Never in the history of humankind has there been a more divisive subject.
There has never been a war, a battle or a barroom brawl without first some poor soul uttered the word, “prologue”.
And yet, here we are.
Here we are . . .
Prologues are loved/hated depending on the individual and I’m not here to tell you that your opinion is wrong (although it probably is). There are five-dozen articles on whether you should or shouldn’t include a prologue.
I counted. Twice.
Instead, it’s important to understand what a prologue is, and how to use it appropriately. Back in the day, if a fantasy story didn’t have a prologue, it probably wasn’t any good. Robert Jordan took that idea to an extreme so great that his prologues could have been their own publication—although the reader was almost never the wiser after finishing a Jordan prologue.
|Long, long ago prologues.|
There-in lies the first problem of prologues—misuse.
So, let’s boil this down quickly: What is a prologue? How is it used appropriately?
The prologue provides information from a different time/place that can't be had within the narrative, but is integral to the story. As the first thing your readers read, it must serve the purpose of fully engaging the audience, drawing them in and keep them turning pages.
That’s it. If you keep those two things in mind while writing a “prologue” then you’re good to go. Don’t make it an information dump. Don’t try to build the entire world. Don’t be too vague. Don’t use it only to set mood.
Think murder-mystery books, which make the most common and most effective use the prologue—an overview of the crime and a few hints as to the resolution. Or Harry Potter and the
Philosopher’s Sorcerer’s Stone, which uses the prologue perfectly. In both cases, the prologue is set before the
events of the book(s), grabs the audience’s attention and provides information
integral to the story but otherwise unknowable.
Prologues have such a bad reputation—hanging out on the wrong side of the tracks, smoking cigarettes and getting tattoos—that some readers will roll up the windows and drive past quickly. Personally, if the book was good enough to make me crack the cover, then I’ll trust in my author to not break our contract just because the word “prologue” appears. It’s part of the reading experience, the art the writer is delivering, and I’ll trust the artist until I don’t.