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If you read a lot of fiction, you might have come across a section in the front matter of a book called the “prologue.”

Some hasty readers might skip over this section and jump straight to the first chapter—but if the prologue is written well, those readers could be missing out on important information or details that really help to enhance the story.

What Is a Prologue?

A prologue is an introductory section in a book (usually fiction) that helps to prepare the reader for the story they’re about to read. However, while it’s introductory, it’s not the same as your story’s actual introduction, but more of a preview to the main event.

The information presented in a prologue is helpful (and often necessary) for readers to understand the rest of novel. It provides context or background details, and sometimes describes events that happened prior to the novel’s actual starting point.

It’s important to distinguish the prologue from other frequently confused terms, including the preface, foreword, and introduction.

A preface offers insight to how the book came to be. It might reveal your reasons for writing the book, explain its goals, or describe the development or production of the book. This is post common in nonfiction and academic writing.

A foreword is usually written by someone who knows the author, or is at least familiar with their work. This is almost always used in nonfiction. Usually, a prominent figure or someone who has some authority in the book’s subject area writes the foreword.

The introduction of a book is essential in both fiction and nonfiction. It’s not considered part of the book’s front matter, but rather the main text. In fiction, the introductory chapters often include the exposition and other essential details.

Example: Prologue from Romeo and Juliet

Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which, if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The prologue from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet foreshadows the tragedy that is to come—actually, it doesn’t so much foreshadow as tell us straight up that these two crazy kids are gonna fall in love and kill themselves.

This doesn’t take away from the experience of reading Romeo and Juliet, but letting the car right out of the bag like that might not be the best approach for your book.

Shakespeare wasn’t writing a mystery, so it’s not really a big deal that he reveals the fate of the protagonists right away. In this particular case, it seems the main point of this prologue is to set the scene and explain the circumstances, or the family feud that leads to this tragedy.

What Is the Purpose of a Prologue?

Writers can choose to include prologues in their novels for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • To provide background information that will help readers better understand the story
  • To hook readers by opening with a scene from the middle of the story’s action, so the story will reveal how the plot got to that point
  • Offer a unique point of view different from that of the main story
  • Show another time period, to later reveal its connection to events in the story’s main setting

Does Your Book Need a Prologue?

While there are numerous reasons why authors might write a prologue, it should only be included in your book if it truly enhances your story.

If you’re wondering whether or not your story needs a prologue, the answers is probably no. Ask yourself if what you’ve written for a prologue could work just as well as a first chapter. If you still feel that it’s really necessary and helps to enhances your story and the reader’s experience, then go ahead and use our post on how to write a prologue to guide you.

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