I’ve been monitoring a hot and heavy discussion on prologues on one of the writer forums.
The contention has been advanced readers don’t like them and many editors and agents now decline to consider a novel with a prologue.
Personally I find that ridiculous. Why would an author include a prologue if he/she didn’t intend it to be read? A prologue is defined as a preface, an introduction to a story, providing background or other details essential to the tale. The narrative device has been in use at least since the time of Euripides, who is sometimes credited with its invention.
There are two valid reasons for having a prologue. One is to provide backstory without resorting to flashbacks or other devices which might bog down succeeding chapters. The other is to provide a hook for the reader and target toward which the rest of the book is directed.
Many writers will tell you both goals can be achieved in a first chapter and therefore a prologue is unnecessary. Generally a prologue relates to events before the novel begins. It’s an introduction set apart from the rest of the novel by time and/or viewpoint. To me that does not always make for an effective first chapter.
Prologues have been used since the beginning of the novel. Willa Cather begins “Death Comes for the Archbishop” with a prologue, as did Kenneth Follett with “The Pillars of the Earth.” Peter Matthiessen employs one in “Lost Man’s River” and Umberto Eco in “The Name of the Rose.”
They are most efficient in mysteries and science fiction. Some examples in the former genre might be Ian Rankin’s “Dead Souls,” Elizabeth George’s “A Place of Hiding” or Patricia Cornwell’s “Cruel and Unusual.”
Admittedly, not all prologues are equal. Many great novels dispense with them. But they are generally brief and I see no sensible reason for not reading one.