Foreword, preface, prologue. We’ve all seen one or the other of these at the front of a book, and many people think they are the same thing. They’re certainly very similar, but there are definite distinctions between them. Do you know what they are?
A foreword is a short introductory statement, especially when written by someone other than the author. It’s not unusual to see the writer of the foreword lauding the author of the main work, or telling a bit about how the work came about or how it came to his/her attention. Note that the definition describes it as a short introductory statement. Usually a foreword is a few paragraphs and less than a page.
The opposite of a foreword is an afterword: a concluding section or commentary or a closing statement.
A preface, conversely, is a preliminary statement by the book’s author or editor, usually setting down its purpose and scope, expressing acknowledgement of assistance from others, etc. Very often we will see an acknowledgment page used for this purpose instead.
A prologue is described as a preliminary discourse, an introductory part of a poem, novel or play. It can be an introductory speech calling attention to the theme of a play, as Shakespeare often did. In Romeo and Juliet, the prologue is as follows:
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.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
These days, a prologue like this would likely be regarded as a spoiler, but a subtler version could be used to draw the reader’s attention to a theme or a thread that might otherwise be overlooked amid the action of the story. The prologue will usually hint at what is to follow, and give the reader a sense of the flavor of the story.
The opposite of the prologue is an epilogue: a concluding part of a literary work like a novel, or a speech after the conclusion of a play. This is very often used as a wrap-up, tying up the loose ends or letting the reader know what happened to the characters after the climax of the story. It may pull the entire story together, capturing the theme in a final, brief resolution.
Where a foreword or a preface is not integral to the story, the prologue is. A word of caution here, however. While the prologue may be used to set up the story, beware of using it as an info dump: filling it with names, dates, and relationships that, at this point, mean little to the reader.
Here’s a sample of how NOT to write a prologue:
Blonde and petite Christina Butterfield Warren, a clairvoyant who shares her prophetic powers with her twin brother, Anderson, has been shielded by her parents, George and Regina Warren, for the first sixteen years of her life. Now, however, at their untimely deaths, Christina finds herself at the mercy of her cruel uncle, the Duke of Warrenham. Forced to leave the only home she’s ever known in Nodding Hill, she arrives at Warren Hall in Piddlington where her older cousin Frobisher seems to offer a sympathetic ear. But can she trust anyone in Warren Hall? And does the appearance of the specter of her granny Hawthorne mean madness or truth?
By contrast, the prologue to the original Star Wars gave the viewers just enough information to understand the action that’s taking place and introduced them to one character only. All the other characters were introduced during the unfolding of the story, allowing the viewers to get to know them one by one.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…
Prologues, used correctly, can set up a sense of anticipation in the reader, drawing them immediately into the story, making them want more. A prologue that provides too much information too soon, however, can often produce no more than a glazed look in the reader’s eyes and a temptation to move on to more subtle, but infinitely more interesting, stories.