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The prologue of my story is extremely important as it adds context to what is happening in the first chapter. While talking to my friend, they revealed to me that most readers skip the prologue. Now I’m not sure what to do, as I wouldn’t like for the reader to skip it as they may be confused about what’s going on in the story.

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    There might be a few readers out there who do... but in general, no.
    – veryverde
    Jan 4 at 7:11
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    I would guess that most readers don't skip the prologue, but skip the preface. Maybe your friend confused the two concepts? Unfortunately, I don't think there are any reliable data available regarding which reader skips what.
    – Stef
    Jan 4 at 7:27

3 Answers 3

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There is no data on how many readers skip prologues. But from feedback and discussions among readers we can assume a few things:

What few readers dislike

  • Novel without prologue
  • Story with one single protagonist
  • Story told from one single point of view
  • Minimal worldbuilding and background provided during the storytelling and only when and as much as it is necessary
  • Story told in third person past tense
  • Minimal descriptions of characters and locations
  • Standard Written English

What many readers dislike

  • Novel with prologue
  • Story with multiple protagonist or an ensemble cast
  • Story told from multiple points of view
  • Extensive worldbuilding and background inserted as nested stories or embedded narratives
  • Story told in first person present tense
  • Detailed descriptions of characters and places
  • Dialogue or narrative in dialect or slang or historical variants of English

There are genre or market segment conventions that deviate from this general tendency. For example, in Young Adult fiction first person present tense is more common nowadays that third person past tense, and in epic fantasy readers seem to enjoy stories told from the viewpoints of multiple protagonists and characters telling longwinded background stories around the campfire.

But in general, the more your story tends towards "what many readers dislike", the higher the likelihood that your story will disappoint its audience and get bad reviews. The numbers given by editors, agents, and professional authors for how many readers acutally skip the prologue vary between "most", "50%" and "some", but even if only a very small number of readers dislike prologues, those are the readers you will invariably disappoint. On the other hand, 0% of readers will be disappointed because a book has no prologue.

That doesn't mean that you shouldn't do what I listed under "what many readers dislike", just that you should be aware of conventions (especially in your genre) and make sure you only deviate from those conventions because it greatly enhances your story.


Personally, I tend to skip prologues, as I have found that they are largely irrelevant to the later story. Most prologues have protagonists that don't appear later in the story or only as background information or side characters, and usually I can easily infer the information I have missed by what is told in the main story.

And if your prologue contains relevant information that I cannot infer, of if the protagonists of the prologue are part of the main cast of the main story, why not make the prologue your first chapter?


Given what little information you provide regarding your own story, I cannot recommend what you should do.

But there is one thing you definitely need to keep in mind: When your story has a prologue, you have to hook your readers twice – at the beginning of the prologue and at the beginning of the first chapter. Because when your readers finish the prologue and start with the main story, the switch in setting, protagonist, and topic will require an effort on the part of the readers. They have to motivate themselves to become interested in this other story.

Basically what a prologue does is mislead the reader. The reader becomes invested in the story laid out in the prologue (or they wouldn't keep reading it), they identify with the characters, they want to know how the story plays out. Then you stop telling that story and face them with another one: another protagonist with different goals that the reader, coming from the prologue, doesn't at first care about.

And here you have to pick up the reader and take them into the new storyline. If you fail at hooking the reader again after you have "misled" them with the prologue, the reader will put down your book at the beginning of the first chapter and stop reading.

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I conducted an informal survey of writers in my writing classes and determined that anywhere between 2/10 and 4/10 readers skip over the prologue the first time they read a novel. My instructors were aghast at the response. But that is because every one of the instructors love books and are published authors.

There is also unscientific data gleaned from online discussion sites, that between 30%-40% of readers skip the prologue. I used to be one of those people. Now I read the prologue.

If the content of your prologue is important to understanding your novel then make it the first chapter of your book. If you find that it doesn't read as well, then ask yourself how much of the information in the prologue is needed for the first pages of your novel to work. Let's pretend the reader needs to know the first four pages of your prologue to find Chapter 1 thrilling and interesting. You can move those first four pages into the start of Chapter 1. They become your first scene. It doesn't matter if they have a different POV or have characters that don't continue on. You start your story where it needs to start.

For example, in the Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. The entire first chapter is effectively a prologue. You get a sense of the world through the eyes of a no-good-nik who dies on the final page. The second chapter starts years later and sets the story in motion.

