Prologues, introductions and first chapters are important. Very important. Whichever you choose to begin your novel, whether prologue+first chapter or introduction+first chapter, or just plain first chapter, you need one of them. It has been scientifically proven that you can’t start a book with chapter two. The first chapter, prologue or introduction is essential. Each gives background to the characters, world (if different), way of life (if different), and anything else the author deems necessary for the reader to understand.
As books become more streamlined and unnecessary words are omitted, prologues and introductions are discarded in favor of the good old method of shoving the reader face-first into the action. But introductions and prologues can be very useful as well, even more so than first chapters. A first chapter in which the amount of action is high, but the descriptions interspersed within the action sequences are also very common and long-winded, will be very tiring for the reader. If bullets are flying past Joe’s head as he crouches behind a table marked with a Hello Kitty sticker, we don’t want to know who his auntie’s dog is and what he has to do with the story. Neither do we want to know the reason why one of the table’s legs is two inches shorter than common table-leg-length regulations permit. We want to know whether or not Joe gets his brains blown out now, or whether he gets them blown out later. Makes sense. It would be much better to do most of the explaining during the prologue or introduction.
One of the things that can be most annoying is when a writer misuses a prologue, introduction or first chapter. You might not think this possible, since after all each is the first section of the book– what can go wrong? But it’s common to use an introduction as a prologue, a prologue as a first chapter, and the odd putty knife in place of a steak knife. After all, it’s quite an easy mistake to make… if you’re ignorant.
Well, my dear ignoramuses, no more! In this guide you shall learn to distinguish between a first chapter and an introduction, a prologue and a first chapter, and a ground pheasant from a quail. Essential tasks for writing, these.
Let’s go in reverse alphabetical order, shall we? Prologues. What do they do? A prologue is defined by the dictionary I have on hand as “an introductory scene, preceding the first act of a play,opera, etc.” The key words here are “introductory” and “preceding”. That means that a prologue will introduce things about the rest of the story, and it will come before the rest of the story (fancy that). But preceding means more than that– the scene must precede all the other scenes. You see, a prologue is a scene that takes place years before the first chapter. It won’t introduce much, actually– more often it will heighten suspense and make the reader ask questions about the story that will probably be answered later in the book. A good prologue would be two unseen entities discussing the future of a very young individual who will one day grow up to be the protagonist. A very common usage, that. If you have a protagonist who is set apart by singular circumstances around his birth, use the prologue to describe those circumstances. A prologue is for explaining things happening far prior to the first chapter.
An introduction does something you’d never expect– it introduces. Amazing, eh? An introduction is an abstract explanation, wholly separate from the thread of the narrative. It introduces the main character, the location of the main character, and any interesting anomalies concerning the main character. The first chapter might be about attempts on the main character’s life– but the introduction is all about the main character. You could get mighty conceited with treatment like that. But one thing to keep in mind is that an introduction is not a part of the story. It gives background information only. It does not give the inciting incident of the story– it does not describe scenes sequential to the first chapter, or even separate from the first chapter. My main point is that an introduction is not a scene. This mistake is made over and over again by many writers, and it’s quite annoying.
The first chapter is very self-explanatory– it’s the beginning of the story. It is a scene, where the introduction is not, and it is seamlessly grafted to the other parts of the story, where the prologue is not. The first chapter does not take place five years prior to the beginning of the main character’s quest, and neither does it explain things without actually introducing a scene in which the main character is extant. It begins the story. The inciting incident ought to take place here; the introduction of main character (for the most part), supporting characters and people who are trying to kill the main character should take place here.
What irks me the most about books these days is the lack of prologues or introductions. The first chapter drops the reader into the action, which is good for the pace of the book, but when explanations are needed, the author takes an awkward flashback or frequent paragraphs of explanation to justify why Bob has a pink shoe that lights up when he says “shish-kabob”. Prologues are for flashbacks. Introductions are for explanations. First chapters are for actions. That is all.
Use this guide, I heartily encourage you. You will go far knowing the use of a prologue versus an introduction versus a first chapter. And I probably won’t kill you the next time I read your first section. Let’s all be thankful for that.
And about that quail/pheasant thing– Wikipedia. I still get Will-o’-the-Wisps and Whip-poor-wills mixed up on occasion.