Let me preface this by saying I always read a prologue, if it’s there. I’ve realized that some people dislike them so much they’ll just skip them altogether, and that’s not where I’m at. If I’m reading a book, I read all parts of the book.
Also, I don’t mind them. There’s nothing inherently bad with a prologue. If you write them I read them and I don’t want people to stop using prologues for my sake.
But I sometimes don’t like prologues.
I’m not saying I hate them, but I think they should serve a purpose. I realize a lot of people find this notion strange, which is why I decided to write a post to explain my viewpoint. This whole post was inspired by a book I’m reading at the moment, which I will discuss below, but first, two things that I think a prologue has to do to work:
1 – A prologue must be able to not be Chapter 1. To explain: if you can swap Prologue for Chapter 1 in the heading, and it still the same book in essence, then it’s not a good prologue.
And here some people will argue, “But why does it matter what we call them? It’s just a word, after all.” Then, I ask you, why call it a prologue to begin with?
A prologue (by the definition I’m used to at least) is a separate introductory section to a work, that establishes context and gives background details. If it’s just the start of a story, then what is it introducing?
2 – A prologue needs a purpose. It needs to be necessary.
This is in essence what sparked the whole post. I love a good mythological world-building prologue. You know the whole backstory of how world came to be, Resting on the back of a turtle floating in the eye of a giant sleeping in the nether, that kind of stuff. That can be really useful to present the history of a world and explain where we are at the point of the story. Another useful type of prologue is the, If we do this thing now, nothing will ever be the same. Forty years from now, the consequences will be dire! and then chapter 1 starts off forty years from now and the consequences happen.
I’m reading a fantasy book at the moment that has this kind of prologue (I won’t mention the author or book, because I don’t want to spoil anything). It’s short, only 4 pages long, but basically it’s about a guy who seeks out some evil powers. It becomes very clear that this is what he’s doing, but then, he tells us why.
I re-read this section, because I couldn’t understand why the author would do that. Now that I’ve gotten a little bit into the story, and I’m seeing this character again (18 years later), I know that he’s done evil things and harnesses some evil power. Even when the author drops subtle hints about what happened ages ago, I know exactly what he means, because he told me. So while he’s foreshadowing and slowly revealing the backstory about this character, he’s already told me far too much (in my opinion) about him already.
Of course, I haven’t read the entire book yet (or the 4-book series for that matter), so there could be some cool twist to all of this that I’m not seeing. Maybe things aren’t what they seem, and maybe the guy is actually good and did all of this out of necessity. And if that happens, then I’ll take back what I’ve said about the prologue being unnecessary…
But if that’s the case, the author has also strung me along and made me make assumptions and have feelings toward this character in a way I would prefer he didn’t. Even if the plan is to finally reveal that he’s good, I don’t see the purpose in making a big statement about his evil in a prologue, when I’m already getting a lot of hints in chapter 5 (that are now useless because I already know/assume he’s evil.) If the author wanted me to assume he was evil, why not just stick with the slow build?
Is that pay-off of this prologue worth it? Maybe. I don’t know yet. But I assume not.
Anyway – prologues. They’re not bad. I’ll read ’em if you keep writing ’em. But they’re not always good.
In my opinion.