Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Include a prologue or jump straight into the story, that is the question. At least it’s a question. One you should ask yourself before beginning your story.
Yes, you can always drop or add a prologue after you’ve written the first draft, but you might want to think about the pluses and minuses before you begin writing.
Let’s define prologue before looking at the pros and cons.
Prologue is the section of a novel that comes before the true beginning of the story (pro logos, before the words). It can consist of a few lines or be as long as a chapter (though if you’re going to write a chapter, consider making it a real chapter rather than a prologue).
A prologue often sets up the story, giving readers a view of events that happened earlier, even years earlier, in the characters’ lives.
A prologue can provide background, reveal what’s happened to get the characters to the current moment, establish the tone of the work, or introduce the theme.
Of course, a writer can achieve all these things without a prologue.
A prologue stands out. If you want to draw attention to events that happened before the current story time, you can highlight those events via prologue. You could also use a flashback later in the narrative or convey the past through dialogue or character thought.
A prologue can be told in a different voice than the rest of the story or be presented by a different viewpoint character.
A prologue is often boring and often looked upon without fondness by readers.
Prologues are out of vogue for the most part. I’m guessing here, but I’d say the reason is because readers want to jump right into the meat of a story and a prologue is a frustrating delay. Readers want to know the now of a character’s life, not what happened to his grandfather 60 years ago.
Or prologues might have gone out of style because writers abused them, piling on any and everything as a means of getting the reader’s attention or because they thought readers need to know a lot more about the past than they truly need to know to enjoy a story.
A big info dump, even in a prologue, is still a big info dump. Readers really don’t need to know everything that writers know about their characters and their lives in order to enjoy a book.
A bad prologue, one that doesn’t lure the reader in, can serve instead to hold him away. Remember that once a reader has a book in hand, he wants to read the story. Don’t give him incidentals at the opening. Give him substance. Draw the reader into the tale.
This is not to say that you can’t have a prologue to serve as an introduction. But you’ll want to make it compelling. And relevant. And necessary.
Ask yourself these questions:
if the reader didn’t read the prologue, would he still enjoy and understand the story;
can the information in the prologue be introduced in the main story itself, through dialogue or action or thought;
is the information from the prologue so important that the reader must keep it in mind as he reads the story, juggling the revelations from the prologue with the unfolding drama from the current story line (and being discouraged from, distracted from, sinking fully into that current story);
is the prologue too slow and uninvolving for a true story opening;
does the prologue detract from your true opening?
Prologues can serve a purpose, but they can also detract from a story, especially from the impact of the story’s opening pages. If you need or insist upon a prologue, make it a great one. Make it accomplish your purpose without interfering with the flow and impact of the full story. Put it to work or take it out.
Understand what prologue brings to a story. Keep in mind what it can do, positive and negative, to your novel.
Introduces elements that might be difficult to introduce through dialogue or through exposition without an info dump.
Can reveal character motivation.
Can quickly establish tone.
Can quickly set up questions in the reader’s mind.
Can provide story direction or focus with only a few words.
Delays the start of the current story.
Forces readers to think about elements or characters or events that might not come into play for a long time in the current story (or might not have a part in the current story line at all).
Can divide the reader’s focus.
Can set the story off in a direction different from the one intended by the rest of the story.
Can keep readers from becoming fully involved in the now of the story as they try to figure out what the prologue has to do with other story events.
Prologues are out of favor. Readers (and publishers) might bring their negative impression of prologues in general to yours in particular.
Can you include a prologue? Of course. You’re the writer. Include whatever works for your story and the vision you have for it.
Might a prologue enhance your story? Of course it might. But you have to ensure that it does so without detracting from the story more than it enhances.
Could you just skip a prologue and jump right in with action or dialogue or scene-setting or a setup for tone? You can do that too.
Do whatever works for the story. Listen to advice, but don’t fear trying something that others aren’t doing. They might have valid reasons for not doing something, so you’d be wise to consider those reasons. But if you can work out a fix, something that would take into account their reasons to not try something, something such as including a prologue, then by all means try the fix.
Include in each story what works for that story. And entertain your readers.
If a prologue works and entertains, keep it. If it doesn’t meet this criteria, toss it.
A simple way to decide on a prologue, I know. But simple often works well.
And often helps us write both stronger and more entertaining fiction.