I’ve seen this topic come up quite often among amateur writers and people tend to give a confuse mix of advice. So should you use a prologue or not? Well, that depends.
The biggest problem here is that the majority of people don’t know how to use a prologue, so the first step for us is to determine a working definition to use. There’s a variety of literal and technical definitions floating around the internet but I stand by my own (as I consider it the best amalgamation of the technical and practical). Before I give my definition though, let’s go through some history (so we can understand the technical side).
The term is from the Greek prologos formed by pro, meaning “before,” and logos, meaning “speech.”
In ancient Greek tragedy, the prologue was the part of a play that set forth the subject of the drama before the chorus entered.
Why is this so important? A lot of amateur writers are using their prologue to start telling the story. That’s not a prologue, that’s your chapter one. The prologue has to “set forth the subject”. What does that mean? It needs to introduce the context of the story and it has to be separate to your story (otherwise it’s chapter one).
So what is a prologue? It is a distinct and separate entity that introduces a story by providing information necessary for the reader to understand the text.
By nature, a prologue should be a little bit of an info dump. To “set forth the subject”, you must provide contextual information. Other information acceptable in a prologue would be back story/history and any particular quirks of your world that will clarify things to the reader (if I start writing about angels, the reader would be confused why the floors of this city are puffy white clouds). It should never connect with your chapter one smoothly, if it does then your prologue is your chapter one.
Now, why are prologues bad? Well, first of all, if you’re using it the wrong way you cast doubt on your credibility as a writer. Not a good first impression. Even if you do use it correctly, since prologues are generally info dumps by necessity, your first impression still ends up being somewhat boring. Admittedly, I’m a fan of diving into the heart of things but that doesn’t mean you have to start off with an action scene, it just means you need to open with a hook – your reader has a plethora of other books they could read, give them a reason to read yours.
Finally, I’ve been informed by a few authors and editors that prologues are generally skipped by literary agents. Other readers also tell me that they skip prologues too (though personally I read them). The general consensus of the writing world is that prologues can and should be avoided where possible. If you don’t believe me, Google “prologue bad” and you’ll find lists of published authors, writing sites and editors supporting my statement.
Perhaps the most cogent example I can give is an example from the Greek tragedy “Medea” by Euripides. As prologues were basically invented at this time for these plays, this is a fitting example. The prologue to Medea features one of the nurses talking to herself (technically, to the audience through the fourth wall) and summarising the past events leading up to this very moment (Jason’s quests and how Medea has helped him, only to be met with betrayal). This back story is necessary for the audience to understand Medea’s grief stricken state, and the psychological damage required for her to eventually commit infanticide as revenge. Without this prologue, the play would just be about a psychotic child-killing mother, but with the prologue, we understand the emotional complexity at play, adding layers and depth to the story, climaxing at the point where Medea snaps under the pressure. The fact that the nurse is relaying this information as a soliloquy instantly sets it apart from the rest of the play, so we know it is a distinct, separate entity. This is what a prologue should be – so please, use your prologues correctly.