A while back I was doing some research and I stumbled across a debate I didn’t even know existed: whether or not to start a book with a prologue. For some writers out there, a prologue is almost a de facto way of writing; at one point I considered myself one of them. Surprisingly, I discovered that there’s an entire group of people out there who not only dislike using prologues, they advocate against using them. On top of that, my greatest fears were realized when I read about readers who would skip them entirely.
The drawbacks of writing them.
Besides readers that skip over them, prologues often are misused by too many writers. They become these odd creatures that just happen to be at the start of a book but don’t really have anything to do with the rest of the work at all. Fiction is the only honest lie people can tell; a prologue that doesn’t connect with what follows in some way diminishes that honesty.
Another problem I’ve seen is the prologue info dump. Sometimes they’re just packed with dense strings of adjectives and adverbs, with perhaps a few nouns and verbs thrown in as grammar demands. Mostly, they’re these dry accounts of facts about characters and setting that don’t do anything but lull the reader to sleep. This doesn’t mean the world that you’ve created is boring; it does mean that a prologue can kill interest in the potential story that follows.
Finally, there’s the prologue that could just be the first chapter. This was the crutch that I used. Basically, whatever I started a manuscript with became a prologue. Yes, it would almost directly precede all the other action in the plot, be followed logically by the first chapter, and introduce characters in a coherent manner. All of that makes it a decent “Chapter 1.” To write “Prologue” at the top would risk readers skipping over important information for no good reason.
The info dump and disconnected prologue are prologues that don’t lead back to the book closely enough, while the secret first chapter goes too close. This highlights how difficult they can be to do right. Ideally, a prologue can be skipped without diminishing the rest of the book, but skipping them would rob a reader of a more enjoyable experience.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can still write a prologue if you want to.
They exist for a reason. Clive Cussler, for example, uses them to describe the treasure or important plot object that will feature prominently in the rest of the novel (which is awesome, because otherwise they might be a MacGuffin). Michael Crichton and George R.R. Martin also use them to introduce a critical plot element without a direct line to the rest of the plot itself (but eventually becomes apparent).
With the exception of the prologues to the books of A Song of Ice and Fire, a good prologue can be skipped without ruining the rest of the book. They all pick something very, very specific, and then they focus on that one thing only. That one thing needs to be a very important part of the book. Writing a prologue about the protagonist’s teddy bear is generally a waste of time. However, it’s a good prologue subject if the teddy bear is secretly the one killing people in your horror novel.
One last thing: prologues might be necessary in fantasy.
While children’s fantasy might not need them, more adult fantasy seems to require a good prologue. They operate a little differently in that they’re a soft introduction to the fantasy world. In this regard, they’re more forgiving than prologues for a thriller, horror piece, or even a science fiction novel. You could probably get away with writing a secret first chapter and be okay. Despite this, not making it an info dump or a disconnected prologue is still very important.
Bottom line is that you don’t have to include a prologue if you don’t want to. In some ways, you might not want to write one until after you’ve written your book. That way, you’ll know what’s definitely important without having to change anything. When in doubt, just start with a first chapter, and you’ll be fine.