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How to Write a Prologue and Add Depth to Your Novel

Updated on April 2, 2014

First a Definition

Courtship is to marriage, as a very witty prologue to a very dull play.

William Congreve


I’m just going to borrow from Merriam-Webster for the definition rather than re-invent the wheel. A prologue is:

: the preface or introduction to a literary work

2

a : a speech often in verse addressed to the audience by an actor at the beginning of a play

b : the actor speaking such a prologue

3

: an introductory or preceding event or development

It is, essentially, a way to begin your story twice, and although that may seem like a silly thing to do, there are actually some very good reasons for doing it. However, if a writer chooses to use a prologue, it is important that there be a good reason for doing so or it can work against you.

Ask these three questions before attempting a prologue:

  • Is it really necessary to use one in your novel?
  • What is the purpose of your prologue?
  • Does the prologue accomplish what you need it to accomplish?

The prologue must be essential to the telling of the story. It must reveal some significant information to the reader, information that the reader needs in order to fully understand the novel. It must contribute to the plot and not confuse or detract from the plot.

There are four main types of prologues: the future protagonist, the past protagonist, the different POV, and the background. Let’s take a look at each of these so you have a better idea as you consider whether to use a prologue.

Determine the point of view of the prologue, and which character will deliver it
Determine the point of view of the prologue, and which character will deliver it | Source

FUTURE PROTAGONIST

This is most commonly used when the story is told in the first person, and the main character is writing a memoir and looking back at events in his/her life. It is usually in a very personal and reflective tone.

If written in third person, the prologue is usually the end of the story, while the rest of the book tells how we arrived at the prologue.

In writing my latest novel, “Resurrecting Tobias,” I used a prologue for the very first time, and it was told in first person as the protagonist looked back on his life. In that context it worked perfectly for explaining who my protagonist was, what he was currently doing, which of course led to how he got there.

PAST PROTAGONIST

What is past is prologue.

William Shakespeare

The “past protagonist” prologue is used when the protagonist of the story has had a defining moment in the past that must be known to the reader in order for the reader to fully understand the character and what drives him. It is a flashback for lack of a better term, and one would use it in a prologue because it is too difficult to cram it into the main body of work, or if by doing so it would ruin the flow of the work.

As an example, think of Superman. A prologue explaining his birth on Krypton might be helpful for readers to understand who this super dude is and why he does what he does.

Many prologues are set in a different time
Many prologues are set in a different time | Source

DIFFERENT POINT OF VIEW

This type of prologue describes an event from the point-of-view of some other character and not the main character. The event may happen during the same time frame as the story, or it can be an event from years earlier….its relevance may be discovered in the first few chapters or not until much later in the book, but its relevance will be discovered and it will affect the plot considerably.

Think Clive Cussler and you will have a perfect example of this type of prologue. Every single one of his books uses this technique.

BACKGROUND

We usually see this type of prologue in science fiction or fantasy books where the setting is wildly different from our own world and realm of understanding. To try and explain the setting in the body of the book might be very cumbersome and destroy the flow; thus, a prologue might do the job nicely and save the reader a major headache.

This one is a bit tricky. It is hard to begin a novel with a detailed description of a strange, new world. Still, you can’t expect to toss the reader into the deep end and not have him sink under the weight of strange facts. When attempting this type of prologue, shoot for balance between information and interest.

Without a specific purpose, a prologue is a waste of time and will only serve to cloud the picture
Without a specific purpose, a prologue is a waste of time and will only serve to cloud the picture | Source

Follow These Guidelines When Writing a Prologue

It would be terribly unfair of me to suggest you write a prologue but not give you some guidelines on how to write one, so let’s look at a few things you should consider.

