The Makings of a Captivating Prologue: Skill, suspense, backstory and plot

I’ve touched on how not to write a prologue, but today I want to lay out the makings of a really striking prologue. A lot of writing blogs tell you ‘what not to do’, which is always subjective in itself, so let’s explore a great prologue and see why it works.

Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (his prologue can be read under ‘read an excerpt’ on his website here) is the story of when the Rapture hits Mapleton:

“What if the Rapture happened and you got left behind? Or what if it wasn’t the Rapture at all, but something murkier, a burst of mysterious, apparently random disappearances that shattered the world in a single moment, dividing history into Before and After, leaving no one unscathed? How would you rebuild your life in the wake of such a devastating event?

This is the question confronting the bewildered citizens of Mapleton, a formerly comfortable suburban community that lost over a hundred people in the Sudden Departure.

Through the prism of a single family, Perrotta illuminates a familiar America made strange by grief and apocalyptic anxiety. The Leftovers is a powerful and deeply moving book about people struggling to hold onto a belief in their own futures.”

Now, to the prologue. Perrotta’s prologue works on a few different levels: we are introduced to major characters; the themes are established; and the setting is intriguing. So why does this work and so many prologues don’t?

1. Quality of writing

You have to write it well: interesting turn of phrases, great characters, and a compelling hook. Just like chapter one, you have to bring readers in and keep them! The stakes are higher with a prologue because it’s easier to give up as you aren’t too far in. For some great writing see the prologue on Tom Perrotta’s website or sample lines below.

2. Suspense that isn’t contrived but developed from the hook itself

First line: Laurie Garvey hadn’t been raised to believe in the Rapture.

Last line: [The suitcase] wasn’t very heavy, just underwear, a toothbrush, and an album containing carefully chosen photographs of her family, a short visual history of the people she loved and was leaving behind.

So many questions! Who is Laurie Garvey? What is the Rapture? Where is Laurie going? Why does she have to leave people behind? Why isn’t she packing more? How is she going to get there? To get the answers you must continue reading, the ultimate goal of suspense.

Suspense means giving us enough information to feel invested, but leaving out enough information to keep us wanting more. This is the ultimate writing skill.

3. Backstory that doesn’t leave us baffled 

The most common prologue mistake is introducing characters, settings and themes that the reader hasn’t learned anything about yet. How do you solve it? Give us backstory that means something to the reader. A good prologue makes the reader feel privy to information that others don’t know.

Perrotta gives us backstory into characters’ views on religion, a major theme, which simultaneously teaches the reader about their upbringing and family life.

4. A good prologue should read like a stand alone short story

The prologue, like a good short story, should include: enough information about setting, compelling characters, intriguing hook, themes and people you care about…

If you are saying: “Wait! That sounds like what a whole novel needs…” You are definitely right.

So why do prologues act like mystical purveyors of limited information?

The prologue is merely one part of the novel and needs to adhere to the same strategies of drawing in the reader. A prologue is a story within a story.

This being said, you don’t need a prologue. The novel must stand alone. However, a prologue can, like The Leftovers has shown us:

  • Create suspense
  • Bring us into the setting quickly in a way that we care about the outcome of the people
  • Show the reader your flair for the craft while getting them acquainted to what the story will bring

So if you are going to partake be the exception, not the rule. I’m not encouraging prologues (see point 1: you must be skilled enough to pull it off à la Tom Perrotta), but in the spirit of what to do, instead of what not to do, consider all four points before writing or sending out your prologue.

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

2 thoughts on “The Makings of a Captivating Prologue: Skill, suspense, backstory and plot

  1. Wow. I read the Leftovers prologue, and it was nothing like what I expected. It seemed more like just a good beginning of a book, not even really “separate from”, execpt maybe by timeframe. Which I guess is the point.

    I’m really bummed, because Ms. Watters has my query/sample in her hands and its…got….a… prologue. That is NOTHING like Perotta’s.

    Ohhh Nooooo….


What do you think? I love hearing from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: