Do I need a prologue?
That is the question aspiring writers usually don’t even bother to ask, they just prologue. And what does the reader generally get—boring back-story. Not a very good way to start when facing such fierce competition.
In ancient Greek plays the prologue was a big deal so that the audience understood how the characters got to this place in the story’s time and outline what was going to be necessary to achieve their goal. Authors continued using this in written form to describe a preliminary act or event.
Clive Cussler opens his 2007 novel, The Navigator, with a prologue which occurs during the time of the Phoenician mariners, setting the basis for action in the current era. The prologue and main story are connected, but separated by a very long span of time. It actually is a short story unto itself with a beginning, middle, and end, however, it does not present resolution as it should not.
In Sean O’Mordha’s, A Pirate’s Legacy: For Glory, Truth and Treasure (2010), the book opens with a prologue which occurs in the main character’s future, setting the stage and alerting the reader that this book is only the beginning of an adventure.
Both prologues are independent action pieces which set the stage for the main story. They are not, I repeat, not, simply descriptive information. Both prologues ignite the reader’s curiosity and provide a foundation. Another element of these prologues is that both reflect sudden time and location changes. And, to tidy things up, where you have a prologue, there should be an epilogue.
Cussler uses his epilogue in Navigator to set up the next adventure for the main character. In Treasure, the epilogue returns to the future to finish the story begun in the prologue, and prepare the reader for the next installment. In effect, it is two slices of bread, a short story with the main story sandwiched in the middle. (This prologue breaks the rule to not resolve conflict, however, the prologue ends as a cliffhanger, and the epilogue is the finale. Nothing in the main plot is given away.)
In both examples, the authors treat the prologue and main story as separate entities by starting each portion, immediately engaging the reader and drawing them from the opening paragraph progressively deeper into the story. In Sci-Fi/Fantacy genres an engaging prologue to explain other worlds might be advisable, thereby not bogging the reader down with in-depth explanations in the story. Here, both authors used this ancient medium to enhance the plot, not to explain about the characters, location, or plot. If all the reader did was take in this opening (in the case of Treasure, opening and closing pieces), they would be entertained by having read a complete story.
As a writer starts tapping the keys, they should pause before starting and ask a few hard questions.
1. Does the information presented in the prologue balance interest with information?
2. Could the information be presented in the main story without slowing the tempo and, heavens forbid, boring the reader?
3. Will the prologue peak interest and suck the reader into the story? (Both the prologue and chapter 1 must have their individual, compelling hook.)
4. Does it present conflict without resolving it? (Prologue only)
5. Is there a distinct shift between the prologue and chapter one?
Crafting an appropriate and good prologue is an art unto itself worthy of further study and practice.
For more detailed information about this topic see the following excellent discussions:
Skip the Prologue