Prologue. The word that’s become a byword of derision and horror. Every reader’s nightmare and bane of existence. Or at least that’s what we’ve been told. It seems like I can’t turn around on a writing website without hearing someone shout from the rooftops, “STAY AWAY FROM PROLOGUES!”
But guess what?
I like well-written prologues.
I like well-written prologues.
Note that I said “well-written.” Of course there can be badly written ones, but that’s not necessarily the fault of the prologue. No one blacklists climaxes simply because there are badly written ones out there; that would just be ridiculous. Then again, I’d be hard-pressed to find a story where a climax wasn’t necessary, while prologues are optional things.
I suppose that’s why they are so disdained. They are not, strictly speaking, necessary. Sometimes there are stories with prologues that don’t really need them. I’ve even deleted an unnecessary one from my stories a time or two myself—Hidden Pearls had a prologue when I first wrote it at the age of fourteen. (another reason prologues have a bad reputation might be because a lot of young writers with little experience like to use them, especially in fantasy). However, after the story was finished I realized that the prologue wasn’t doing me any good. It wasn’t adding anything to the story, and the scant bit of foreshadowing it did get across could be used to better effect later in the book.
Then again, “The Wulver’s Rose” has a prologue, and not only that, but it was my favorite part of the entire story, both to write and to read. (The epilogue is a close second. Maybe because I really enjoyed writing in first person…)
But prologues are tricky things. I’ve read prologues that were just boring, dry information dumps, and prologues that really should have been labeled “Chapter One.” Some were prologues that literally had no purpose—they didn’t hook me, advance the plot, or give me other information I didn’t find later in the novel. My biggest prologue pet-peeve is when it's simply a random chunk transplanted from somewhere else in the novel, forcing me to later re-read the whole scene.
So, how do you use prologues? Well, I could just be a cop out and tell you to re-read the above paragraph and figure it out for yourself. The main guideline: prologues need purpose. Don't just throw one in there for the sake of having one. Personally, my favorite way to use them is when a time jump is involved. If there’s something that happened a hundred years before your story begins that’s important to the plot, it may be best to set that scene in a prologue. Or, sometimes the prologue is set in the future. (That one can be a bit trickier to pull off, but it can be done) Prologues can also be used to impart important backstory information, but keep in mind that short, snappy prologues are generally best; long-drawn out (and dry) ones lose the reader's attention quickly. It’s true that prologues should be used with great discretion.
But that’s not to say that you can’t use them at all.
And to all those advice-givers who claim that readers skip the prologues?
I don’t. So there.
(I also, I feel the need to say here that I've never read Eragon, so if you're offended by the linked article highlighting the book's "bad writing," I have no opinion on the subject.)
(Second disclaimer- I'm not entirely sure what book the first picture is from--I think it's from "If I Stay" but I'm not positive. If it is, I haven't read the book/recommend it/endorse it/whatever. It was simply useful to me for aesthetic purposes.)