Amber Morn
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.


A prologue should be removed from the main story by either time or space.

In Part I we discussed the need for a prologue to be compelling and short. Here we look at a second principle: A prologue should be removed from the main story by either time or space.


A prologue may be an event occurring before the main story. It could be years or mere days. It depends on the time length of the main story. If it’s a suspense that takes place in eighteen hours, a scene that occurs one week previously seems like a long time by contrast.

Sometimes novels will have a first chapter that happens years before the second chapter. This is a prologue in disguise. Perhaps the negativity about prologues made the author too cautious to call this opening what it is. If a scene fits the bill for an effective prologue, label it as such. If it doesn’t, don’t try to disguise your use of the scene by calling it “Chapter One.” If it’s labeled “Prologue,” the reader will understand it’s removed from the main story. If it’s called “Chapter One,” the reader expects the main story to begin in that timeframe. Jumping years ahead in chapter two then feels jarring.


There’s only one way I’ve seen this work: if the prologue shows a snippet of some future event that doesn’t become clear until the end. For example, it could be a scene of a man trembling with tension, walking into a darkened room to meet someone. Not until the crisis/climax do you find out what man, what room, why the man’s tense.

If I wrote such a prologue (and I haven’t, to date), I’d do it to set up a twist. I’d want the reader to assume it’s Man A, in Room B, meeting character C. In fact, it would be Man C, in Room E, meeting character D. But the question I’d have to answer is: Is this the best way to set up the twist? Usually not.

Most time-forward prologues fall into a different category: using a complete action- or emotion-filled scene from further in the story. I advise against this. What’s really happening is the author senses chapter one is a slow start, and he wants to throw some higher energy up front. The problem is two-fold. One, it doesn’t fix the slow first chapter. After an exciting prologue, there’s a huge dip in energy. In fact, here a compelling prologue works against itself. The more grabbing it is, the more we’ll feel that lull in chapter one. Two, everything in the story until we catch up to that scene is rendered mere set-up.

If we know that exciting scene is coming, all else before it becomes back story. Readers will be impatient to catch up to that excitement and move on. You’ve launched the all-important “what happens next?” question in their minds based on a scene that won’t occur until page forty-five. Pages one through forty-four may seem pretty boring.

Admittedly, I’m speaking like a suspense author. Some may say

this technique is more viable in other genres. I still say don’t do it. Novels that use this technique may succeed, but I’d argue there was a better way to tell the story.


This can be geographical: Your story takes place in Hawaii, while the prologue is set in Colorado. However, there’s also a conceptual kind of “space,” which is between reader and character. This plays out through changes in POV (point of view.) Let’s say your story is told in close third POV—which puts the reader firmly in the character’s head. The prologue might be told in omniscient POV, or a removed third, which is somewhere in the middle. Here again the reader’s inherent understanding of a prologue helps make the technique work. The reader will accept that the POV used in the prologue varies from the POV in the main story.

Or your story may be told in first person, but the prologue needs to focus on another character and is told in third. In today’s fiction it’s not uncommon to see POV shifts between first and third in different chapters. However, a first person story needs to present the protagonist’s POV in chapter one because you want your reader to connect with that character right away. A chapter one written from some supporting character’s third person POV leads the reader to assume that’s the character she should empathize with most. She’ll be jarred by the sudden first person at the beginning of chapter two.

In a first-person story, if you write a third-person prologue—which means delaying the entrance of your protagonist—you’d better have good reason. I have written this kind of prologue. We’ll talk about that and other examples of prologues in Part III.

Read the Reviews for Dark Pursuit

Dark Pursuit