For as long as I’ve been writing, some 40 years now, authors have pondered the question, “Should I use a Prologue?” Some writing teachers approve of prologues, but others do not, often arguing against them on the theory that literary agents don’t like them, and to use one would hinder chances of your book being published.
Well, times change and publishing, especially mainstream fiction publishing, has changed dramatically. Today, very few authors care what agents think because they have no intention of trying to get agent representation. These days, many writers are self-publishing. Those authors are cutting out middle-men such as agents, and even traditional publishers.
However, even if you don’t plan to try for an agent, knowing if you should use a prologue or not can be important for the success of your book with readers. Their acceptance of your work is the ultimate goal. Besides, many authors believe that readers don’t actually read prologues, so what’s the point?
From my reading about the topic, as well as these 40 years of experience writing fiction, I believe there are few reasons to use a prologue and many more not to. For instance, don’t use a prologue if:
1. It’s only there to give your book an interesting “hook.”
If your reader won’t read your prologue, it’s wasted, and you’ll still need a “hook” for chapter one.
2. It gives information which rightfully belongs in chapter one. Try doing it both ways, and see which works best.
3. It’s there only because your book is a mystery and you’ve seen many published mysteries which have prologues. For a long time, mystery prologues were almost considered necessary (certainly they were a cliche), but aren’t used that much anymore.
4. It’s long. The most successful prologues are only one or two pages. Certainly, the shorter they are, the more likely they’ll get read.
5. It’s an information dump. Authors who use prologues to insert lots of backstory instead of weaving that information into the text gradually - when the reader needs to know it - can sabotage their work.
But, guess what? Backstory introduced via a prologue can actually work and is one of the few reasons to use one. However, the operative word here is “relevant.” Make sure it fits and is really necessary. Another reason to use a prologue is if there’s a significant time difference between that and the main story.
With my own work, I didn’t use one in COLD APRIL, but the author of DANGEROUS AFFAIRS, another book about the Titanic, started with the iceberg developing off the coast of Greenland and eventually coming into contact with the ship. THE GREEN BOUGH, my memoir about Aunt Gladys, has, not a prologue, but a Foreword, a short letter from Gladys to me when I was writing the book. My mainstream novel, CHOICES, has a prologue because I needed to start the story in the cockpit of the airplane before it crashes into the Pacific. And that’s all. If I can publish sixteen other books and four novellas without one, perhaps they’re not needed.