I have to admit it. I am not a fan of prologues. There. I said it, now I'm done.
Well, that's certainly one way this post could go. On the other hand, I could now begin to explore why exactly I'm not a big fan of prologues. Assisting me will be A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, the first book I thought of that came with a prologue (although believe me, there are many more). (Warning: slight spoiler alert.)
A Game of Thrones opens on a cold icy night with a snow patrol, a couple of guys whose names we hear and instantly forget. Then, horror of horrors, they are attacked by ice monsters and die horrible deaths. That's it. Then we get to chapter one, where we find that the setting, both in time and space, has totally changed, and that the characters we thought we would need to know really don't matter. At all. You know why? Because though the sharp-eyed reader might (completely logically) assume that a lot of this book will have to do with the problem of the ice monsters, it so happens that the ice monsters don't turn up again in this book. In fact, I've read four of these behemoths (each weighing in at close to 1000 pages), and the ice monsters still haven't made a significant appearance. They've wavered icily in the background, but still have yet to enter the main plot. Or even one of the several dozen important subplots.
So what are the problems with this prologue? Well, in a book that contains over twenty main characters (each of which we're supposed to know and remember), introducing a couple of guys who are only important in that they die is just a bad idea. Next, the issue introduced in the prologue just doesn't return. I assume it will someday (otherwise, was there even a minuscule point to having the prologue?), but I still haven't seen it.
While one problem in the prologue to A Game of Thrones is particular to the book (the introduction of a couple guys with long fantasy-world names, only to kill them off five seconds later and introduce you to about twenty actually important guys with long fantasy-world names), the other problem is one that most other books with prologues suffer from. To further this conversation, let's move a step back and discuss the prologue in general.
What is the function of the prologue? It serves to introduce an issue that you're supposed to keep in the back of your mind while you read the book, because sooner or later it's going to return to haunt you. Or freeze you to death. The problem here is that by the time the prologue-issues come up again, the reader has already forgotten the prologue, which completely negates its purpose in the first place. And since most prologues are written like that, the habitual reader will start to skim the prologue, knowing that s/he'll forget about it anyway. And (if you're like me), you might just start skipping it altogether.
This is a problem (obviously). Writers write in order to get readers to read! And the existence of a prologue automatically (even before reading it!) turns me off from reading it! And if I'm just browsing at a bookstore (instead of picking up a book that was recommended to me), I'll probably just put the book back.
My thoughts concerning prologues: they're unnecessary (since the reader will have already forgotten them), and sometimes even detrimental. But if you really want a prologue, make sure it's totally relevant and necessary to the development of the story. Also, I strongly recommend doing the big reveal (Aha! So the bizarre monkey-fighter pilots were actually the clones they were trying to save! I totally get it now.) close to halfway through the story. (As in, not the very end.) Trust me. The story will have enough depth and complexity to stand on its own. The promise of the prologue should not be the only thing carrying the reader forward into the tale.
On the other hand, maybe I'm totally mistaken about prologues. Maybe they don't exist for the reasons I think they do - maybe there are other reasons I am totally oblivious to. And if that's the case, maybe prologues make complete sense, and I should stop skipping them all over the place. Anyone have any elucidating opinions on this?
Again, disclaimer: I loved A Game of Thrones once I got into it (although it took me 60-70 pages to get there), and I strongly strongly strongly recommend it to fantasy enthusiasts. But the prologue, unfortunately, was just awful. Sorry, Mr. Martin.