First, what the heck is a prologue? It’s not trivial to define one, as I found out when asking an author friend to critique this. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to go with Wikipedia’s definition:
“A prologue or prolog … is an opening to a story that establishes the context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information.”
The key here, for the purposes of this post, is ‘earlier story’ and ‘miscellaneous information.’ If your ‘prologue’ is actually the beginning of the story (as is the case for my friend), then everything below is irrelevant.
A prologue is the same thing as the dreaded infodump:
“Infodumping is a type of Exposition that is particularly long or wordy. Although it can be done in a way that is unintrusive or entertaining, most infodumps are obvious, intrusive, patronizing, and sometimes downright boring. Specifically, if the premise of your story is laughably ridiculous, an infodump will call attention to the fact. The absolute worst is the gratuitous infodump, which painfully restates that which has already been adequately shown, just to make the reader suffer. For these reasons, ‘infodump’ is often used as a pejorative. Even worse, one character may be saying it to another who is fully aware of it already, for no good reason besides filling in the audience.”
You’re giving the reader (audience, for the above) too much information without context for the average reader to internalize and remember. A ‘Bad Thing,’ and this post is an attempt to steer you away from doing such.
Prologue is often considered a dirty word to agents and publishers. That seems arbitrary and offensive when you’ve invested so much time and energy into your story, but there are good reasons for it. The average reader has a short attention span, and need to be grabbed right away, else they won’t be held long enough to get invested in your characters. If you have a big pile of words they have to wade through before they even get introduced to your main character, you’re going to lose the average reader.
But I want above average readers, you exclaim. Don’t we all. But if you want to sell novels, which is the only focus of agents and publishers, then you need to cater to the average, which means a fast-paced opening where the reader quickly gets hooked, developing sympathy for your character.
Another reason why prologues are considered problematic: they tend to reflect lazy writing. What? This information is important to understand my carefully crafted world! How can the reader possibly get hooked and sympathetic to my main character (MC) otherwise? Well, sorry to say, but if your MC is written so weak that the only way the reader can develop sympathy is by having background poured all over them, then you have bigger problems. Prologue, background, world building, all these things should be trickled in as your MC goes about his or her business. The rule of thumb is to supply such information only at the last possible moment. Besides, that’s the time most readers will remember: when it becomes integral to understanding the story. If you puke world building all over them, most are going to forget the details, because they don’t understand the relevance. Think back to any history lesson you had in school. Without context, names and dates don’t mean anything, forcing you into rote memorization. Do you want your readers to feel like they’re in a history class and need to memorize things to pass a test?
You don’t even have to supply the missing information. CJ Cherryh is an excellent example of someone who rarely fills in all the details. She writes such that her MC only makes note of things that the MC has interest in, which sometimes means you never get an explanation for something. What’s a reader to do? Use their imagination! Good books cause a movie to be projected in the mind’s eye, and the brain will fill in what’s necessary, so give your reader a chance to exercise their creative muscles.
Having said all this, a way to ‘have your cake and eat it too’ (what does this even mean?), is to put the prologue at the end as an appendix. Keep in mind, though, that publishers making dead-tree versions of your book will likely be reluctant, as each page costs additional money. Another way, much less likely to risk being cut, is to put in a brief (1-3 sentence (and not long, either!)) paragraph at the beginning of each chapter. Set off with a different font, margin and/or italics, those who would rather discover as they read and learn by context (which is the best way to get the information across) can easily ignore it, while those who want the extra information can easily read. It can be ‘excerpts’ from an encyclopedia or something. Perhaps a learned scholar’s research headlines, or just some particularly relevant bits of history, important to the chapter that follows.
But why does <insert famous author> write prologues and sell piles of books? Short answer: they’re proven money makers with a loyal following. If you can entertainingly write about growing grass or drying paint, then you can probably write entertaining prologues and none of this matters to you. But, if you’re like regular mortals, particularly unpublished, then you should focus on adhering to as many conventions as possible.
To reiterate, the very best way to convey the information is in the body of the text, as the reader needs the information, where much of the understanding is through context. For fantasy or scifi, though, too much background exposition being dropped in might dangerously slow the pace down, so even then you have to balance explanation with comprehension.