prologue. And use these tips and suggestions to create a powerful prologue for your novel.