It has been said of late that publishers don’t like to buy books with prologues. I can’t remember why; like so many pronouncements from the publishing industry, it carries the aura of someone speaking authoritatively when, in fact, he can barely distinguish shit from shinola. Given the current health of the publishing industry, this is not a great leap of faith.
I’ve finally gotten around to reading Adrian McKinty’s much acclaimed Dead I Well May Be. (Yes, I know about the speed with which my wheels grind, but they grind exceeding fine.) The book starts with a prologue that not only sets up the character of Michael Forsythe but explains how this Irish lad came to be in the United States in the first place. Concise, an exceptional example of showing and not telling, and establishes the mood for what is to come.
Apparently the prologue police weren’t able to get to McKinty in his current digs Down Under, as 2009’s Fifty Grand begins with not just a prologue, but a teaser prologue that jumps to well into the book, leaving the reader with anticipation of what is to come, but never hinting at how he’ll get there.
A poorly-written prologue can be a useless appendage, a tail that doesn’t wag the dog, but precedes it. That’s no reason to look disfavorably upon them. Prologues can also serve valuable table-setting functions, introduce characters and conflicts, and give the reader a taste of the writing before the story starts to roll in earnest.
Who shouldn’t write prologues? People who don’t write well should avoid them like the plague, although those folks probably should not write the rest of the book, either. Prologues should also be avoided by those who wish to adhere to conventional wisdom in the hope of improving their chances of publishing success, though conventional wisdom’s track record of late doesn’t have much to recommend it.
The avoidance of prologues is no more legitimate than the constant and sometimes unreasonable demands to “raise the stakes” to such levels the writer has no believable way of resolving the story. Does it serve a purpose, and not feel like a useless appendage? Leave it in. What the hell.