Jul 18 2011
1. Please don’t just write an infodump of background setup. If your prologue reads like an atlas entry or history report, you’d probably be better off just cutting to chapter 1 and weaving the background information into the story itself. Readers will have an easier time learning background information (and will be more motivated to do so) if they see how it relates to the main characters doing interesting things.
2. Please make sure the information is interesting. For example, please don’t start with a prologue about how the worlds were created and/or epic wars that happened thousands of years ago without really making the information distinct and/or fresh. Faceless Evil Hordes getting (temporarily) thwarted by Faceless Good Armies with Elven Allies? Probably not so interesting. Unless there’s something so unique to this history that it really sets the tone for the work, I’d recommend just cutting to the story or somehow making it more lively. For example, if the universe was created by gods on a drunken dare, that will probably intrigue readers more than hundreds of words about how the evil gods created the orcs and how the good gods created the elves.
3. Keep the main character(s) as involved as possible. In almost every case, the main character is a better hook into the story than the setting/backstory. To the extent that the backstory/setting is a hook, you can cover that in the backcover blurb (“In a city where even the pizza boys have superpowers and the Canadian Mafia sells cocaine-laced mayonnaise on every corner, a schizophrenic bartender and his possibly-sentient goldfish must…”). In your story, please show interesting characters doing interesting things (e.g. trying to accomplish urgent goals) as quickly as possible. If main goals are not immediately available, you can use intermediate goals–for example, before Luke Skywalker fights against the Empire, he fights with his uncle about becoming a pilot, which develops his personality and his urgent goal to pursue adventure. If the main character(s) is not present in your prologue, I would highly recommend keeping the prologue as short as possible or eliminating it.
4. If the prologue functions as a chapter, I’d recommend making it Chapter One. Mark Evans suggests that some readers are so put off by prologues that they just skip past them entirely. A commenter below adds that readers might skip over prologues because “if the information was actually important, then it would be included in the main book itself.” I don’t know how common that is, but personally I am so used to prologues being boring that I’m filled with dread, ennui, and an intense desire to flee to Somalia whenever I see one. I have read only 1-2 prologues which have actually contributed to the work.