Modern practice and my personal bias suggests that there is no defense for a prologue.
The ancient Greeks used the prologue to tell a short story that explained the setting or relationship for the work that would follow. They considered the prologue a piece apart from the main narrative. Literally, “a speech before” the story begins.
Generally, the ancients used prologues to explain what was about to happen, or to give insight into the characters or action. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales starts with a prologue to introduce the various pilgrims before they’re each given a tale to tell. The literary device remained in common usage in Shakespeare’s time to literally set the stage for the action to come.
My personal distaste for the device falls squarely on the idea that it is – by definition – a separate, shorter piece intended to explain some aspect of the story before the reader is allowed to actually read the story. On its face, that seems harmless enough, but I would suggest that you won't get a better laugh if you explain the joke before you tell it.
I have the same problem with prologues.
I probably wouldn’t have worried about prologues except I kept finding them in modern novels. In fantasy, they’re often of the form of an ancient battlefield where the scion of some High House vows to get revenge through the generations, or some other rationale to justify the story to come. In science fiction, they're used to show some hidden aspect of the universe to the reader. Frequently, the historical cause or hidden aspect arises normally from the narrative, often repeating the very story recounted in the prologue. Too often they are little more than an exercise in extended world building with little actual bearing on the story to follow.
In short, they were not necessary to the story and only served as a distraction from the real story which happened weeks – or centuries – later to different people in a different setting.
Therein lies the crux of the problem. These abuses of prologue have trained readers to skip them.
Yet can we say “never” with the prologue? In as much as I find little value in the examples I regularly encounter, one must admit the value for those that actually work.
Consider The Canterbury Tales. The prologue works for that story because it provides the information needed for the various tales to hang together but which would not be available in the story itself. The key question is “why wasn’t it?” and the answer lies in the structure of the work as a whole. Each tale told by each pilgrim remained true to that point of view. The prologue served as a kind of omniscient perspective to provide a bit of background which helped to explain – not only each story – but the work as a whole. Without that prologue, the reader is robbed because the story is lessened.
In The Name Of The Rose, the epistolary prologue serves to lay the groundwork for the story to come in a way that is not possible within the structure of the liturgical calendar which governs the rest of the work. Again, structurally, some of the richness of Eco’s tapestry would be lost without that prologue.
A more questionable example is the prologue to Gruen’s Water For Elephants – perhaps the most famous NaNoWriMo novel of all time. Its spare few paragraphs sets the stage for Jacob’s remembrances and provides a sense of clarity, of reality, that anchors the rest of the book. The structure of the following story – with its hazy and sometimes questionable memories – argues that the prologue worked more by providing that anchor in the reality of sawdust and blood than by recounting the incident itself.
While each of those examples offer back story or setting or characterization, the reason they work is not because of the content but because of the structure of the stories which followed. The prologue's narrative content could not fit within the structural context of the story which made a prologue necessary – in a speech before the story began.
In the process of writing this piece, I’ve come to appreciate the limitations of my existing bias. It’s also helped me understand what a prologue might be used for so that “never” no longer applies. I still believe that back story or setting or hook are not sufficient reasons for a prologue. Back story should inform the author, not the reader. Setting is where the characters interact to derive a plot. Hooks should be reserved for the story.
Unless you can’t because of the story’s structure.
Unless the prologue works.
Which is probably the correct answer after all.
P.S. Write the prologue last. You can’t tell if the story needs it until you see the completed work.Image Credit: Ancient Greek theatre (Segesta) by Matthias Süßen
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