As with books in the first person, I’ve heard again and again and again that you should not have a prologue. Prologues, they say, bore the reader and stop him or her reading.
As someone who has done a lot of slush reading, I have one thing to say to that. Thp. Oh, even more than that, I shall say THP.
What bores a reader is a boring opening. Whether that’s your prologue or your first chapter, if you haven’t engaged the reader by page two or, depending on how busy the reader is, paragraph two, you’ve lost the reader.
This said, clearly the best way to start a story is to dive into the story, head first. There are however reasons for prologues. I have a book for instance, in which I have a prologue to indicate the story contains sex. Why? Because the sex is one of the main plotlines, and it doesn’t start till chapter seven, when it would hit the reader like a mallet to the head. Likewise, in my Shakespeare books, I started with a prologue that gave the idea there was something going on in the fairy realm, before Will comes home and finds his wife missing. In the Shifter’s series for Baen – Draw One In the Dark and Gentleman Takes A Chance – there’s a prologue first to indicate that what seems to be a rather mundane situation between a young man and woman in the first chapter is really much more than that, and that they are at danger.
For this type of reasons – to lend a sense of urgency and immediacy to the plot, or to create a sense of something that’s ahead but won’t hit for a while, or even to set the tone of the book – if your first chapter won’t do try a prologue. However, if you can do without. In DarkShip Thieves, just delivered to Baen, I have Athena do her thing. What passes for a prologue is her musing that she never wanted to go to space. First paragraph. And then she wakes up in peril.
It is very important that you at no time start a novel with a prologue that tells you about the kingdom for the last three thousand years. Naming names. And dates. And expecting the reader to remember them. Also very important – unless your name is Terry Pratchett – never, ever ever start with the creation of the universe.
The most important thing is to make sure you signal with your opening what type of book it’s going to be. If you start a leisurely historical with a fast sequence in a computer room, people are going to be confused. (Not saying this might not be perfectly legitimate, only that this might be one of the those prologue needed cases, to signal the nature of the novel.)
So, the rules are Don’t be Boring & DO Start as You Mean to Go On. And the prologue or no prologue will take care of itself.
Next week – I thought I’d be able to fit it in today, but I think it will work best in parts – I’ll take openings of novels by my fledgelings (all of whom are publishable, even in their most off the cuff efforts and sometimes brilliant beyond my expectations). Openings I believe work, of course, and – exerting mentor privilege explain why they, in my opinion, draw the reader in.