  • There must be a purpose in writing the prologue, and it must be an integral part of the story.
  • The prologue should leave the reader intrigued and wanting answers, and those answers must be revealed in the body of the novel.
  • The prologue must begin strong and have a hook. Remember that the prologue is essentially your first chance to capture the reader and it may be your only chance to do so, so make it strong.
  • It is important that the prologue stand out from the rest of the story. There should be a distinct feeling in the mind of the reader that they have switched gears when they move to the first chapter. In that same vein, you can only use a prologue once in a book. Switching gears more than once will leave your readers with a severe migraine and a broken transmission.

Do You Have to Have an Epilogue If You Have a Prologue?

The quick answer is no, although often you will see the two in the same book. An epilogue is most often a summary of sorts, or a personal reflection about what happened in the book. It is not necessary to have one, and many a fine novel has not had one. We will learn more about epilogues in a later article.

Have you ever written a prologue before?

See results

And That’s All There Is to It

My suggestion is to go to the library and find a book that has a prologue. Read the novel and see how the author used the prologue as a hook and as an integral part of the story. Read several books with prologues and get a feeling for the different ways that they can be used.

The length is not important. As I mentioned earlier, Clive Cussler uses prologues to his advantage, and his prologues are quite often lengthy chapters. I have also seen prologues that were one page in length. Remember that the length is not important; what is important is that the prologue deliver information that could not have been delivered in the body of the book.

A prologue is just one more tool that can enhance your writing. When used properly it is a strong tool indeed. When used improperly it is simply a lesson in futility.

The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time.

Henry David Thoreau

2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Ethan. Most novels don't have prologues. They are rarely necessary, except in the cases I mentioned.

    • profile image

      Ethan Digby-New 2 years ago

      I don't tend to write prologues often, mainly because I don't need one, but I'll look into trying one next time I attempt a novel. Nice hub!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Good to know...best wishes on your writing.

    • Anate profile image

      Joseph Ray 3 years ago

      I picked it up from my favorite modern fantasy author Brandon Sanderson originally.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Anate, you just named one of the great uses of prologues and I totally agree. Thanks for that.

    • Anate profile image

      Joseph Ray 3 years ago

      I have personally always loved prologues. In fantasy writing, they are usually an excellent way to introduce the reader to the magic system of the world or to the world itself. This is an excellent article.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Deb, I think a lot of people have. Thanks for the visit.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I have skipped prologues, too, because I like the meat and potatoes!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you sujaya!

    • sujaya venkatesh profile image

      sujaya venkatesh 3 years ago

      quite catchy bil

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Glimmer, the first book by Clive Cussler that I read, I almost didn't read because of the prologue. I know what you are talking about. Thanks for being here my loyal friend.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 3 years ago

      I'm ashamed to admit this, but I rarely read the prologues, and then it's only the short ones. Maybe it's because some of them tend to go far too long for my taste. Get me to the meat of the story has always been my motto. This is a really useful hub for novel writers Bill.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Dianna, I'm a big believer in prologues. Now epilogues, not so much. :) Thank you!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      A good prologue is as exciting as a movie trailer - only you can read it over and over at your leisure. Thank you for the tips on making this work for a novel.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann, your analogy is right on. Now just make sure you don't strip gears. :)

      I'm glad you had a wonderful time with the family. Have an equally good time at home resting up, and thank you.

      bill

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      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      This is an invaluable hub to the likes of me. I never really considered the purpose of the prologue in such an analytical way. All through your hub I was trying to think what a prologue does from my point of view, then you hit the nail on the head: it provides the first gear so that we can put our brains in second gear for chapter 1. Great!

      Nearly back to normal now. Going home this evening to some peace & quiet, though I've had a ball with the newborn and all the family. Ann

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm glad to hear it, vkwok. Thank you!

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 3 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for sharing these rules about writing a prologue. As someone who uses the prologue sometimes, this will be of great help.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It's a date my friend. :)

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 3 years ago

      Dear Prof. Billy,

      I'll be there!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Glad to help, Jo! Thank you for stopping by.

