I don’t just love prologues. I actually prefer when stories begin with them. … In my opinion, all of these prologues are terrific at creating atmosphere. But prologues often do more. They can establish the story-world, set expectations, reveal broader or heightened stakes, lay out pertinent backstory, and provide enticing foreshadowing. … Good prologues can help to transport us to the story-world, and even put us in the proper mood to receive it. Simply put, they are an aid to immersion.
Many examples of prologues the author likes at the link, in both novels and movies.
Well, I can come down on both sides of this argument if I want, because out of my, let me see, seventeen novels currently (or nearly) on the shelf, I’ve got prologues in, hmm, just two. Well, two is enough to establish that I don’t automatically hate prologues. Which I don’t. I just usually hate prologues, because usually they’re not an aid to immersion. Usually they’re boring.
One of the examples Roycroft uses here is The Lord of the Rings, and in fact, I hate that prologue. I’m thinking of the one in the movie version. The warm description of hobbits that Tolkien called a prologue was fine. In the movies, the long infodump about the history of Sauron was not fine; it was boring. Personally, I’d have found that kind of infodump boring even if I hadn’t known the story already, because a long history lesson at the beginning of a fantasy story is ALWAYS BORING.
–Short prologues that tell a brief, immersive, complete story that is set before the main story begins = fine.That’s like my prologue in Winter of Ice and Iron.
–Short, clever prologues that are entertaining in and of themselves = fine, and here I’m thinking of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. “A word from your sponsor: This book begins with a plane crash. We do not want you to worry about this.”
–Any length of prologue, but especially a long one, that delivers a history lesson to the reader, is unreadably boring and I, at least, will immediately DNF any book the moment I see that kind of prologue.
As far as I can tell, that type of prologue is BY FAR the most common in fantasy novels.
In contrast, mystery novels very often open with a short prologue in which the murder victim gets killed. I’m not crazy about that either, but it’s a short, immersive, complete-in-itself story plus entirely standard in the genre. So that’s fine.
But to anyone writing an SFF novel and reading the linked post: think twice before providing a history lesson to the reader. CJC can get by with it in her very long series (I still skip those prologues), but very few other authors can pull it off.
Please provide counterexamples in the comments if you can think of good ones.