What do agents and editors have against prologues? Several times, at conferences or online, I’ve heard publishing experts recommend against starting your novel with a prologue. Also here. And here. And here. The prevailing wisdom seems to be this: “If your prologue is important enough to be in the book, make it your first chapter. If not, then cut it.”
I guess if I were filtering through a slush pile of 100 submissions a day, and a mere 10% of them began with prologues, I’d get pretty sick of them too. But if I analyzed that irritability, I think I’d draw the conclusion that the slush-pile/submission process is stupid, not prologues.
I think I read a LOT of books, for the average person—which is to say maybe 30 books a year. In the last year, have I read a book that begins with a character waking up? Not that I can remember. And if I did, would I have rolled my eyes and immediately judged the book to be not worthy of my time? Absolutely not. But according to industry wisdom, that’s another one of the unforgivable cliches that should never open a book:
– The main character waking up
– The main character dying (then coming back in subsequent chapters as a ghost, or in flashbacks)
– The main character looking in a mirror
Does anyone outside the established publishing industry care or notice if a book starts in one of these ways? I don’t think so. Just jaded, bleary-eyed slush-pile readers.
As a casual reader, I love prologues. They create an air of mystery. The add suspense, or foreshadowing. They can lay groundwork for the themes or the character arc of the book. They’re typeset in all italics! What’s not to love? I recently read a book, Blue Remembered Earth, that began with an all-italics, nearly incomprehensible frontispiece, and followed that with an eight-page prologue. And I loved both of them. And then the all-italics tone reappeared at the end of the book, creating a perfect wrap-up. Voila! Great!
In fact I’d probably read a book that was all prologues, kind of like how Kentucky Fried Movie was mostly movie trailers.