    • Jo_Goldsmith11 profile image

      Jo_Goldsmith11 3 years ago

      Thank you for sharing this useful information. I learned a lot about the proper way of using a prologue. Interesting reading. voted up & shared.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      breakfastpop, I'll have cookies tomorrow so be on time. :) Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jainismus, thank you and good luck with those two novels. Well done!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Rafiq, an excellent example and one not often used...maybe that is one reason why that is considered a classic?

      Thank you Sir!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you MG. I appreciate you being here.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jo, I understand completely. Once I enter a bookstore, all bets are off. :) I hope you are doing well my friend. Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm happy to hear that DDE; thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      No worries, Ann! Thanks again!

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 3 years ago

      I love coming to class! Voted up, interesting, useful and awesome!

    • jainismus profile image

      Mahaveer Sanglikar 3 years ago from Pune, India

      I am writing 2 novels. This hub is very useful for me, thanks for the tips. Shared with my followers.

    • Rafiq23 profile image

      Muhammad Rafiq 3 years ago from Pakistan

      One of the important functions of prologue is to introduce the characters before the readers. Have a look at Prologue to Canterbury Tales, wherein Chaucer introduces each and every character in details. He makes us aware of the peculiarities of the characters, whom we will come across throughout his tales. Informative and helpful hub for the writers!

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      Very informative Billy and great advice

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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 3 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Bill, more incredible useful ideas for us budding writers. I must say, I like to read the prologue when I'm choosing a book, I guess that is why my old man tends to have one of those "oh no, here we go again" moment every time we enter a book store. I love browsing, and a prologue can be quite useful, especially when I'm spoiled for choice. Inevitable I'll have to rush back for one more book, often just as we're about to pay. :) Excellent share as always my friend, hope you're having a super day.

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      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      You always have such interesting hubs and helpful information for all writers your thoughts are broadened and well achieved thank you

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      Ann1Az2 3 years ago from Orange, Texas

      Yes, I think you can tell how late it is by the typing mistakes I made in my response - sorry! lol Definitely time to go to bed!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann, those are all great examples for sure. I am a big fan of prologues as long as they serve a purpose. Now epilogues...not so much. :) Thank you for the visit so late this evening.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Carter, congratulations on finishing that first novel. A wonderful accomplishment my friend.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 3 years ago from Orange, Texas

      Another great lesson, Bill. And prologues are used quite a bit in movies. You mentioned Superman. Lucas used them in Star Wars - remember the writing that goes up to the sky at the beginning of each movie: "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." Then there is always Star Trek: "Space, a final frontier - these are the voyages of the Star Ship, Enterprise..."

      Even in musicals, they sometimes use prologues. A lot of times, it's a conversion of all the songs played in the movie. The Wizard of Oz had one. Turns out I discovered that the book Phantom of the Opera had one. And we all know who successful that has been!

      Thanks for all your help, Bill. You really are getting me thinking about writing more.

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      Mary 3 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      This is really helpful stuff Bill..when they are done well they are such an great addition to a novel..interesting I've just this week completed my first novel without a prologue,didn't think it needed it but may add an epilogue..keep up the good work, thanks..Cheers

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I know you do, Alicia, and I thank you.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Bill! We have a lesson on epilogues coming soon.

      It's been a good week so far my friend. My Mariners are undefeated. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Alan, I just speak the truth as I know it. Carry on my friend.

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Faith. I hope you have a wonderful evening my dear, and blessings always.

      bill

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for increasing my knowledge about the art of writing fiction, Bill. I appreciate all the information that you share.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Bill. It is very clear from reading all of the comments here just how many people you are helping. I do enjoy reading both prologues and epilogues but had never really given much thought to their importance. I enjoy the prologue because it wets my appetite for what is to come and I really like epilogues that sort of wrap things up. I'll pay more attention in my next read.

      Have a great week.

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      Alan R Lancaster 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Bill, you're too kind!

      (Another five pages done tonight on WAYFARER - should be ready by autumn).

