Prologues in Fiction
Prologues are tricky things in fiction and operate quite differently from their role in non-fiction. In non-fiction, they often let you know what’s coming. On the lines of tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and then tell them what you’ve told them. And in non-fiction that often works as the focus is on facts and information. But fiction is about emotion and the unseen.
Non-fiction approach to fiction
I once reviewed a would-be novel using a non-fiction approach. I recreate sort of what it read like:
Prologue: Jason is deeply concerned about the upcoming battle with his brother. He knows that all their history will come to bear and it wouldn’t be just about dividing up Mom’s furniture. It is going to be a knock-down, drag-out.
Story: Jason and his brother fight about who gets what in their mother’s house. Jason wants the blue bowl but so does his brother. His brother accuses him of always trying to grab the best. They fight endlessly.
Last chapter: Jason is alone in the house. He puts his head in his hands. Just as he feared, things got out of hand.
In short, Jason feared it was going to wrong, it went wrong, and he reflected on the wrongness. I.e. tell ‘em what’s gonna happen, write what happens, and tell ‘em what happened.
Instead of prologues
Now, truthfully, if you wanted to use a prologue as I set out in the example, I suppose you could do it if it were short enough—a fleeting thought as Jason enters the house, for example. But then of course, that’s not a prologue.
Generally, I think you need to ask yourself why you need prologues at all.
I can think of some reasons which I then will go on to brilliantly refute.
I want to give readers the back story.
Why? Why do they need to know what happened before the story starts? How come you don’t start with this back story stuff as the beginning of the plot if it’s so important? Back story is usually most useful at the point readers need it to inform the story. Use a flashback or other device to impart the important bit of history rather than piling it all up front.
I want to let them know how to approach the story
Doesn’t this sound suspiciously like telling the reader what conclusions they should come to or feelings they should have while reading? As I’ve mentioned, you heighten the reader’s pleasure when you Let the Reader Participate in the Story by allowing her to come to her own decisions. If deep down, this is the reason, for your prologue, I’d dump it completely. Trust that you can get the message across in the story and trust your readers to find it.
I can’t find another place to stick this stuff that I want them to know
I know—during research for the book, you found many riveting facts. But you can’t shoehorn them all into the plot, so why not whet the readers’ appetite in the prologue with all these cool things?
But news—unlike you, they’re not fascinated by your research. Instead, they want to be fascinated by the saga you tell, using the insights you gleaned from the facts.
So bite the bullet and drop all the information which doesn’t in some way further your plot. Save it for boring dinner guests.