A brief comment on The Writer's Voice Twitter hashtag sparked a tremendous debate about prologues and books that open with characters other than the MC. Never one to abandon a controversy, I realized I had plenty to say -- enough, in fact, to write a whole blog post.
So, alright. Prologues. People hate them. Why? Because they're often boring exercises in authorial masturbation. Not arguing that point. I've read (and skipped over) a lot of terrible prologues. So why did I jump in to debate their virtues in Twitter rather than agreeing with the sensible advice of judges and agents throughout the web?
Because sometimes prologues are necessary. In my opinion, the primary role of a prologue should be to establish dramatic irony: the reader knows something on page one that the main character won't know right away. When used correctly, this increases tension, clarifies the situation and introduces readers to a world that they may not have seen for several more chapters.
For example: The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. While not called "prologue," I think it qualifies. It happens many years before the main action of the story, follows characters who are not the MC and introduces us to a world that the MC himself won't see for several chapters. It's also told in a somewhat different voice/tone from the rest of the book.
But I think the "prologue" here is necessary. Would we read the next few chapters the same way if we didn't already know the story of Harry's extraordinary birth? Do we gain something from knowing about the wizarding world before we glimpse it from Harry's eyes?
Another example: The first chapter of Game of Thrones. I can't remember if it's called "Prologue" or not, but it also follows the same formula. Here we see a character who has no major bearing on the story (and who in fact is dead within a few pages) and events that do not directly impact the "inciting incident" of the story.
But we need that information. We need to see White Walkers so that we recognize them later when they become a major plot point. This chapter also serves to prove something: Winter *is* coming, and we as readers know it even though not everyone in the story seems to understand what that means. The chapter gives a sense of urgency and stakes that would be missing if we didn't have that dramatic irony.
There's just two (extremely popular) examples. There's more, I'm sure, but those are the first two that came into mind. Could you have chopped those chapters off and the books still make sense? Sure. But it would've been a different reading experience.
Anyway. I have one book with a prologue (it establishes information about a character that would otherwise go unknown because the only person who knows the truth took their secret to the grave; it also sets up world information that you otherwise won't see for several pages) and it feels "right" for that book. Then again, considering that particular book is about talking rats, a prologue is the least of its worries when getting published. *grin*
Here's a few "take with a grain of salt" tips for writing prologues, if you feel you have to include them:
-- Keep it short
-- Use it to create dramatic irony, not an infodump
-- Ask yourself what you gain by having the reader know something the characters don't
-- Ask yourself if you'd gain more by portraying that info any other way
Of course, you may view all of that and decide to include your prologue and just call it "Chapter One." That might squeeze you past agents who have a knee-jerk reaction of hatred toward prologues, but everyone will recognize it right away for what it is, anyway.
If you want to "save the prologues," the only way to do it is by writing really good prologues.