New writers are often warned to avoid prologues like the plague. They are told that agents hate them. In fact, prologues have such a bad reputation that some readers skip them entirely. I’m not a big fan of prologues myself—and yet my two latest books, Amid Wind & Stone, and In Truth & Ashes both start with prologues. Why would I do this?
Because the story required it.
Really this is the only reason to include one. But how do you know whether or not your story needs one?
GOOD REASONS TO INCLUDE A PROLOGUE
1/ To orient a new reader, or one who has waited months between books, to what happened previously in a series. This kind should be as brief as possible.
This is the kind that I used in my Otherselves series. The trilogy involves five different worlds and five different female protagonists, who are all mirror twins/otherselves of each other. However, Leah is the main character of the series. She has an over-arching plotline, and it is her desire to save Gideon’s otherselves that drives the plot. A prologue from her POV was necessary to orient new readers of the over-arching story (and remind old readers of what they had read in book one). Ditto for book three.
2/ To show (and not tell) an important bit of backstory that will be crucial to the plot later in the story. Often these happen to people other than the main character and occur sometime before the main plot starts.
Nice Dragons Finish Last by Rachel Aaron has an excellent example of this type of prologue. In the case of epic fantasy, the prologue can be several hundred or even thousands of years before (I’m looking at you Brandon Sanderson.) Just be sure that it is crucial and this is the best way to reveal it.
BAD REASONS TO INCLUDE A PROLOGUE
1/ Because you’re worried that your beginning sucks, so you start with a prologue that is actually an excerpt from an exciting bit at the end. This is a cheat and I universally hate them. Do the work and create a compelling beginning, don’t try to fool me with a flashforward.
2/ Because you want to show an event from the main character’s childhood. I dislike books that start with the main character as a child. (Why? Because children have little agency and are frustrating to read about.) A prologue from a child’s POV skirts the line. Most of them could be better handled by a flashback in the main story, but I will grudgingly admit that sometimes they work.
If you do decide to commit prologue, be aware that you are essentially doubling your workload. Instead of one incredibly difficult, engaging hook, you now have to write two. Good luck!
SNIPPET FROM THE PROLOGUE OF AMID WIND & STONE
By the light of a red sun, on a dying world, in the tower of an evil sorceress, Leah stood alone before the Four Worlds mirror and tried to Call her otherself.
Tried and failed.
Tears of frustration burned in eyes already red-rimmed from fatigue and too little water to drink. A gust of wind blew through the long horizontal window in the Mirrorhall, swirling up more ash from the belching Volcano Lords and leaving a fine black coating on her skin and the mirror.