If you lurk around writing/publishing sites or follow such people on Twitter, you'll see a couple (hundred) comments on the evils of prologues. And they can be evil. I used to spend a lot of time on an online slushpile of a site. I've seen a lot of unpublished manuscripts, and I think I only ever saw a handful of prologues where I said, "Oh, yeah. That works. That's a keeper."
People wiser than I have posted on the topic (including FTWA's own Jemi Fraser a few months back), but I never let that stop me. So here's a Jeff Foxworthy-style (but probably not as entertaining) list. Read it over, take a good look at your prologue, and try to be honest about whether it fits any of these criteria.
YOU MIGHT HAVE A BAD PROLOGUE IF ...
- ... you only wrote the prologue because EVERY book in your genre has one. Every single one. Not one out there that doesn't in the whole wide world. Well, except those over there. They don't count.
- ... you only wrote the prologue because you're completely enamored with the idea of prologues. You love them. The books you worship most and aspire to be like have them, so clearly you must have a prologue so your books can be just like the oh-so-awesome works of [fill in the blank].
- ... your reader feels like they were walking to an important appointment and got held up by a chatterbox in the hallway who won't let them go until they've heard all about the stapler that keeps disappearing from the copy room. In other words, they feel like they're being held up from the real story. (Even a prologue should feel like part of the 'real' story.)
- ... your reader feels compelled to take notes on all the names of characters, their vital stats, and how they interrelate, only to find out none of them will show up again in the next 80,000 words.
- ... your reader learns something through the prologue that the main character is ignorant of until the third-to-last page of the novel, and spends the whole novel screaming, "No, you idiot! He's your FATHER!" (Or equivalent.) Letting the reader be in the know when the MC isn't can be cool. It can also be seriously frustrating. Fine line to tread.
- ... your reader gets annoyed because they already have a long-winded, boring history teacher, and it's no fun in real life, so even worse during pleasure reading, thank you very much!
- ... you could avoid all of the above with three well-placed sentences rather than the prologue, but you can't see that because you're utterly certain that your novel REQUIRES a prologue to work.
This doesn't mean all prologues are evil and bad and smelly and gross. Plenty of published books have them. They got past an editor's desk that way for a reason. Are you sure you likewise qualify?
If so, go ahead. Just remember, every time we assume we're one of the exceptions, we're taking a risk.
Can anyone add to the You Might Have a Bad Prologue If... list? I'm sure there are things I missed.
R.C. Lewis teaches math by day and writes YA fiction by every other time. Her YA sci-fi novel Stitching Snow will be published by Disney-Hyperion in Summer 2014. Meanwhile, you can find her at Crossing the Helix and on Twitter (@RC_Lewis).