There was a time when prologues were all the rage. You'd show a snippet of your set up before your story actually started to entice the reader to read on. It was almost a requirement in fantasy, where the prologue was almost always a bit of history or a legend or even a scene with a major god doing whatever it was that had come back to bite everyone.
Not so much anymore.
So, how do you know if you should keep or kill your prologue?
Ask yourself why you're putting it in.
1. It's an important piece of the protagonist's history that the reader needs to know to get the story.
Keep or Kill? Chances are you can kill the prologue. The reader won't know the character yet, so the important event will have little meaning, and it won't drive the story since it happened in the past. In most cases, you can background this information and drop hints, show the effects of it on the protagonist to build suspense, and reveal it later for much more impact.
2. It's an important piece of world history that sets up why things are this way and how that's going to affect your protagonist.
Keep or Kill? Kill the prologue. Readers don't care about the history or the world since they haven't met anyone in that world yet. They want the story, not the setup to the story. Find ways to background this information and use it to make your world richer and more real. If 500 years ago the great god Sniffledum cursed everyone with eternal post-nasal drip, show everyone sniffling from page one, and let handkerchiefs be a huge fashion statement. Make it part of the world in such a way readers can figure it out on their own.
3. It's an event that happens later in the book, but you're teasing with it at the start because you're not sure your first chapter has enough oomph to grab readers.
Keep or Kill? Kill the prologue. Since readers have no clue who the characters are or what the context is, there's nothing to connect them to the story yet, so the scene often comes across as kinda boring. It also tends to give away something in the story and steals all the suspense up until that moment. I've never seen this device work in any book, movie, or TV show, but people keep trying (ETA 2016: The movie Deadpool is the first one I've ever seen make this device work, but the character's inherent fourth-wall breaking aspect is largely the reason, so it's a unique case). Make your first chapter sing and save this scene for when it actually happens in the story.
4. It's a scene with characters other than the main ones, showing an event that foreshadows what the protagonist is about to get themselves into.
Keep or Kill? You might be able to keep this prologue. Jurassic Park is a great example of how this can work. The novel (and the movie) opens with people trying to contain a dangerous animal, and one of the workers is horribly mauled. Thematically it works, because it says right at the start "these animals cannot be contained," yet the characters spend the entire book trying to do just that (and keep from being eaten). It also works to show what the heroes are about to become involved in when they think they're just going to a theme park for the weekend. It gives hints, but it doesn't give away the story, nor does it flash forward or back. It makes you wonder, "How are these heroes going to handle this problem when they find it?" and "what the heck were they trying to contain in there?"
5. It's a scene from a non-POV character that reveals a key piece of information none of the POV characters know.
Keep or Kill? This can go either way. You may be able to keep this prologue if that information adds to the suspense of the story. Scientists dig up an artifact and send it home to the lab, and on the way, the box emits a weird glow and causes the plane to crash. Readers know it's dangerous, but not why, and they know the protagonist is working hard to find the crash and retrieve the artifact, but what will happen when she does? But if this scene reveals information to readers that the protagonist is desperately trying to find out--kill it. The fun is in the discovery, and there's no fun in watching someone struggling to find out what you already know.
6. It's a scene that you use the words "set up" to describe, and has no conflict.
Keep or Kill? Kill the prologue. Set up isn't story, and readers want story. They're pretty smart and they can pick up on subtitles that show the things you need them to know about your protagonist and her situation. As long as you keep readers wanting to know why, they'll keep reading. And really, if you tell them why right at the start, why should they keep reading?
In most cases you can cut your prologue and not lose anything in the story, because most prologues fall into the set up category. If you're curious abut prologues that worked, look at books published by new authors in the last few years. But remember--established series by known authors can get away with prologues, as can books published ten years ago. Attitudes about prologues have changed, and will likely continue to change.
When in doubt, take the prologue out and see what your beta readers think. If they're drawn in and didn't think something was missing, then you know cutting it was the right choice. If they feel the story would have been better had they known X at the start, put it back in.
How do you feel about prologues? Do you read or skip them?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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