Whether or not to include a prologue in your story is a question many writers face. Today, I’ll share my opinion on this matter.
How is a prologue used?
I think this is the important part. The first question one should ask him/herself is: if I call it chapter one instead of a prologue, does it make a difference?
In most cases, a prologue is used when the scene it depicts happens far away from the first chapter and/or far before the first chapter. The purpose is either to set up the setting, to show an important event in the past/far away or – in case of retrospective narration – to set up the narrator.
Another aspect is how the chapters are labeled. There are three options: numbers only, names only, and both.
In case of names only, the issue becomes irrelevant – either you name it a prologue, or you don’t. For those using numbers only, it might be easier to just start with “1” instead of “prologue” while the others are numbers. If you use both, I think that’s the case where it makes an impact. Why? Because you’ll most likely need to name the prologue as any other chapter. You can, of course, go just with “prologue” without name but it might feel out of place to some (including me). Another aspect might be labeling chapters by the name of PoV character, if each chapter is exclusive to a specific PoV. If the prologue takes a different PoV than all the others or combines multiple PoVs, then labeling it as a prologue might be necessary.
I’ll use two examples. In the first Harry Potter book, the first scene is when Harry is left at the Dursley’s doorstep. It takes place ca. 10 years before the next chapter but is labeled as chapter one, not a prologue, despite matching the abovementioned criteria.
In Eragon, the prologue (labeled as such) depicts a scene where Arya is ambushed and sends the dragon egg away with her magic, eventually leading Eragon to find it. The scene happens only a short time before chapter one but at a different place while also setting up the main stakes (hiding the dragon egg from a tyrant’s minions).
It should probably be said that the first Harry Potter book aimed at a younger audience – who would probably not analyze the details of labeling the beginning a prologue. Either way, it serves to show it’s down to the writer (or editor/publisher who can pressure one way over another due to industry and/or genre standards) which way to go.
In case of series, some authors might use prologue in many books while others might favor a prologue only in the first book (if included) – especially if the books follow one another without significant gaps. Quick googling told me that Game of Thrones and its sequels each have a prologue (but don’t take my word for it) so here is another example of a different approach.
Should you write a prologue?
Let’s get back to the main question now: should you use a prologue? All the reasoning above explains why to do/don’t label it as one but not whether to include it.
The decision, again, is primarily on the writer as no one else knows the story better. If there is an event important for understanding the story and it happens at different time and/or place than the rest, it is a prologue candidate.
The question coming next is: is the scene really important for the story, enough to be used as a prologue? After all, there are other ways – memories/flashback can be used to glimpse into the past at a moment more connected to the event.
My advice would be: write it, either as a prologue or a flashback. You can always change your decision, whether on your own decision during drafting or on the (possibly repeated) beta feedback. If you remove it completely, you can later release it on your website as a deleted scene to show more about the background (or the process of crafting the story). Or, as I did, you can put it aside as a potential prequel material.
To use a movie example for the last case: James Cameron’s Avatar. The cinema version has a flashback-type internal thoughts about how Jake got to Pandora. In the director’s cut, there’s a longer version acting as a prologue (though, in a movie, there’s no a “prologue” text anywhere), happening back on Earth. Why am I mentioning this? To prove my previous point: give it a try or two and see what works better for your story (and the level of detail you want to give it).
Closing thoughts: Epilogue is the same
The end of a book/series might need a similar treatment. To use my previous examples: Harry Potter used a scene happening several years later as an epilogue (with a mixed reception so be aware of that possibility). Eragon needed much more (15% of the fourth book) to close all the plot threads and thus a chapter-size prologue was out of the question.
Which brings me to one factor I did not mention before: often, a prologue is shorter than the other chapters (though it doesn’t need to be so). Fact is, not every author keeps chapter size consistent – I’ve seen a book where the shortest chapters was 2-3 “pages” on the default settings of my Kindle while the longest had estimated read time of 20-30 minutes.
So, again, it’s down to the author’s choice. Trial and error. While it might be unpleasant to cut scenes you worked hard to write, it might be better than having to fill the gaps later.
Which is all I wanted to say today. Good luck writing, with prologue or without.
Feel free to share your opinions and experiences. Have you included prologue/epilogue in your books? Have you read a book with a memorable prologue?