How to Use Prologues, Part 5, Backstory Delivery

open book with sketch of 3D pirate and treasure on the left and a sailing ship on the right.
Image courtesy of Tumisu via Pixabay

Hi SErs! It’s a day of Harmony here at Story Empire 🙂 Today, I’d like to talk about Backstory Delivery in a prologue. Here’s a link to the previous post on Does Your Story Need a Prologue?

So far in this post series we’ve looked at what a prologue is and isn’t, what to do and not to do when using a prologue, and whether or not your story needs a prologue. From here on in, we’re going to move on to how to apply various aspects of a prologue. Today, we’ll take a look at backstory delivery.

How do you write significant backstory into your prologue, and do it well?

  1. When using a prologue to describe significant prior events, you need to ask yourself two things: a). What characters need introducing right now? and b). What events need introducing right now?
  2. Both the characters and events introduced in the prologue will provide a crucial key, or keys, to the reader about what follows in the main story. A good prologue will provide information important to understanding the plot, and/or the world, etc.
  3. Remember, this is not an information dump. You need to keep your prologue concise and well-structured, just as you would with your opening chapter.
  4. Use this narrative to introduce an element of mystery and make your reader question and want to know what happens next. For example: Why did X,Y,Z happen? What does it mean?
  5. Standalone events are excellent ways of introducing a much broader theme/issue to your readers without going into overkill.
  6. In your prologue, take care to utilise moments of tension, action, drama, and all the other good stuff you fill your stories with.
  7. Point six follows the same rules of “showing rather than telling” that all brilliant writing employs. A prologue is not the place to tell all or lecture. Whatever you do, you need to thrill your reader and show them something exciting that compels them to read on.

Perhaps the lengthiest prologue I’ve come across is that written by J R R Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings. Here, he used both tension and drama in his descriptions of background events to keep things interesting. Even though Tolkien wrote a rather epic prologue, he broke it down into five separate subjects and used a table of contents. Still, I would advise caution before going this route. These days, his lengthy narrative prologue may well have become a prequel.

Recap: If you can weave the elements of your prologue into your main story, then you don’t need one. But if you need to orient your reader and give them crucial information before the story begins, then definitely use a prologue. Keep it short, concise, and relevant. Show don’t tell.

TOP TIP: When you write a good prologue, and have a valid reason for using one, it will enhance your story rather than detract from it.

Remember: There are NO hard-and-fast rules. You can do anything you want, as long as you do it well and with good reason.

That’s it from me today. I hope you’ll find this series of posts useful. I’ll see you again on Wednesday 17th August, when we’ll take a look at Spoilers Ahoy and Prologues 🙂

Bio Box for Harmony Kent that links to her website www.harmonykent.co.uk

The prologue series so far:

Part One, Prologues Overview

Part Two, What a Prologue Is and Isn’t

Part Three, Prologue Dos and Don’ts

Part Four, Does Your Story Need a Prologue?

©2022 Harmony Kent

71 thoughts on “How to Use Prologues, Part 5, Backstory Delivery

  1. Pingback: How to Use Prologues, Part 6, Spoilers Ahoy | Story Empire

  2. I have not written any prologues but I have written a ‘previously’ at the front of a follow on book. I think they are quite useful especially when books have been a couple of years apart. I have read some prologues and they can certainly set the scene for a series or as a follow on to a book with a character who you might like to know more about and their origins.. terrific post Harmony thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: #Writers Tips – August Edition – #Prologues, Annoying #Book Quirks, New Platform for Author’s Books – DGKayewriter.com

  4. A lot of my favorite writers–Nancy Pickard, Martha Grimes, and Sharyn McCrumb, among others–opened their mysteries with prologues, and they were usually showing something from someone else’s POV besides the protagonist. And those opening scenes were riveting.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This is another informative post on writing rologues, Harmony. The tips you give are concise and helpful. And your final bit of advice is golden and can apply to life in general, but especially to our writing. Thank you for sharing your expertise!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m definitely Pro-Prologue, Harmony, and love how you’ve laid this out. For my own books, I like to set up something in the prologue that makes readers ask questions, then unravel the tale and wrap it up by answering those questions in a satisfactory final chapter, and last, end it all by pointing the way to the next book in the series with an epilogue that hints at new questions. Call me old-fashioned, I don’t mind. Sometimes the tried and true methods work best for what you’re wanting to accomplish.

    I’ve really enjoyed this series of posts. (Notice I’m here on my Blog Break Friday, so you know I truly mean that! 😉) Thanks for a great post in a great series, and I’m looking forward to the next! 😊❤️😊

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent series, Harmony. Your points are very helpful. Thank you for posting the links to the prior segments. I know I’ll be using this reference through time.😊

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: How to Use Prologues, Part 5, Backstory Delivery | Jeanne Owens, author

  9. Excellent advice, Harmony. Clive Cussler’s prologues served as the seeds for his books, ready for harvest at the climax. I’m found of the prologue and epilogue combo that serves as the perfect bookends for a story.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Pingback: How to Use Prologues, Part 5, Backstory Delivery | Legends of Windemere

  11. Harmony, I’ve used a prologue in my current WIP after reading your earlier posts. Would you say 3000 words is acceptable? It does have plenty of “show not tell” action and leaves the reader wondering. Hug, Sarah

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Pingback: How to Use Prologues, Part 5, Backstory Delivery — Story Empire

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