The topic comes up a lot among writers. Especially beginning writers. “Agents don’t like prologues.” they lament. “But what if a prologue is right for the story?’ They read published novels with prologues and love them and use that to justify using one in their own writing.
I’m not an agent or editor, but I have to say I’ve judged a lot of contest entries and seen a lot of prologues. I think it’s not that agents and editors don’t like prologues as a concept. I think they don’t like misused prologues. They have seen so many bad ones that when they look at their slush piles and see a prologue, they begin by thinking it’s unnecessary, didactic, and a sign that poor writing will follow.
Too often beginner writers use prologues for the wrong reason – to dump backstory. They believe the reader needs to know this information right at the beginning. Before they know the hero/heroine or the situation they will find themselves in. They forget or discount the reader’s need to see the so-called “ordinary world” right up front, and then the disaster that takes them out of that ordinary world and starts their hero’s journey. And then, history that can help understand why they do what they do. BTW – as little of that history as possible.
Think of your submission as setting off for a speed-date. Speed-dating is an awful phenomenon, but a great metaphor. You sit in a chair opposite someone and have three minutes to make enough of an impression that they request another meeting. In this case, your manuscript has a few pages in which to capture enough interest that someone decides to read more.
How do you begin that first date? Do you tell your partner the circumstances of your birth, or maybe your family tree? Discuss that first relationship that left you bitter, so they will understand and sympathize? Not if you want a second date. (Now, if you want to tell him you inherited a fortune when your dear cat-loving aunt died and you’ve doubled the money since so you’re quite the catch – that could be the kind of backstory that should be told up front. Ditto if you murdered your first three husbands and he happens to enjoy dangerous liaisons, but I really won’t go there.) If you want that second date you talk about yourself as you are now. How you feel, what you do, your future aspirations. You give out just enough of your goals and motivation, to leave them curious. Save the history lesson for later.
Do the same with your manuscript. A prologue for the sake of spilling history is a waste of your three minutes. Start with a good solid hook and enough mistery to make a reader curious. Everything else can wait.