      More soon. WTS

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      I love reading prologues, yet I have not thought of writing one. Great lesson here, dear Bill, as always! Keep these coming. Enjoy your evening, Faith Reaper

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      MizB, I have run across others who skip the prologue when reading....and that leads to confusion later on in the book. A good prologue is there for a reason, and if the writer is any good, it is a very good reason. :) Thank you my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Eric, you never fail to entertain. Thanks buddy!

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 3 years ago

      Thanks for writing this, Bill. I am an avid reader of prologues, and I didn't want my bias to affect my novel when I finally get back to it. I think the "hook" idea is one of the best, especially if the book is one that starts a little slow and builds, like in a history leading up to the real events. A good prologue hook keeps me reading until I get to the more interesting part. I think your explanation of the different types is very good, and I intend to read this again and again until I have it down pat. I did notice that some of the comments say they had not been reading prologues, though. I'm glad you've informed them of what they might be missing. Voted up++

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I do not speak to you from life, for I have died and only haunt you with my memory.

      You treated me like a bastard son and that is truth for eternity. I tell you true that you have created a beast. And I am sorry but that beast is you. These horns I wear are only dressing for you idiot mortal souls. Ha Ha Ha I am the plague and you are reading my epiphany that will detail the wrongs you have done me.

      //? I do not know but I think it should be called a pre-logue doesn't that more sense? Oh well just food for thought.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Alan, with a series like yours, a prologue is a perfect tool to use....as long as it is in the hands of a skilled writer. You, sir, are a skilled writer. And you are correct...writing is a serious business. :) Thank you Sir!

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      RAVENFEAST begins with the worries of a countryside monk when he sees part of a Norse fleet draw up on a nearby beach in East Yorkshire... Then starts properly with a description of what my main character, Ivar, sees when Harold's army draws up on the banks of the Wharfe on the eve of the battle at Stamford Bridge near York.

      Each subsequent book in the series begins with a precis of the previous book.

      No witty remarks this time, Bill. Writing's a serious business.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sheila, I had never used one until this current novel...and it works well with this book. Good luck and thanks.

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      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      Thanks for explaining the use of and how to write a prologue. I've never used one, but I may give it a try.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      cloverleaffarm, thanks for stopping by. I wish you good luck with that book. Some day soon, hopefully. :)

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      Healing Herbalist 3 years ago from The Hamlet of Effingham

      Great hub, as always. I've been working on my book for so long. Thanks for the great advice.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Hey Melissa, good to see you again. I've missed you and thought about you as the cold winter progressed. I'll bet you are eager for spring to finally arrive.

      Your question is a matter of semantics...usually if you go from one time period to the next, it would be a prologue, especially if you stay in that second time period for the remainder of the book. :)

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Heidi, you got it....if that good hook isn't there it doesn't make any difference what we call it....it will not sell.

      Thank you as always my friend.

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      Melissa Propp 3 years ago from Minnesota

      This was very helpful Bill. If you start off the book with something happening in the present and then the next chapter you switch to the past...is that always considered a prologue? Or is it only a prologue if it is broken out separate from the rest of the book and labeled "prologue"? As always, thanks for all this wonderful information. I haven't commented on your hubs in quite a while and I wanted to you know it isn't because I'm not reading them! I have some kind of program glitch that won't allow me to post comments..crossing my fingers that it will work now, at least until my software gets outdated again. Have a great day!

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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      I can see using a prologue (or part of it) as a "sample" of the novel for marketing purposes for readers, agents or publishers. So it better be a good hook! Great tips as always.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Michelle, and I appreciate you sharing this too.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks BNadyn...the ones Clive Cussler writes are perfect examples.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure Carolee!

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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Bookmarked...useful pointers there!!

    • BNadyn profile image

      Bernadyn 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida

      I want to go read some prologues now! I always love a good prologue and I think they are helpful to get an insight into the story. Such simple but effective tips you have laid out here and will definitely help out many writers.

