First let's start with all the cool things about prologues.
Well . . .
Um . . .
And, then there's . . .
Kidding. Kidding! Prologues are cool. They are like extras to the story. You can do them in a different POV. They can take place in a completely different time than the rest of the book. They can tell a part of the story that isn't in the book itself in a cool way. And, heck, avid readers like us LOVE prologues. They are like the really cool appetizer to a great meal.
Prologues are awesome . . . when used the right way. The problem is that 99% of the time I see a prologue in a newer writer's manuscript it is used the wrong way. This includes lots of self-published, small press, and even some bigger press books. So much so, that in general, I tell my writing students to just cut them out completely. Why? Read on.
Let's start by getting this out of the way up front. Even though "we" all read prologues, most people do not. Yep. Fact. About the same number of people read prologues as read footnotes. This is especially true of people browsing a book for the first time--in a store or online. They jump straight to chapter one and give it a page or two to see if they like it. As a writer, you may hate that. As a reader, you made spit upon such a vulgar action. But, IT. IS. TRUE.
So, with that in mind, let's look at some of the reasons people use prologues.
- To provide important information that is key to the story. Let's say that the story is about a girl who finds a key in an old chest. We want the reader to know that the key was placed there by her great grandmother just before she was killed by an evil demon who still roams the Earth disguised as a traveling organ-grinder. (The kind who makes music with a dancing monkey. Not the kind who actually grinds your liver up into a tasty pâté, you sicko!)
This seems like a great reason. The problem is that, since most people skip the prologue, your readers will never get that key information. Therefore they will not understand the story the way they should. Ouch!
- You add a really exciting prologue--say, a guy getting chased through the jungle by a tiger--because chapter one starts out a little slow.
Again, this seems to make sense. You know that you have to hook the reader early, but your first chapter takes a while to get going. So you write a super exciting prologue, knowing that if the reader can see just how exciting things are going to be, they will be patient with the slow first chapter. Unless, they skip the prologue, go straight to the first chapter, get bored, and move on to something else. Which most of them will. Double ouch!!
- There's a whole whole bunch of back story information you need to provide, but you've learned that starting a book with a bunch of infodumpy stuff is bad. So you tuck it all into the prologue.
Wellllll . . . you could do that. Then the people who read prologues could get bored with your infodump, and the people who skip prologues will be confused because they don't know the back story. Yeah. Not so good.
- You have a fun little thing that can be skipped without affecting the rest of the book that doesn't really matter if it's read or not.
This seems like a no-brainer. If it isn't necessary to the book and doesn't matter, why put it in at all? But the truth is, that a cool (read interesting) prologue that can be skipped without hurting the rest of your book is one of the best prologues there is. If people read it, great! It's exciting and they like it. If they skip it, no big deal. It's like the extra scene after the credits in a movie. (Fun little side note here. I know one author that actually hides a little bit of extra story in his acknowledgements. I've always wanted to do that.)
As long as it's gripping and not an infodump or flashback, just rename it chapter 1. Really it's that easy. When I wrote Water Keep, the publisher wanted to start with a chapter in Farworld to show it was a fantasy. Because I wasn't introducing Kyja until later in the book, I wrote what is essentially a prologue that is exciting and fun, but not key to the story and called it chapter 1.
If chapter one starts out boring. Fix it. Period. Make it gripping and get rid of the prologue.
If you have a bunch of back story and extra information, let it come out in the story itself. Not in a big chunk, but being discovered a bit at a time, the same way the character learns it. Let the reader discover who hid the key in the chest along with the main character. This is actually much better writing anyway, because it keeps the reader guessing . . . and reading.
So, is there ever a good time to include a prologue? Certain genres, especially epic fantasy, almost require prologues, because we geeks demand them. So if you are writing epic fantasy, toss it in there. But again, don't make it boring or required for understanding the rest of the book, and make chapter one exciting on its own.
Finally, if, understanding everything I said above, you do throw in a prologue, make it short. Most readers want to get into chapter one where the story starts and a long prologue tends to turn them off.
Did I miss a reason or have any questions about your prologue or one you've read (or skipped?) Feel free to discuss in the comments.