I’ve seen a lot of back and forth, up and down about prologues in novels: Are they the kiss of death with agents and editors? Or are they the most useful writing trick since the dialogue tag?
My answer would be yes. Or no. Depending on what kind of prologue it is and what it’s meant to accomplish.
Prologues are not created equal. Some kinds of prologues enrich a story so much they could even be considered essential. Other kinds are mere cheap tricks that need to be abandoned in favor of good, solid writing.
The Bad Prologue
Here are a couple of examples of the egregrious, dispensable prologue and their possible alternatives:
- A scene is lifted from the middle of the story—usually a shocking or suspenseful scene—and plunked down at the beginning as a prologue. The reader is then taken back in time in chapter 1 and has to read large chunks of material before he can find out what happens after the prologue.
The cure: Make your first chapter intriguing enough that the reader wants to read on, even without having the book’s greatest moment of suspense dangled in front of him like a carrot.
- The prologue is nothing more than backstory, generally told rather than shown.
The cure: Weave what backstory is really necessary (usually not much) throughout the initial chapters, using dialogue, narration, and perhaps a judicious amount of flashback. (Flashback consists of fully realized scenes, not straight narration.)
The Good Prologue
Useful, enriching prologues, on the other hand, are usually distinct from the body of the story in one or more of several ways: time, character, setting, point of view, even tone and style. They can also function as framing devices for a story within a story.
- Time: C. S. Lakin, in her fairy tale, The Wolf of Tebron, uses a prologue to show crucial events that take place a generation before the main story begins. (This differs from the bad backstory prologue in that it is written as a fully realized series of scenes, not as “telling.”)
- Characters: In certain kinds of crime novels, it is considered legitimate to include a prologue that depicts the actual crime, focusing on the criminal and the victim. The focus of the narrative then shifts to the detective(s) for the rest of the book. TV mysteries (such as Inspector Lewis, my current favorite) often follow this format for the first murder. (This is not usually done in cozies or in classic British detective fiction; there one generally gets to know and loathe the victim before he or she is bumped off.)
- Setting: My own prologue to The Vestibule of Heaven is narrated from, well, the vestibule of heaven, whereas the story proper takes place on earth. This prologue also serves to give the reader some essential information about the first-person narrator that could not be conveyed as effectively within a normal story scene.
- Point of View: In several of the Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling uses a prologue written from another character’s point of view to let the reader in on events of which Harry cannot be a witness.
- Framing Device: The prologue of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi purports to be written by a third party who has discovered Pi’s story and brought it to the world.
Prologues like these accomplish a genuine purpose in a way that is ultimately more elegant than any other possible solution.
That, to me, is the acid test: Is your prologue an elegant solution or a cheesy shortcut? If the latter (she says, cracking her editorial whip), get back to work and come up with the most elegant solution for your particular story.