Discussion Topic: Prologues and First Chapters

What is the difference between a prologue and first chapter of a novel? I’ve noticed some authors choose to use prologues while others skip right to the first chapter. In terms of an introductory chapter to a novel, what determines if that chapter should be labeled a prologue or simply chapter one?

20 thoughts on “Discussion Topic: Prologues and First Chapters”

  1. From what I understand, a prologue covers some event that happens before the start of the book that helps set some prior conditions for the story. We had a long discussion about prologues on Critique Circle (http://www.critiquecircle.com/default.asp) and whether you used a prologue or didn’t seemed to be the author’s preference, although it should more or less follow this rule. The time gap can be a few minutes to thousands of years. It can also be a different POV from the rest of the story.

    I chose not to use a prologue in my book This Time (a novel about Richard III in the 21st-century). even though Chapter One opens over 500 years before my story begins. Instead, I made it the opening scene. It’s only 400 or so words long and I didn’t want a reader to skip this crucial scene. (You might want to bear in mind that a significant percentage of readers don’t read prologues.) However, the POV character in my book is Richard and from his viewpoint, there is no time gap from when he thinks he dies in battle to his waking up in the 21st-century.

    I have found that the fantasy genre tends to use prologues more than other genres, so readers of this genre might expect a prologue and will therefore not skip it.

  2. I agree that’s a common thing that separates prologues from first chapters, but I’ve seen other uses as well. They usually do take place before the rest of the story, but I’ve seen a number that show some event near the end of the story that we then work up to.

    I’ve found that the clearest reason to use a prologue and not a first chapter is that the prologue exists outside of the main narrative structure of the story.

    It’s a convenient way for an author to get across a piece of information that sets up their story without having to fit it into the way the rest of the story is written; it’s out of the main character(s)’s point of view, it’s outside of the regular flow of the story’s chronology or it written in a completely different style, like as a historical or religious text instead of the standard narrative.

    I’ve come to be wary of using them myself, because they serve as a sort of crutch for fantasy authors to give their stories weight before that weight has actually been earned. Oh look, a thousand years ago this random demon (who must be important to the story) broke some mystical object! Now, even when I start reading about that farm boy, I know the story will eventually have scope! Yay!

    But they have their uses. There’s a reason they’re a common crutch. They work, even if they’re a tad clunky.

  3. Eric Sipple wrote: “…but I’ve seen a number that show some event near the end of the story that we then work up to.”

    Yes, I’ve seen that too. I’ve almost always found that when an author does that it’s because the author (or editor) must feel there’s no hook to the beginning of the story without giving the reader a peek at some crisis point near the end. That feels like cheating and the book’s quality notches down for me.

  4. I know many readers who will not read prologues or epilogues. They figure if it is important enough to be in the main work then it would be. I personally read every page of the novel down to the typesetting marks, barcode, and Library of Congress information on the title page.

  5. “I’ve found that the clearest reason to use a prologue and not a first chapter is that the prologue exists outside of the main narrative structure of the story.”

    Well put, Eric. I have a novel in the works (okay, so all I’ve written is the prologue) in which the prologue takes place while the narrator is still alive, whereas in the rest of the book the narrator is dead, but there’s no significant time change.

  6. All good points. I agree with everything that’s been said. Heidi, I’m with you. I read all areas of the story, including the historical note at the end if there is one. I can’t say I read the barcode or Library of Congress information though 🙂 I do sometimes read the acknowledgments. You can find valuable information in the acknowledgments like who the author’s agent might be, which is helpful if you are writing a novel in the same genre.

    For my novel, I thought about having a prologue but really the first chapter deals with one of the main characters, even though the event takes place years prior to the actual narrative. Because of the lapse in time, I considered making it a prologue, but since it is very crucial to the story, I don’t want any readers to skip over it.

