This has been on my mind for a while. Namely, the use of prologues in your novels. It's an iffy topic, one that generates a broad variety of opinions on multiple sides of the literary spectrum. So ... what's the problem?
Here's some general vibes I've picked up:
1: Agents hate prologues.
2: Everyone skips prologues.
3: Where's the main character?
4: Prologues are an excuse to infodump.
Here's the thing. I'm open. I give things a chance. I'm not a fan of hate. Sure, I dislike some things, but I'm not one of those "Zoinks! A prologue? BURN IT!" types. I'm also not a "speak in absolutes" kind of guy, either.
"If you're not with me, then you're my FRENEMY!"
Guess that's part of the definition of "laid back," right? Or I'm an equal opportunity reader? ... I'll stop now.
Let's have an open discussion about these vibes:
1: Agents hate prologues - Not exactly. Some agents hate prologues (and some have no problem sending a form rejection if the first word they read of your sample chapters is prologue). I was able to have a discussion on twitter about this with a pair of agents. And I asked, "Are prologues really an industry-wide deal breaker when it comes to publishing your first book?" The answer? "Prologues aren't a deal breaker but they are sooooo frequently used incorrectly that it's a red flag" and "... needs to be important, integral part of story."
Must be important and used correctly. Check!
2: Everyone skips prologues - Well ... I'd like to think "everyone" includes me, and I read prologues, so I declare that general vibe a big fat FALSE! Moving on.
3: Where's the main character? - I see how that bothers readers. Connecting to a character that we're going to follow throughout a whole book is important. Prologues commonly do not involve the MC, but follows someone who will play a major role in the MC's life, good or bad.
Now answer me this: how many chapter ones have you read that does not have the MC in it? Here's a secret:
(Oh, you sneaky little devil ...)
The first chapter of the first Harry Potter is a prologue in disguise. By the time the chapter is over, we know about Vernon, witches and wizards, and something about a dark wizard killing someone's parents. Sure, they leave a baby on a doorstep, but I don't know who the baby is, or care. The first of The 13th Reality is the same. A postman in Alaska, visited by an Englishman and, later, a large woman who has an affinity for all things yellow. No instance of the MC (Tick) anywhere, yet both of these books are among my favorites. I'm not saying they were prologues at one time, but it wouldn't surprise me. They read like well-written prologues.
4: Prologues are an excuse to infodump - Aha! Therein lies the problem! To understand the setting, EVERYthing before chapter one needs to be explained, right?
I'm guilty of this with my first novel. Many new writers have fallen into this trap. As a result, agents and editors are bombarded by overly long details and unnecessarily drawn-out backstory. Who wouldn't raise their torch and pitchforks if that's all they had to read everyday?
Are prologues doomed for failure, then?
Not at all. Is there a solution? Absolutely! If you feel a prologue is necessary, here's some tips to consider:
1: Read prologues - Go to your library or bookstore. Crack open books and look for prologues. Ask yourself "what is it about these prologues that made the cut?"
2: Make it important - A prologue is not a side or back story. It's a pivotal event that leads up to chapter one.
3: Make it short - If people are predetermined to skip prologues, no sense wasting time on a grand opening.
4: Make it interesting - Prologues determine whether or not readers will want to read the book in the first place. If you wow me without the MC, you bet I'll read on!
This is not the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. The general rule is: avoid prologues, but I like them ... they help me decide if I'm going to read the book or not (without investing emotion on a MC). If I pick up an epic door stopper, I expect a prologue! If you haven't read the Mistborn Trilogy, its prologues are among the best I've read (although the first is a bit on the long side).
And the awesome Vin is nowhere in sight!
True story - A few years ago, I queried a novel. It had a prologue. I sent my query and prologue to about 20 agents. All rejected (mostly form rejections). I had an idea. I changed the prologue to chapter one (plus minor touch-ups). I sent that to 15-20 agents. Again, all rejected, after three partials and a full. Did the chapter heading make a difference? I'll leave that up to you.
What beef, if any, do you have against prologues? Hate them, like them, or are you indifferent?
I'm David, and don't be a Sith - they have lame cookies.