Here’s where I’ll be sharing my experience, limited as it is. I’m not particularly successful and I don’t pretend that my writing is brilliant. However, I have studied a lot of other people’s writing, I’m an avid reader and I’ve even struggled through a couple of writing self-help books. With that in mind, where should we start?
This is always at the start of a novel (if it has a prologue), so I thought we’d begin there. When I wrote Vikingr, my first book, I kicked things off with Chapter 1. Now, I’m beginning to regret it. The prologue is essentially an introduction for the reader. It lets them know the tone of the novel, your writing style and what sort of adventures they have to look forward to.
Why write a prologue?
You don’t have to include one. It isn’t at all compulsory, but it is very useful. Often the first chapter doesn’t adequately represent the novel as a whole. That isn’t to say that the first chapter is bad, just that a story has to start with a beginning. The first chapter sets the scene, introduces characters and lays the foundation on which the narrative will unfold.
What you sometimes need at the very start of your novel and before Chapter 1 is a big, appetising hook. As a writer, you’re fishing for readers. This means that you have to entice them in with a puzzling or gripping question. There are generally two types of question in fiction. What’s going to happen? and How did we get here?
Note that you won’t always need a prologue. If your first chapter is sufficiently thought-provoking then the hook is already there. The issue I have looking back at Vikingr is that the beginning is slow. Mystery builds gradually through setting and dialogue. If your Chapter 1 kicks the reader straight into the action, a prologue could be unnecessary.
How do you write a prologue?
I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this question. As with all aspects of creative writing, you as an author are inventing your own unique style. Here are a couple of methods to try:
If your novel is primarily narrative, i.e. relating the events of a character’s life, then you can play with the timeline of the story. In the prologue, an older version of your protagonist can begin telling the story to an audience (a character, group of people or the reader). This is primarily a simple “once upon a time” type of introduction, but your older protagonist lets something slip. A detail is revealed which grabs the reader’s attention and at least one key element is left out.
An example: “It was in that dark and dreadful place, deep in the Enemy’s dungeons, that I experienced the most horrific torment a human can endure.”
This tells the reader where (the dungeons) and who (the Enemy), but it leaves them wondering why the Enemy was torturing them, how they fell into his grasp and what was done to them.
Things can be done differently for a novel that focuses on action or adventure. This is what I’m planning to do with Vikingr when I update it. A prologue which takes an event later in the story and embellishes a minor aspect of it.
E.g. “Erikr looked up from the corpse and stared into the eyes of his companions, dark blood running slick down his outstretched arms.”
We know what (a murder) and who (Erikr and his companions), but not how, where or why. Some aspects of the who are left a mystery for the reader. They don’t know whether Erikr is the murderer or even who has been killed.
Let me know in the comments if any of this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?