Writing

Writing 101: What Is a Prologue?

Written by MasterClass

Feb 15, 2019 • 4 min read

A prologue is a literary device that functions much like an amuse bouche—it arouses the reader’s interest and provides a hint of what’s to come.

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What Is a Prologue?

A prologue is a piece of writing found at the beginning of a literary work, before the first chapter and separate from the main story. Its purpose is to introduce important information—such as background details, or characters—that have some connection to the main story, but whose relevance is not immediately obvious.

What Is the Definition of Prologue?

The word prologue comes from the Greek prologos, which means “before word.” The Ancient Greeks frequently used prologue in dramatic works of theater, where it functioned more like a first act to a play.

What Is the History of the Prologue in Literature?

The invention of the prologue is attributed to Euripides, an influential Greek playwright and poet who predominantly produced tragedies that centered on the darker side of human nature. His plots often featured passion and revenge; in one of his most famous plays, “Medea,” a woman takes revenge on her unfaithful husband by murdering him, his lover, and her own children.

The “Medea” prologue is a good example of how Euripedes used the literary device. In the prologue, an old nurse enters the stage and tells the audience some of the facts so far:

  • that Medea and her husband, Jason, are having marital problems
  • that Jason has run off with someone else
  • and that Medea has been stricken by grief and has even begun to despise her own children by Jason.

The nurse ends her speech by saying the whole family seems to be doomed.

What Is a Prologue in Literature?

Prologues serve an integral role in fiction writing as well as playwriting. In modern literature, Geoffrey Chaucer started the tradition of using a prologue with his Canterbury Tales, a collection of 24 stories written between 1387 and 1400. Chaucer used prologue as a kind of roadmap for the entire work, which tells the story of a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

A good prologue performs one of many functions in a story:

  • Foreshadowing events to come.
  • Providing background information on the central conflict.
  • Establishing a point of view (either the main character’s, or another character who is privy to the tale).
  • Setting the tone for the rest of the story.

3 Famous Examples of Prologues in Literature

1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1591-1595)

This is one of the most famous literary prologues of all time. It is a sonnet which introduces readers to the settings and characters of the play, as well as the very dire situation in which the two star-crossed lovers find themselves in. Shakespeare doesn’t hold back on spoilers—the sonnet also reveals the play’s tragic ending.

It begins:

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.

2. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

Nabokov’s prologue is a clever distraction. It is a fictional forward by an academic who has supposedly discovered the book and is warning readers of its subject matter prior to chapter one. “These are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils,” it reads. “‘Lolita’ should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.”

Of course, such advice, fictional though it may be, only serves to heighten reader’s anticipation of the “evils” to come.

3. Michael Crichton, “Jurassic Park” (1990)

Crichton actually has two prologues—each showcasing a different style. The first reads like a legal document, outlining the seriousness of an “incident” and the “remarkable events” that followed. The second prologue is more literary. It is a short scene, separate to the main story, in which a man is treated for an injury by a doctor in a remote village in Costa Rica. The doctor observes that the man seems to have been mauled by an animal. While treating him, the man wakes up and says one word: “Raptor.”

How to Add a Prologue to Your Writing

  • Introduce the main character(s). Some twentieth-century plays have used prologues to great effect. In Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (1944), the prologue serves to introduce the audience to the play’s narrator, Tom Wingfield, who explains that what the audience is about to see is drawn from his own memories. Tom tells the audience: “I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it. The other characters are my mother Amanda, my sister Laura and a gentleman caller who appears in the final scenes.”
  • Drop hints. For example, crime fiction can make use of prologues to drop hints about characters, location, and the mystery/crime that is to come. Sometimes, a prologue can be set centuries before the main action, but will somehow tie back into the main plot later in the novel.
  • Add only relevant details. New writers should be wary that prologues are not an “information dump.” The best way to decide what to use in a prologue is to ask yourself: what does the reader absolutely need to know before starting to read the main story?