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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