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      Carolee Samuda 3 years ago from Jamaica

      Ooops, I meant prologue...lol. Thanks Bill. Will do that.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jaye, as always, thank you...for so many things. :) I'll talk to you soon.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much grand old lady. I'm just trying to share what knowledge I have. Best wishes to you.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You betcha, Mark! Thank you my friend.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Kathleen, it is my pleasure, really. I've got all this stuff floating in my head; might as well share it. Thanks for stopping by.

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      Jaye Denman 3 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Hi, Bill - This is a very good explanation regarding the relevant use of a prologue, both the "why" and the "how to" aspects. A novel that begins with a prologue sets the stage for what is to come, tantalizing the reader if well written, so I always give it my full attention.

      Voted Up, Useful and Interesting

      Jaye

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      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      I love your book writing series. It never occurred to me that I should write a prologue for my book. Now, I know. All this time, I wrote it on instinct, letting it unravel. But it seemed to somehow not be right. So glad to be reading your teaching series. I'm learning that it's not just important to write a book, but to do it properly and well. Thank you Billybuc. You are a Godsend.

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      Mark G Weller 3 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

      Another set of great tips and information, thank you Bill!

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      Kathleen Odenthal Romano 3 years ago from Bayonne, New Jersey

      geez bill, these hubs are going to be so helpful to so many people. I need to bookmark them so I can start working on my full-length book again! thank you so much for breaking down the process in a way that makes so much sense!

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Cardisa, I would be happy to take a look at it...send it to holland1145@yahoo.com

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      They really are quite handy, Rebecca. You raise valid points and I thank you.

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      Carolee Samuda 3 years ago from Jamaica

      Hi Bill. Thank you for this article. I really need your opinion about an epilogue in a novel I am writing for a client. May I send it you to look at please? The client thinks it's okay but I just want to make sure. I'll send the epilogue and first chapter.

    • Rebecca Furtado profile image

      Rebecca Furtado 3 years ago from Anderson, Indiana

      I like prologues because the give the character voice in a very concrete way. It is also a great way to present multiple points of view without confusing

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Janine, I'll be honest as well....for many years I wouldn't even read the prologue....didn't see the point in it. Now I do and I will read them with more attention.

      Thank you Janine....have a great day.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure, Sha! Good luck with it. I have no doubt you will get it right after working on it tirelessly.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Mari, you do whatever makes you happy. :) What makes me happy is having you visit here, so thank you.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Donna! It's good to hear from someone who uses them regularly. I appreciate it.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Randi! I think, if used properly, they can add to a book.

      Have a great day my friend.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 3 years ago from New York, New York

      I will be honest and say I don't always give as much thought or credence to the prologue in books, but after reading you thoughts here, you have given me some food for thought with this and will definitely play closer attention, as well as rethink using it int he future if and when I get the novel published. Thanks Bill and enjoy your day now!

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      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      This is another article worth bookmarking. My fiction writing coach suggested that a particular subheading I have in chapter one of The Gifts of Faith would work better as a prologue. After reading this I understand why he made the suggestion.

      Thanks for this very thorough explanation of prologues and the purpose they serve, Bill.

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      dragonflycolor 3 years ago

      I guess I should start reading prologues more often. Thanks, Bill!

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      Donna Brown 3 years ago from Alton, Missouri

      Hi Bill,

      I love prologues! You did a great job here explaining them!

      In my novel Soldiers Don't Cry, the Locket Saga Continues, I used the past prologue because I needed to tell that part of the story in an action format rather than in the form of a flash back. In my book When God Turned His Head, I originally had a past prologue, but others who had read it said that it was too intense for my intended audience, so in order to tone it down, I put the past in a flash back, but the emotion as it related to the main story remained.

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      Randi Benlulu 3 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Thank you, Bill. I usually enjoy prologues but never really gave much thought to actually writing them! What a concise easy to explain it! Up/