Writers and readers are passionate about whether to include or exclude a prologue. Some say, “Ditch the prologue. If that’s where your story starts, just call it Chapter 1 and move on.” Others say, “I don’t want to invest in characters I’m not going to see for a while (or at all) once the actual story begins.”
Those are fair points. I happen to like prologues. My understand of their usefulness to story has evolved. I used to enjoy prologues from the standpoint that I got to see the “big movers and shakers” of the fantasy world. Usually we’d see god characters or powerful political figures setting the stage for the heroes, or responding to what happened in the book in order to set the stage for the next book. Some readers like this, and some detest it.
Even though I happen to like the “strategic outlook” that a prologue can bring, that’s not a good enough reason for me anymore to include one. I want the reader to get into the action and into the story as quickly as possible.
Prologues serve two practical purposes (and if it doesn’t serve any practical purpose, then yes, perhaps it’s best to not include it). First: provide context necessary to understand the story or world. Second: to show the reader up front the things that the story will be about.
I think the second goal is the heart of what a prologue should be. The first may or may not be necessary, as there might be better ways within the narrative to introduce context to the reader.
A Contract With the Reader
This is the kind of prologue I want to focus on now. In When Dragons Die, each book had a prologue, and each gave a kind of preview for the action to come. However, when I wrote those, my focus was more on providing context, which meant the “contract” with the reader wasn’t tight.
In Myth and Incarnation, I had no prologue. I got right into the action at a decent pace, and the reader didn’t need any background outside of what got introduced in due course through the narrative.
My new book, Through Rose Colored Goggles, has something of a slow build. I knew I needed a contract with the reader up front, to bring the tension and conflict to the reader before the story’s events brought it to the protagonist.
Now that I was thinking about prologues as contracts, I started to try to pick them out in other books, or movies (whether they were called out as prologues, or disguised as ‘Chapter One’s). One great example is the movie Star Wars: A New Hope. Assuming we’ve all seen it before, if you think about the story of Luke as the main arc, then Chapter One begins on Tattooine before he purchases the droids. The action takes some time to get going, and it’s a slow build. However, the scenes opening prior to that with the Star Destroyer, Darth Vader, the droids, and the capture of the princess, are all prologue. They’re the contract with the audience of the cool things to come. They say, “Sure, we might start are story with a farm boy and it’s going to be a while before he gets off the planet, but we’re going to show you up front that there will be cool science-fiction to come: space battles, star ships, lasers, a space princess, and a really cool bad guy!”
Getting back to my current book, I started writing it as a murder mystery, with a slow build as characters got to know each other. I wrote a prologue detailing the murder scene from the perspective of the victim, to protect the anonymity of the killer. However, this ended up not quite working. I’ve rewritten the prologue from the killer’s perspective, without revealing his name.
The prologue ends with the killer checking his train ticket, and Chapter One begins with the protagonist sitting on the train.
[A draft prologue had been posted here, but through the revision process I’ve decided to remove it… spoilers in that earlier version of the prologue…]