I recently attended The Writer's Workshop Festival in York where the subject of prologues was breached often. Writers wanted to know if prologues were a no-no or not. While some of the industry professionals response was akin to, 'Eww, prologues, nasty!' Others (authors, authors) stood by prologues when they were deemed helpful/necessary to the plot.
If your novel has a prologue (your short story better not have a bloody prologue) then the first thing you need to ask yourself is, 'What function does my prologue serve?' followed by, 'Will my story work without a prologue?'
I know the tendency to answer those questions with, 'Noooo! My prologue, my precioussss!' is all too tempting. Yet for some readers, prologues can be a major turn-off. Some skip them all together. The horror! A reader is already skipping over the first chunk of your writing. Not a good sign.
So what are the problems with prologues?
The first, most obvious problem is that the author has a whole lot of information about their characters and ther story that they want to get across to the reader. Which is brilliant, of course. A writer needs to know their story better than anyone else. However, not all of the information that the writer needs know to get the story down needs to be told to the reader, particularly at the first hurdle.
Not every prologue is trying to accomplish the same thing but a lot of the time, prologues are dumping grounds for backstory. The author wants to let the reader know that Georgie was abandoned by her mother when she was young, so that when she finds a secret fairy kingdom in her back garden they understand her desire to escape and find comfort in a fantastical world.
The most sensible advice when you are writing a novel is to, 'Start where the story begins.' I know that might seem like stating the obvious but it's true. Films can get away with showing the first ten minutes of how Georgie's life was stoic and sad before she found the fairies but a reader will give up out of boredom. You need to start with the inciting incident, the moment when something different happens to your character, which results in the events of the story.
There are exceptions to every rule and sometimes we smash the rules against the wall. The important thing to keep in mind before you do that is, 'Am I going to create an exciting shock of awesome or am I just going to trod on broken glass?'
Another form of prologue is when an author takes an excerpt from a later part in the novel - perhaps the climax - and inserts a teaser at the front. This can prove to be either enticing or annoying. On one hand, we are thrust into the excitement and have an insight as to where the story will take us. Georgie has a knife to the throat of the fairy king! On the other, chapter one will probably revert back to Georgie eating a sandwich by herself in the school cafeteria. Yawn.
Moments ago (okay, half an hour) I started reading a book that began with a prologue. Didn't phase me. Why? I was pulled in by the writing, the action, the promise of what was to come. Then, I stopped reading. This was because the author had begun to give me too much insight into what was going to happen in the story ahead. If most prologues are prone to being backstory dumping grounds, this was a frontstory dumping ground. Either way, it wasn't attractive.
One more thing that threw me off the prologue was its length. It went on for pages and pages and pages. Short stories should never have prologues but neither should your prologue be a short story. If you really have an urge to write something that long, pen a novella prequel.
To this day I have only read the prologue of 'Game of Thrones' by George R. R. Martin. This isn't because the writing was bad. It couldn't be to get me to read the whole prologue. To quote Quillbert our literary hedgehog, 'Its descriptiveness straddles the difficult line between ripening the story and drowning it in purple prose.'
What is your opinion of prologues? Do you like them, do you write them?