    I’m trying to remember in Pillars of the Earth if the first chapter there is actually a prologue. It’s a significant foreshadowing event with one of the main characters — even though you don’t know the person’s name at the time — and I can’t remember if Follett used a prologue or just made it the first chapter. I don’t have the book in front of me. I will have to look when I get home.

  7. I also read every bit of the book, though perhaps not in the order that it’s printed. I’ll more likely read acknowledgments after I finish the book (if I like it), but if there’s a prologue, I do read it first. However, because of discussions like this, I try to avoid having prologues in any of my writing, but instead try to make that piece an opening scene–trying to keep it as short as possible so as not to slow down the story I want to tell.

    I’m not so fussy about writing epilogues, ending notes, etc. I figure if the reader likes my book, they’ll read past the end wanting more, and if they don’t like it, then there’s no guarantee they’ll even finish the book.

    As I previously mentioned, my opening scene takes place over 500 years before the rest of the book, but since I employ time travel, the MC doesn’t experience the time chasm. If you’re curious, you can link to my website and click on excerpt, which is the first chapter. The first 400 words (approximately) take place in 1485 and then the story picks up in 2004.

    I’m pretty happy with the way I’ve handled it and so far, most of the feedback I’ve received has been quite positive.

  8. I used a prologue in my second novel, Hugh and Bess. It was in a slightly different style than the rest of the novel and provided historical background information that set the stage for the first chapter.

    For my forthcoming novel, The Stolen Crown, I originally used a prologue, but with rewriting, it worked better as simply “Chapter 1.”

  9. I don’t normally use prologues, but for the NaNoWriMo piece I’m writing(which probably won’t be complete by the end of the month, nor will it be in exactly the same form as it is now, when I go back to it), but in this novel, I felt I had to. First, because the novel is a “prequel” to what I started out writing, and also because the narrator is an old man who is telling his life story. He is human, but not exactly like “us” and he comes from a nearby planet. The prologue is basically his reasons for setting down the narrative in writing(, and for “the future”. I don’t think, in this case, it was a crutch, ; it was just that this particular story seemed to need it.
    Anne G

  10. Anne Gilbert wrote: “…The prologue is basically his reasons for setting down the narrative in writing(, and for “the future”. I don’t think, in this case, it was a crutch, ; it was just that this particular story seemed to need it.”

    I agree based on your description, Anne.

    My mention of using a crisis point near the end as a prologue in the “crutch” context came from my observation of some “blockbuster” writers using this device where the story’s beginning is weak. Here the prologue isn’t outside the story and is repeated near the end of the book. I’ve also seen this done on a couple of TV shows and it annoyed the snot out of me. IIRC, one was a Battlestar Galactica episode.

  11. For the first novel going out to agents and in front of readers, the hook needs to start with the first sentence and keep the reader going for at least 5 pages (30 pages is even better). If a book has a prologue, then which first five pages are more important? Some readers are going to start with the first chapter and some with the prologue.

    I personally don’t like the initial hook (prologue) to be something that happens three quarters into the novel. It spoils the writing when I arrive at that point.

    A first draft can include prologue, rambling first pages or whatever. When I read first drafts of beginning writers I almost always suggest deleting the introductions, set up and back story. All that can be included after the hook.

    Great topic, Steven. I like reading the various view points.

  12. I am not keen on prologues, as I feel if the story is wrtten well it should not need an “introduction”. If used, a prologue, I think, should be as short as possible, no more than a page.
    Novice writers, I’ve noticed, tend to add a prologue because they are unsure how to fill in the back story – but as someone said above, agents often only look at the first page and if that first page happens to be a slightly rambling prologue and not an opening wow of a story….

    Having said all that LOL 🙂 I do use a prologue of sorts in my pirate-based adventure fantasy Sea Witch Series – the ‘prologue’ sets the start of the supernatural element of each story, these threads are short and in italics to differentiate from the rest of the novel.

  13. Joan — I read snippets from your first chapter. It seems like an interesting premise. I want to ask how Richard ended up in modern day, but I suppose that would ruin the story.

