Preface your book!

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preface your book

Whether it’s a preface, an introduction, a foreword, or a prologue, the text that comes before your first chapter is important for setting the stage for your readers.

Not every book has a preface. That’s OK, because some have an introduction. Or a foreword. Or a prologue. And some have several of these.

Whatever you call it (or them), the text that comes before your first chapter is important for setting the stage for your readers. So let’s take a couple minutes to cover the basics.

Your first question is probably this:

What is the difference between preface, foreword, introduction, and prologue?

That is exactly the question that was asked, and answered, on Quora. As you can tell, there is no hard and fast definition, although a foreword is typically written by someone other than the author, usually someone well-known and credible. This is a great way to help readers accept that a new writer has something worth reading.

An introduction is usually an explanation of what is in the book. This is ideal for non-fiction books, or for fiction books where the author wants to explain where he’s coming from. It can also let readers know how they will benefit from reading the book. The introduction is not part of the story.

A prologue is generally part of the story, but set apart. It sets the stage by bringing the reader into the story before it begins. Generally, a prologue is used for fiction.

So what is a preface? Well, now, that’s a good question. A preface could be an introduction. Or it could be a prologue. It is whatever you need to set the stage so that the reader can hit the ground running from Chapter 1.

Setting the stage is key

If you go to the cinema, the movie doesn’t just start. There will be interviews with actors and previews of other films. There are usually credits and maybe an intro. By the time you start watching the movie, you are already excited. But a preface doesn’t just get you excited. It should also inform you and provide context to better understand the book or the story.

How I used both an introduction and a preface

In a non-fiction novel I have just ghostwritten for a client, I used the introduction for him to explain why he wrote the book and what is important about it. Because the book is non-fiction, there is social context to explain, there is a message and a point to why he was telling this particular story. The introduction ends with a dedication related to his explanation.

I then added a preface, which captures an exciting moment in the story. The whole preface is a phone conversation. It ends with the protagonist realizing that he has to go somewhere to deal with a situation. Because it is a novel, there is a story. This preface gives the reader some insight into why the protagonist found himself in the heat of the action in the first chapter.

The preface could have served as a first chapter. However, it was written apart, allowing me to set the stage and build anticipation without pre-empting an action-packed first chapter.

The preface also gives context to the first few chapters. It tells the reader who the protagonist is and who informs him or advises him. It also raises questions in the reader’s mind. The reader will be anticipating the answers until they are revealed.

This approach can be taken for both fiction and non-fiction writing. Even a how-to book on leadership or on woodworking can start off with a preface that builds anticipation, leaving the reader eager to delve into the book to learn more. The preface can be part of a conversation. Or it can refer to a sticky situation, without revealing how to get out of it.

No topic is too serious or too silly, too accurate or too imaginary, for a good preface.

 

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Y’know, there’s no such thing as a “non-fiction novel.” We just call those books. By definition, a novel is fiction — always.

  2. The fastest way to get a fiction submission rejected is to start with anything other than the story in action on Page 1 of Chapter 1.
    A foreword should always be written by someone notable for knowledge in the field or a respected author, but never by the writer of the manuscript.
    A non-fiction novel is an oxymoron. The entire genre of creative nonfiction, best represented by writers like Erik Larson and John Berendt, crosses the line between truth and fantasy far too much to be considered anything other than fiction. Even a historically accurate account of actual events becomes fiction the moment the writer consolidates characters or invents dialogue to make the story more readable. That doesn’t mean that the books aren’t the best that I have ever read. It also doesn’t invalidate the truth of the histories they contain. But, if I write a story that did not actually happen the way I wrote it, even though everything I write about what is also happening around my story is accurate, the story is still fiction.
    In the case of a fictional work set amidst an actual historical event, a preface is absolutely necessary so that the author can make clear to the reader the distinction between the historical account and the fictional story that are mingled within the book.

    • I totally agree with Thomas, Troy, Lynn and Allen . . . a novel by definition is fiction. And a prologue at the front of a novel is the kiss of death. It’s like saying ‘before I entertain you with a good story, let me bore you to sobs.’ Seriously, anything you might put in a prologue can be woven into the meat of the novel as backstory.

    • Troy,
      These categories are shifting and the lines are becoming blurred. Yes, I know fiction is not the actual event. However, when a writer is true to actual events, then it can be difficult to tell the difference. Since our general public is often semi-literate, especially when writing for teens and young adults, I do think placing a book in this category is a good idea. It may actually encourage reading books, something many youths are now avoiding.

  3. I agree with the comments by Thomas and Troy.
    There ARE hard and fast definitions of these sections. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, the definitive style guide for books (which no author or editor should be without):
    * The Foreword is always written by someone other than the author.
    * The Preface is the author’s own statement and includes the reasons for undertaking the work.
    * The Introduction includes material integral to the subject matter of the book.
    Rather than arguing for including one or more of these sections, I’d caution writers to use them only when necessary. Many readers are eager to dive in to the real story in chapter 1 and may therefore skip all the front matter, so make sure whatever you include is truly called for.

  4. My standard advice is: Never ever write a “Prologue” if you want a publisher to seriously consider publishing your novel.

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