Prologues. The bane of my writing existence (and the best thing that happened to NaNoWriMo).
It is my personal philosophy to never, ever, ever insert a prologue into any of my stories. Why? Prologues are generally useless, unnecessary, and boring. Yet with half of the stories I’ve started and/or finished, a prologue exists! (I’ll get to this in a moment. There is a reason why I start with the prologue and end without it.)
Let me reiterate. Prologues are bad. They tell information that could be shown in the story (useless), they give character/world background the reader doesn’t need (unnecessary), or they’re just plain boring. Or all of the above. There are only a few circumstances in which prologues are good, but I’ll go over those in a bit.
I’ve found that most prologues, once they’re written, are completely and totally unnecessary to the story. In every story I’ve managed to write a prologue for, I promptly deleted it in the next draft. Prologues are generally either to reveal something about a character’s past, or to set up the story world. In my (humble) opinion, neither of those is needed. The first takes away the challenge of digging up the character’s backstory as the plot progresses. The second generally contains details that can be shown, and writing them all in a prologue is telling.
Both of these types of prologues are set in the past, and prologues set in the past usually tell instead of show. It’s telling the Hero’s Big Secret, or How The World Came To Be (I really, really dislike the latter, by the way), or How The Hero Ended Up In This Situation. The last one is usually the Inciting Incident, and should be presented in the first chapter. As for the first one, that takes away the Big Secret about the Hero. If it’s something only the villain knows, a prologue detailing it takes away the Villain’s Big Revelation–especially good for use in the Black Moment. If we already know everything about the Hero and the Villain’s shared past, then who cares? The Moment of Truth will be meaningless and dry.
The only reason I can think of to use a prologue would be to set up the story and give it context. If, say, the prologue occurs in the present and the story occurs in the past, and the point of view character is telling his story to someone else, the prologue can be a wonderful conduit. Even this, however, can be done horribly. If it’s just the character sitting down to tell his story to be preserved for all his posterity, well… I’d skip it.
Now, I’ve seen this device used brilliantly in some of David Eddings’ books (Belgarath the Sorcerer, anyone?). He uses it to show us why Belgarath would write down his life story. Since we, as the reader, are already acquainted with Belgarath and friends, we know that Belgarath would sooner chop his own head off than write an autobiography. The prologue to this novel shows us exactly how this commenced. Plus, since the prologue is intended as a “what happened after The Quest Ended” for the Mallorean, it also shows us what the other characters are up to.
All this is not to say you should never ever have a prologue. There is a time and a place for such things, of course. Many successful books do have prologues. But when in doubt, get rid of it.
Cometh now the hour to relate prologues to NaNoWriMo!
NaNoWriMo is all about getting the words, not necessarily writing a good story. Therefore, a prologue is just the thing to get those words in! Have an idea of the Hero’s backstory? Make it a prologue! Want to set down every detail of the world your characters live in? Stick it in a prologue! Get words! Win!
Then when December comes, slice mercilessly through your manuscript and take out everything that isn’t necessary–I bet that’ll include your prologue.