The first duty of a prologue is to supply information that is or will be vital to the understanding of the plot. Most of the time it doesn’t include the protagonist (main character, hero) of the novel, and it takes place outside of the main story. The prologue is intended to reveal information, not to advance the story. It is used when there is no other way to reveal critical back story about your protagonist. Or you need to foreshadow early in the novel, but you can’t do it from the eyes of the protagonist. Still the bottom line is the prologue is back story.
In a mystery novel, the prologue might set up the crime to be solved.
In a science fiction or fantasy novel, the prologue often delves into the history of the novel’s world.
A prologue should reveal significant facts that contribute to our understanding of the plot. It should be vivid and entertaining, not boring. It should make the reader want to read more. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO comes to mind. It was the prologue that kept me reading through the first 100+ pages that could have been cut in the beginning of the book. So you might want to read that prologue. I figure if it can keep me reading through too many boring details for that long, it must have been a good prologue.
A prologue is used mainly for three reasons:
1. To outline the backstory quickly and economically, saving the author from having to resort to flashbacks or ruses such as conversations or memories to explain the background to the reader. This is commonly done in science fiction and fantasy to show why a certain quest is being undertaken or what will happen in the future. The prologue is a better option than a first chapter bogged down in detail.
2. To hook the reader and provide the story question right up front, giving them a reason to keep turning the pages to find out the answer. Quite often the prologue relates to a scene near the end of the story, and the story itself then shows what has led up to this moment. And your reader’s experience with ‘meeting’ them will be enhanced by some sort of foreshadowing of what is to come.
3. To introduce a certain character’s viewpoint on one occasion only. The rest of the book may be told from just one other viewpoint, or from several different viewpoint characters that are in some way removed from the one you’ve used in the prologue. The prologue can bypass the danger of viewpoint violation.
Do I Need a Prologue?
Simply ask yourself:
1. What if I just call the prologue Chapter 1? Will the story flow smoothly from that point anyway? (If the answer is “yes”, ditch the prologue.)
2. Do I need to give the readers a fair bit of background information for the story to make sense? (If “yes”, then use the prologue before the ‘real’ story starts.)
3. Am I thinking of using a prologue just to hook the reader? (If “yes”, then ask yourself why you can’t do this just as effectively in Chapter 1 anyway. Do you need to brush up on your technique for creating suspense and conflict? Does your plot need revising? Are you starting your story too early?)
But that’s hardly enough. After all, every chapter delivers key facts, which ultimately amount to the plot.
What makes bits of information require a prologue? Here’s three reasons.
1. Relating facts in the body of the novel would cause a breach in point-of-view etiquette.
2. They occur in another time or place, and have too much weight to mention in passing.
3. The details would choke the narrative to death.
First, you should carefully assess whether you actually need the prologue. Does its information need to be revealed now? Is there any way you can fold it into the narrative of the plot itself?
Use this two-step test to make sure your prologue works well:
1. Try to leave it out and see if anything important is missing.
2. Change the title to “Chapter One”, and check if the plot integrity is damaged.
If you’ve answered both questions with a yes, then your prologue is doing a good job.
There are four major types of prologues listed below:
The “future protagonist” prologue shows the hero or heroine some time after the main part of the plot has taken place, and is written in the same point-of-view and style as the rest of the novel.
In third-person POV, its primary use is to give the end of the story first, while the novel itself explores how things had come to pass.
In first-person POV, you will usually find the protagonist explaining why one must be written or told. The tone is usually personal and reflective. The emphasis is on the protagonist’s own impression of the past. The actual end of the story comes at the end of the book and not in the prologue.
The “past protagonist” prologue is generally used when the protagonist has had a defining moment in his past which must be known to the reader, in order for the reader to understand this character.
Relating this defining moment in detail in the prologue has two advantages: it sets the novel in motion with a strong, usually emotion-charged event and it creates an immediate affinity towards the protagonist. It can be done both in first- and third-person POV.
A different POV prologue describes a certain event from a point-of-view different than the main characters of the plot. This event may occur in the same time-frame as the plot, or years before or after. A different POV prologue should be written in third-person, even if the novel is in first-person.
A background prologue can usually be found in the science-fiction and fantasy genre, where the settings is so differ from our own world, that without a proper explanation the reader would be lost. Taking the time to explain the setting would slow the pace of your story. The line is hard to draw. You don’t want to require the reader to wade through an essay of history (or future-history) as soon as he picks up the novel, but you cannot throw him into deep space and expect him to start flying. This type of prologue is the most risky.
One thing to consider is reports show a large majority of readers skip the prologue and a lot of editors don’t like them. I think that would change if everyone used the information on when to use them.
Hope this information helps or will help you in the future.