I’ve seen several posts on forums warning against using prologues. Personally, I don’t mind them as long as they serve a purpose. Since many of the suspense novels I’ve read include them, I decided to analyze what makes a prologue a useful tool rather than a useless appendage.
A good prologue provides information that can’t be included elsewhere as effectively. It shouldn’t turn into an information dump, but it can give essential facts regarding something that occurred in the past. (For more help on back story, click here.) It can even be written in the future, by a character that relates past events in the following chapters.
It can be useful in fantasy or science fiction where the setting is too complex to introduce gradually. Readers might get confused or bored if all the world building occurs within the first few chapters, leaving them wondering what the actual story is about. A short prologue, showing some occurrence that illustrates the setting, society, or other essential element, can clarify what type of world the main story takes place in.
Prologues give the author the chance to start a story at two different points. There may be an event that is separate, but critical to the reader’s understanding of the plot. For example, a murder may have taken place when the main character was a child, but the story itself is about that person as an adult. Or, the prologue may be written from a secondary character’s point of view, with the following chapters told from the protagonist’s viewpoint. Sometimes this is useful to show a villain planning something that will occur later; the characters don’t know about it, but the reader can anticipate what is going to happen and recognize clues throughout the book.
When a prologue is essential to the story, make sure it has a hook of its own and is clearly distinct from the first chapter. Keep it short and interesting. You can leave it open-ended, but it has to have any loose ends tied up somewhere in the novel. If the plot is understandable without a prologue, one should not be used.
Can you think of other times a prologue might be useful? Do you read them, or skip them?
Edit October 22, 2009: I found an interesting post by Agent Nathan Bransford on when to use prologues. Click here for his advice.
Edit February 4, 2010: Agent Kristin Nelson posted about why she doesn’t like prologues today on her blog. Click here to read.
Edit March 23, 2010: Agent Scott Eagan posted today about prologues, especially in romantic suspense (my genre). Definitely not including one in my novel. Click here to read.