Writers often hear that they shouldn’t include a prologue in their novel. That, if necessary at all, the prologue should become the first chapter.
I’ll admit, though I’ve often attempted to write a prologue into my stories, I’ve usually turned back around and taken them out later at the suggestion of beta readers. Prologues are often a breeding ground for unnecessary info dumps that really would be better interwoven into the actual story. (Or in my case, prologues were excuses to bring in confusing characters that weren’t ready to be revealed until a bit more foreshadowing has been dropped into the story).
However, there are exceptions to every rule, and most writing rules are really more like guidelines that, if you know their purpose, can be broken.
For example, I’ve become a fan of the writing podcast, Writing Excuses, which is an excellent resource for writers who want to hone their craft. The podcasters of Writing Excuses cover many different topics, and one topic they covered was the effectiveness (and lack of effectiveness) of prologues. An example they gave of a useful prologue was the intro for A Song of Ice and Fire, in which the readers see an example of the monsters in the introduction long before monsters are shown again in the main story. (Note: I haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire, so I may be misinterpreting their explanation.) The point of this prologue was to set up reader expectations and promises, to say that even though you aren’t going to see these monsters again for a while, they do exist in this world and the reader will see it again.
This is exactly what we see happen in Marvel’s Doctor Strange movie. The introduction begins with a dark ritual and an exciting, mind-bending fight between the antagonist and the Ancient One, and shows that there is a whole magical side to this universe that the viewer should expect to see later. The movie then launches into the beginning of the story for Doctor Strange, which has absolutely no magic, focuses heavily on a medical-science focus, and shows a rather self-absorbed protagonist. If the movie had not started with the prologue to show the magic that would come in later on, the viewer who simply started with Doctor Strange’s part of the story would be in for a bit of a surprise once the mystical stuff shows up (landing quite a punch for both the main character and the viewer). In the meantime, those viewers who wanted exciting action and magical sequences might have gotten bored and decided to skip out on the rest of the movie. Because of the promises made at the beginning of the movie, the viewer knows that if they wait around long enough, their patience will be rewarded.
A different use of prologues is to help set up foreshadowing that readers won’t see otherwise, at least, not until far too late into the story. (The trick here, it seems, is to make sure it is interesting and still drives the plot, despite a difference in time or perspective). One of my favorite prologues is from Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart, which is a fast-paced sequence that introduces the concept of “epics” (those who use superpowers tend to go evil in that universe) and sets up the weakness of the antagonist, though it doesn’t explain what the antagonist’s particular weakness is until much later. It does a good job of setting up that this is going to be a novel where the main character is set on vengeance, and setting up promises and expectations for the reader. Another thing I enjoyed about the prologue in Steelheart is that the whole sequence is explained later by starting with the character’s explanation of the events, but cutting before everything is explained and going to the next chapter, allowing the reader assume that the story the protagonist tells is the same one from the prologue. Arguably, this scene could have been shown at that point in the story. But then it would have slowed down the main plot and the reader would have lost knowledge about the driving force behind the main character’s actions, something that helps the reader sympathize with the protagonist (whose original goal is more or less to uncover the weaknesses of various epics so he can assassinate them).
Thus far I have not yet used prologues in any of my published works, but that may change in the future if the right story comes along. What are your thoughts on prologues? Have you used prologues in your fiction? Do you have any favorite prologues?