It's been a long week and it's just going to keep getting longer until finals are over. For the longest time I wondered if this post would turn into something along the lines of my "openings" post, caught in a lack of time loop until I finally forgot, and trashed it.
I got two hours of sleep last night, so I might be a little incoherent, but for what it's worth--Jodi's very abbreviated take on prologues.
When prologues work, they work well. When they don't, they give the whole technique a bad name. A prologue is simply a voice issue. People who like them tend to use them.
A bad prologue usually happens when the writer wants to cut to the chase without putting too much effort into layering or simply wants to start at the interesting bit without a firm grip on how to integrate back-story.
An example of the first kind would be the one in Kenyon’s Devil May Cry. In less than three pages, it goes over the history of the Babylonian pantheon, does a breakdown of the different gods, what the hero’s problem is, how he was betrayed, what he thinks of it and how he’s going to fix it, along with a couple of brooding, vengeful thoughts. Although, imho—it’s probably because she was under contract and writing too fast.
The second kind, where the person isn’t good at integrating back-story, is probably the reason for the saying, “prologues don’t work”
An example of that would be a story where the author depends on the prologue to explain who the characters are, what they’re doing and why, without ever mentioning it again. The hero does stuff that don’t make sense, and has powers or some kind of motivation that we don’t “see”. But…was mentioned in the prologue.
Maybe the prologue explains the war in Heaven, the fall of Lucifer, and ends with the formation of Hell. Then the first page opens with some guy walking down the street looking for a cup of coffee. Five pages later we find out the guy’s name is Starr, he lives in Boston, and someone is killing prostitutes. It doesn’t connect.
It might, if the author wanted to set Lucifer up as Starr. But simply focusing on a couple of events in the prologue doesn’t necessarily make the entire story one big connected whole, and who is Starr? Is he Lucifer? The prologue talks about Lucifer, but the beginning is some guy walking down the street looking for coffee.
If the story is really about a minor angel who got caught up in the war, decides to hang out with humans, and became a cop or detective and the plot involves human trafficking—the author probably figured the prologue made sense since it’s what caused Starr to become a cop. He Fell.
It's a trigger, but not “the” trigger.
A good prologue should show the inciting incident so chapter one can begin with “what happens next”.
If I opened the Starr prologue with a demon in a truck of illegals—all of whom were really hot women, and ended with a shot of the doors opening, and a makeshift brothel, it would be the inciting incidence for a story about dead prostitutes, demons/fallen angels and human trafficking. If I changed the focus in my prologue and opened with a shot of Starr cutting his wings off and walking out of Hell, it would be the inciting incident for a character-driven story about Starr, and the prostitutes would be my “vehicle” to show his transformational arc.
Where and how you start your story is a matter of voice. But if you're going to use a prologue it should do one of two things—show the inciting incident, or a change which then leads to this particular story happening.
Whether it’s the one with the prostitutes or the one with Starr—it still opens the same, with Starr walking down the road looking for coffee. In the first one, you already know the story is a murder-thriller-paranormal, so it’s pretty obvious if we open with Starr he’s going to play a large role in the investigation, and curiosity makes us turn the page. In the second one, you already know who Starr is, what he’s capable of, and something about his attitude. So Starr walking down the street means something is about to happen to start him on his journey. Plot-driven vs. character driven.
It’d be just as easy to cut the prologue and start with the inciting incident, or a little set-up and then the inciting incident. It’s all a matter of personal style and focus. Prologues work if they’re a logical part of the story, and provide either a reason for--or a jumping off point to-—the rest of the story.