Very rarely are the first paragraphs in a book actually the beginning of the book’s main story or subject. Over time, writers and publishers have slipped more and more pages into the front of the book, cramming in forewords and prefaces, introductions and prologues, and other content into “front matter” sections that are so thick they use their own roman-numeral pagination.
And that’s fine. Absolutely. Just fine.
But too many novice writers feel they must include all these different sections to have a “real” book, and too many more don’t understand the differences among them.
Here are some of the differences:
A foreword is a statement about the book or the author written by another person. Sometimes the name of the person who wrote the foreword is even included on the cover of the book, especially if that name is more well-known or well-respected than the author’s. It’s a marketing move to use a popular personality’s name to sell an unknown author’s work.
Forewords are more common in nonfiction than fiction, though they do sometimes appear there, especially in reprints of older or classic novels.
The important thing to remember, though, is that a foreword is written by someone other than the book’s author.
A preface is a more general statement about the work, usually written by the book’s author or editor. A preface might include background information about the creation of the book, or information that helps frame or gives context to text that follows. That includes things like research methods, the goal of the book, and why the author was compelled to write it. It might also include acknowledgments, if the author has only a few.
The line between a preface and an introduction can get a bit blurry, especially in fiction. Generally, though, where a preface delves into the book and its raison d’être, an introduction introduces the book’s subject matter. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, Sixteenth Edition, “Most introductions belong not in the front matter but at the beginning of the text, paginated with arabic numerals” (1.42). That may be the differentiator to remember.
Consider this: Even the most avid readers will skip the front matter pages — those paginated with roman numerals — to get to the beginning of the book proper. If there’s anything that the reader must know to understand the book, it should not go in a preface or foreword, where it will be skipped over.
The original prologue of Greek drama was a speech inserted before the chorus and directed toward the audience; it set the scene of the play. There’s a long history of prologues in the theater. For example, Shakespeare began Romeo and Juliet with one: “Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, …” is a prologue that tells theatergoers the setting and the underlying conflict and foreshadows the tragedy to come.
Modern prologues more or less do the same thing.
A prologue is a scene or event that occurs out of chronological order from the main action of the story — usually before the story, but not necessarily — in order to give important background information, to establish a setting, to set up the action at the start of the story, or to establish a cliffhanger or character goal right from the start.
The scrolled text at the beginning of Star Wars movies is prologue. The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in which members of the Order of the Phoenix deliver infant Harry to the Dursleys, could rightfully have been called a prologue because it occurs eleven years before the story of Harry’s days at Hogwarts. J.K. Rowling, however, decided to just call it Chapter One — maybe just to keep people from skipping over it.
Prologues are much more common in fiction (including plays for stage and screen) than in nonfiction, though you can find them there. And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields’s biography of Kurt Vonnegut, includes (after the introduction) a prologue called “Out of Print and Scared to Death.” Just three pages long, it establishes the fear, self-doubt, and deep desire to be taken seriously as an author that underlay many of the stories of Vonnegut’s life.
Other Front Matter Sections
Acknowledgments: If you feel the need to thank more people than just “my parents, Ayn Rand and God,” you might create a separate acknowledgments section at the front (or back) of your book. Unless they’re looking for their own name, readers will skim over acknowledgments, so don’t put anything actually important in there.
There are some exceptional acknowledgments sections, of course, that are worth a bit of the reader’s time. Kory Stamper’s acknowledgments in Word by Word are formatted as dictionary entries; they’re chock full of equal parts love and wit and are worth the read. And the novel Crown of Vengeance, by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, includes a brief acknowledgments page that readers of this blog in particular will appreciate.
Editor’s or translator’s notes: For a work that was compiled or translated, a little extra information about the process of choosing what to include or of translating from the original language might be in order, but try not to waste readers’ time or to pull attention from the main texts.
Author’s notes: We’ve all seen these, though perhaps not read them. Consider this an alternative title for the preface. If your book has both an author’s note and a preface, you might consider combining them, or rethinking how the book is organized.
As I mentioned at the beginning, too many novice writers believe they need these pre-text insertions in order to have a “real” book. That isn’t true. Remember: Every page inserted at the front of a book is another barrier between the readers and the story. As a rule, except for comic effect*, use as few of these as you can.
* See, for example, The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach by Peter Schickele.