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  • Writing class at what level? Is it something that kids are forced to take in school or is everyone there because they're passionate about reading/writing? For me, I wouldn't even think to skip the prologue if I was reading for pleasure, but I might if I was in school and that wasn't on the test.
    – Laurel
    Jan 4 at 20:55
  • @Laurel, the UCLA Writer's Program
    – EDL
    Jan 4 at 21:47
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The problem with most prologues is that they are a history lesson; not a story.

History lessons are boring. Most readers hate the history lesson, and the history lesson breaks the cardinal rule of writing for entertainment: It is telling, not showing.

The history lesson is filled with facts to memorize, but readers do not memorize facts! When people read for entertainment, they want to build an imaginary world in their head, a movie they are seeing as you describe what is happening. That requires settings, and a point-of-view character they are following in each scene, the reader wants to occupy that POV, see what they see, feel what they feel, as if they are, in spirit, part of the story.

Your job as a writer is to assist the reader's imagination, to build up the scenes and make their imagination match, in the important details, your own.

As a rule of thumb; readers are very poor at memorizing or remembering cold facts. What they remember is what we humans are good at remembering, the things we actually experience. The people we spend time with, or the people or other entities or things that threaten us.

Prologues tend to be far too much "telling", facts and situations that the reader must memorize for the story to make sense. And they fail, because they read for entertainment, and memorizing the prologue isn't fun so they skip through it, looking for a scene.

Instead of a prologue, you can start with a story, and immersion.

In the first Harry Potter book, JKR faces a cold open: The audience knows nothing about her world or anything in it. So she opens with strange happenings in the normal world, mysterious magical things going on, to establish that this story has magic, and is about this infant "Harry Potter" that survived something or other and that is a mystery, and his parents died, and he's being left an orphan. That is all the "prologue" we get, but told in story form, with characters, imagery, and dialogue.

Then ten years are skipped. The boring ten years of Harry growing up. Then magic things start happening again.

Do not start with a prologue. Start with a story. Start cold.

Readers will give you plenty of credit in the first 10% of the book, they fully expect to not know anything or anyone, and they expect to be introduced to the hero and the world in the first 10%.

That is why, in the three act structure most common for writing, the first 10% of the novel is devoted to our hero, in their normal world (no matter how fantastical it may be), going about their normal business, meeting any important other characters (which introduces them to the reader), etc.

Avoid the prologue; it must be disguised as story.

Don't worry about dropping your reader into the cold shallow end of the pool. They expect to be dunked that way. And they expect to get used to it.

Don't explain what is going on first; at worst you can do an opening half page explanation. The opening crawl in the first Star Wars movie, explaining the situation we are about to see, is 83 words long. About a third of a page in novel.

But then, we are in action! A frikkin' huge Imperial Star Destroyer is in pursuit of a tiny Blockade Runner and is going to catch it; a "droid" is given a secret message by a strange woman and told to get it to yet another unknown man. None of this explained, all we know is that this is all incredibly urgent, they are in bad trouble and desperate, the big bully is the bad guy, the little Runner are the good guys, and now everything is riding on this trash can looking droid R2-D2. (And for the rebels, outmatched in every respect except their wits and courage, this is their normal world.)

Here we are, dunked in the cold shallow end, but we are enthralled. This is what we expect from stories, be they movies or novels.

Ditch the prologue. Start with a story. Start with a scene that introduces your characters in their normal world. That should be the first 15% of your novel. About then, something happens (the inciting incident) that intrudes upon this normality; and eventually forces your Main Character (or Crew) out of their normal world.

What you consider "Chapter 1" is probably Chapter 3 or 4, the beginning of Act II. About 25% of the way through the whole story.

The term "Show Don't Tell" originated in stage plays; the admonition for playwrights was to not TELL the audience that, say, Mike is a heavy smoker, but to SHOW that, by having Mike always have a cigarette burning in his mouth, or hand. Don't say Margaret is overly sensitive, show Margaret being overly sensitive.

The same thing applies to print. Yes, everything is obviously "told", but the difference is in the reader's imagination. You are there to assist it, in creating a scene, and again you don't say Mike is a heavy smoker, you just show in every scene that Mike is smoking.

The problem with prologues is they are not stories, they are Telling. Not Showing. And Telling doesn't work, the readers won't memorize or remember what you have told them, because all they remember is the scenes that you Showed them, i.e. helped them to imagine and be present in. The sights, the sounds, the odors, how the temperature and humidity made them feel, the emotions they felt there.

Stories (Movies and Novels) are composed of sensory scenes.

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