I’d say a fair few novels were started at the beginning of January, so this might be a topical post. Prologues. The devil’s spawn, or perfectly acceptable literary device?
Word on the street is that agents hate prologues. And some readers skip prologues entirely, thinking them to be technical and boring, and go straight to chapter one anyway. This is probably because prologues are not being used in the right fashion. How are they being misused?
Prologues that agents hate:
It might be that the author has read that dumping a whole load of information about the world in which their dystopian/vampire/zombie/sci-fi epic takes place is bad writing. So stick it in a prologue and it’ll somehow be acceptable. No. Agents will start reading at page one of the manuscript. If they see a whole lot of world-building and no action in a prologue, they’ll never get as far as Chapter 1.
Setting the scene.
This is related to the point above, but sometimes the similarity is hidden because this type of novel might be in a modern-day “normal” setting. In this instance, the author wants to set the scene in which the book takes place – perhaps describing a mysterious old house at the end of the lane, or a busy cafe, or an office workplace, or (it doesn’t have to be a physical space), a relationship.
So the author has got a great idea for a hook, but can’t really fit it into the story. Never mind. Put it in a prologue. That’s fine, but if the hook doesn’t relate to the story, it’s not relevant.
Other common fails in a prologue? Dream sequences. Starting the story too soon (prologue of the MC as a young boy, or even a twinkle in his parents’ eye). Lack of discernible stakes (what’s the prologue about?). Too long.
When are prologues useful?
The general wisdom is that prologues are useful when the author needs to tell a part of the story which is discontinuous in time or place or POV, from the main narrative of the book, and without which information the comprehension or appreciation of the main plot is going to be harmed. What does this mean?
The prologue describes a scene long before or, as quite often happens in fantasy novels, a long time after the main events in the book take place. This is the classic “old man writing a memoir” opening about what happened to him when he was young. Umberto Eco uses this strategy when beginning The Name of the Rose, Adso remembering, in his dotage, the time when he and Brother William solved a mystery in the abbey. Is it a good example? I’m not actually sure. It goes into some detail about the historical setting of the events, and goes in to a lot of depth describing Adso’s appreciation of the character of his colleague. Could this detail have been leaked in later in the story? Quite possibly.
Dan Brown started The Da Vinci Code with a prologue. Reason enough to never use one yourself? Well, to be fair, he knows what he’s doing. The prologue relates the assassination of Jacques Saunieres, curator of the Louvre, by an unknown assailant. It is in close third POV of Saunieres himself. Since he dies, this POV is never repeated, and the rest of the book is related from the POV of Robert Langdon, the sleuth who untangles the whole messy conspiracy hocus-pocus. I think. Not that I’ve ever read it, of course. Ahem.
Characteristics of a good prologue:
Is in a similar POV style to the rest of the book, although probably not of the main characters.
Should stand out from the main text, to be discernibly different.
Is an entire scene that has relevance to the main story and gives at least a hint how it is relevant.
Reads like a short story, with the exception that the end should leave the reader intrigued, questions unanswered.
Ultimately, a prologue is a matter of taste. Certain genres (fantasy, sci-fi, dystopia) seem to lend themselves to prologues, since they invariably require a significant shift in the reader’s worldview. The danger is that these prologues become a dumping ground for information about the world the author is building, rather than have any particular significance or hook. The crime genre is another that has used prologues extensively. But the idea that the prologue contains the brutal murder of the victim by assailant unknown, which crime the rest of the book will be unraveling (Dan Brown again), is almost cliche at this stage. Given that most agents appear to dislike prologues, I’d suggest that an unknown author needs an absolutely watertight reason to start their book with one.