Prologues tend to be misunderstood creatures for new writers. By their very nature, they seem to be the practical way to start a story. The opening scene, if you will. That’s what snares folks. My story must have an opening scene, hence it requires a prologue.
Truth is, ninety percent of most stories don't need prologues. What you end up with in most cases is a thinly disguised first chapter. More often than not, the “prologue” ends up being an info-dump as well, an excuse for the writer to get past the initial explanations in long droning narratives.
Now the neat thing about prologues is that, when you do need them, they serve as a perspective on your story that might otherwise be impossible to provide. For me, that is the key – the perspective must be completely different. A chance to step away from something your main character knows, but you want the reader to be aware of. A well-crafted prologue can, through dialog and action (not narrative) prepare the reader far more than any back-fill will.
Most stories do not need such preparation – so think twice before considering a prologue. It really must deliver the bang for the buck so that the reader will both tolerate and appreciate the change in venue between the prologue and the start of the story.
My own rule on prologues is that they should be separated from the main story in both time and distance. They are best presented from the point of view of other than the main character. This character may or may not play a role in the main story. What is crucial for me is that the event itself should be something that itself has an impact on the story and is otherwise not able to be shown in the main story itself.
A prologue is indeed a complete scene. I prefer just one scene. A good prologue for me is a short one – we’re talking only a couple pages at best. We’re not telling another story here, we are setting up for one. The scene should be vivid, dramatic, and set the flavor for what is to follow. This is doubly important because the prologue will now contain your initial “hook” to grab the reader. If this scene does involve your main character, keep in mind that the reader already knows that your main character is going to live, so the element of risk here is minimal. On the same thought, never make your prologue a situation where a character is looking back at the story to come and reminiscing about it. You just told your reader that everything to follow has already happened...and sucked the drama right out of it.
I rarely use prologues, but in my upcoming novel Rogue Dancer I have to deal with a reader who may not have read the first book in this series. The prologue becomes a powerful tool to catch them up in a way that keeps their interest. I start with a short scene between two human officers on their respective ships arguing over how to initiate contact with a race they previously wronged. In this brief and heated exchange I provide more background detail on the main alien character and the opening situation than a page full of narrative ever could. And then all hell breaks loose and the scene abruptly ends. The next scene is the first chapter from the main character’s viewpoint literally a world away from the last scene – and she has troubles of her own. The reader, however, already knows her troubles are a lot worse than she suspects. They also know enough about the previous book as to not be distracted during the upcoming drama.
So, in summary, here is a quick gut check for you to help decide if you are dealing with a prologue or a first chapter (keep in mind this is just my opinion here):
1. It is removed from the main story in time and or distance. The first chapter begins elsewhere.
2. It is being told from a perspective that would be difficult to otherwise present.
3. It is one stand-alone scene.
4. It has impact on the story to come but is not directly a part of that story.
5. It contains a dramatic moment.
6. It tells something far easier than back-fill would in the main story.
7. It is not all narrative.
8. It has a definite hook.
9. It passes the “Do you really need this?” question.
Now, lets see a prologue in action - this is the prologue I mentioned from my novel "Rogue Dancer":
Ryan Donald leaned closer to the screen, his Irish temper barely under control. He wanted to strangle the bastard. “Commander, having your cruiser tag along is sending all the wrong messages, can’t you see that? These people are going to hate our guts for previously siding with the slave race their ancestors created. I’ll be damn lucky to get that princess or whatever the hell she is to give me the time of day without even more gunboat diplomacy.”
His antagonist, Vice Commander Powel, glowered back over the stub of a cigar he chewed on. Along with the crew cut, the man was all military theater. “Hogwash, Captain. You equipped those ex-slaves with three times the firepower and still got your butts handed to you by these…what’s that name, again?”
“Qurls,” Ryan patiently explained again. “Specifically, one of the four subspecies called Datha Qurl.”
“Oh yeah…them. Walking war machines, you said. Biologically specialized for one purpose. If the claws don’t get you, they act like a goddamn electric eel and electrocute your ass. And let’s not forget that other bunch who practically downloaded your mind.”
“That would be the Shandi Qurl,” Ryan explained, preferring not to be reminded of how those females had gotten into his head. He was well on his way to losing this argument.
“How much technology did you end up giving these aliens, Captain? Enough for them to silence those beacons you left behind?” Powel leaned back in his chair aboard the other ship. “We’ll be lucky if one cruiser is all you’re going to need. Hell of a way to make first contact by giving weapons to the wrong side. So who exactly is this contact of yours?”
“Her name’s Mikial. I saved her life during the war we started, and she saved mine when these Datha wanted to blow my ship and crew to hell and back. I don’t know what kind of leader she’s turned into…it’s all done through some kind of biological transformation. I got the drift that she’s probably going to be influential. I figure we’ll--”
A loud warble cut the conversation short, similar alarms pulling Powel from his seat as well. Ryan left the briefing room, happy to be rid of that pompous tin pot for a few minutes. He looked up at the tactical screens. He had not seen this much excitement on the cramped bridge since they left Earth.
“Tachyon emissions spiking fore and aft!” a Lieutenant bawled out.