The Prologue – Does it belong in 2018?
The prologue is a hotly debated topic. Depending on what you read, some agents won’t even read manuscripts that start out with one. And it’s undeniable that many fantasy books treat the prologue like a trope in-and-of itself, info-dumping world building and exposition for their own version of Middle Earth.
In my own writing, I rarely like to include them. It most often seems unnecessary to me. I subscribe the iceberg method of world-building, and would rather write in the details of my book’s environment as my characters encounter them. Was there a great big war once? Great, the character can hear about it through a song at an inn or in a lecture at their class if it’s that type of novel. Was there a dark magic locked away somewhere? Okay, let the character release it accidentally without them or the reader knowing it was there.
But on a more recent re-read of George R. R. Martin’s Game of the Thrones, I paid attention more closely to how he uses his prologues (each book begins with one). He doesn’t try to force historic information about Westeros down the reader’s throat to set the scene. Instead, he uses throwaway characters–who quite literally don’t appear in the novels at all as a viewpoint– to build suspense and let the reader know that something is going on that is going to cause problems for our characters later on. He introduces the white-walkers beyond the wall in the prologue of the first book, which serves as a backdrop for the rest of the entire series as a mysterious, looming threat. It builds suspense right out of the gate, and it was a prologue I didn’t mind reading.
Still, other writers will argue that a prologue isn’t always read by readers, on the assumption that it isn’t part of the core story, which can cause frustration if a major plot point depends on the information that it contained. I see this argument too. From a reader’s point of view, a prologue can seem like a “last time, on” segment before a Netflix episode… helpful if you’re already invested, are starting mid-series, or it’s been awhile… but not that exciting to read.
In my latest draft of my novel, I’m playing with a 1600 word segment that, similar to Martin, is aimed to build suspense and make the reader ask questions right out of the gate. I do think it functions well as a reason for readers to keep turning the pages, but I am also debating just reclassifying it as “Chapter 1”.
But my own internal debate continues to churn, and I ask the question: Does the prologue have a place in modern science-fiction and fantasy novels? I’d love to hear your thoughts.