    Susan — I do think a prologue in Hugh & Bess was the right choice for that particular novel. It made sense and helped readers who had not read The Traitor’s Wife. You handled it very nicely I thought! I’ll go ahead and put a plug in here again for your two novels, The Traitor’s Wife and Hugh & Bess. If anyone hasn’t read them, give them a try!

    Anne — Sounds like an interesting story you have going there. Will it be available on your site to read after you’ve finished?

    Joan — I agree with you. I’ve also seen it used as a crutch to hook the reader, showing an event later in the story that we eventually work up to. Not something I’m too terribly fond of. I’m trying to think of an example off-hand in literature but nothing really comes to me at the moment. I’ve seen this device used more often in television and movies.

    Heidi — Excellent points. You must hook the reader in the first five pages. Noah Lukeman, a literary agent, has a book actually called The First Five pages, which discusses this very topic and how, as a writer, not to have your manuscript immediately thrown in the trash. I also agree that set up and back story should be sprinkled in later as a building process of the greater context of the novel.

    Helen — Agreed. If you use a prologue, it should be short. Personally, I don’t want to read a prologue more than a few pages long.

    Since I’ve started re-writing the first part of my novel and creating an entirely different opening scene, I’ve decided it will definitely work best as a first chapter and not a prologue. It’s going to be way too long for a prologue, and plus, it’s vitally important to the overarching story line.

  14. Steven, I partially show how Richard is brought into the 21st-century fairly early in the book, but since the story is mostly from Richard’s POV, the reader learns the details as Richard learns them. I also tried to obey the scientific laws for all aspects except for time travel. So, the team couldn’t just bring Richard forward into this century. They had to exchange an object of equal mass for him.

    In addition to the print version (available on Amazon), I’ve also created an e-version of This Time on Smashwords at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/3935. Smashwords supports multiple formats including Kindle and PDF. You can preview the first 35% of the book.

    Susan, as you know I loved both your books and I’m eagerly waiting for the next one to be released. Maybe it’s because I read Traitor’s Wife first, but I thought the prologue in Hugh and Bess would have worked equally well as a first chapter.

  15. Yes, I really enjoyed that story. I find I can’t put down his books once I start. I was so engrossed reading Jurassic Park while waiting to board a plane that I almost missed the calls. Luckily I heard the last call.

  16. Steven and all:

    Well, just to letcha know, this novel I’m writing for NaNoWriMo is basically a “prequel” to the trilogy I’m presently writing. The idea of a prequel grew, because one of the characters grew and grew anb grew, and I had to write more about him! I’m kind of with those who don’t like prologues all that well, especially since my writing is kind of a blend of fantasy, science, and “historical romance”, I guess(I have no idea how I’m going to “pitch” it to a potential agent, but I haven’t really revised any of my trilogy enough to worry about it yet). And if anybody is interested in getting a possible “flavor” of what my stories are “about”, go to my blog, The Writer’s Daily Grind at:

    http://www.writersdailygrind.blogspot.com

    You’ll get more of an idea there, though I don’t have any actual excerpts. If you’re interested, I have a first chapter of the first book in my “romantic science fiction” trilogy, up on Google Docs. Let me know if you want to see this, and I’ll send y’all the URL.
    Anne G

  17. Joan – Crichton is certainly one of my favorite authors. I enjoyed Timeline the most, then Prey, then Eaters of the Dead, then Jurassic Park.

    Anne – I’d like to take a look at the first chapter. You can send me the link here or through my gmail account. Go to my contact page at the top of my site, and my email is listed there.

  18. Steven:

    Are you referring to my NaNoWriMo effort, the one with the prologue, or the first chapter of the first book of my trilogy? I’d be happy to send you that first chapter(some other people are reading chapters from the whole book; the second draft is not quite finished, but I’m very close to it)? I just want to make sure of this before I send you anything. When you tell me which one you want, I’ll get right on it, gladly. So far, I’ve gotten good responses from those who have read this chapter.
    Anne G

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