What are they?
With only a few hundred words, they can give us a hint of what's to come. They also can inspire intense debates among writers about whether to include one.
What is the role of a good prologue?
I think a prologue's purpose should be to sow questions in a reader's mind, to plant an image in their head that can be called up later in the novel as sort of an "aha moment." It should introduce you to a key character or maybe two, but shouldn't give away too much too soon; it's not the middle of your book, it's just a quick set up that will be important later but interesting now.
Some sort of suspense is a must as well. It doesn't have to be quite as much suspense as you would see in the middle of a crime drama or a thriller novel where the main character is speeding away on a car that's on fire and she has a crateful of puppies to save in the backseat, but I do believe that there should be some kind of tension in it, especially since this is going to be the first thing your readers experience when they open your book. So a killer first sentence is also necessary. If your prologue is boring or if it's not attention grabbing, then your reader is probably not going to stick around or won't be expecting quite as much from your writing.
What makes for a bad one?
For me, if the prologue feels like it's been taken from the middle of the novel and pasted on the first page as a cheap way of garnering interest, then I tend to get put out with the novel and gloss over it. A prologue is a scene that happened before the start of your story, not after it's begun. It should be at least partly responsible for setting the actions of the story into motion, so having one that seems cut from the middle of your novel defeats that purpose.
A poorly written one that gives away too much too soon is also makes me sad. It's a fine line an author has to walk with a prologue, and if you as a writer and more importantly as a reader aren't happy with your prologue, then it either needs more work or maybe you should just scrap it and try your story without one.
Why do you think people either love them or hate them?
I think experience is a big thing. If you've had a lot of bad run-ins with prologues, then you're not going to like them in general. And since prologues are fairly difficult to do right at times without the help of an editor who knows what he/she is doing, there are probably a lot of bad ones floating around out there. It's also just a matter of preference. Some readers might see them as spoilers and not like that. Or they may just see them as extraneous and unnecessary.
I suppose you could also see a prologue as leftover material that couldn't be worked into the story and in that sense, perceive it as a cheat in a way, as a way to stick that scene you really want into your novel without having to work it in for real. I don't really agree with this viewpoint, but it does help explain the hate for them.
Do you think prologues work better for certain genres than others?
I definitely think that some genres lend themselves better to prologues than others. Mystery novels and thrillers, for example, tend to work well with prologues, because suspense is inherent in these novels. Young adult novels can also work well with them if you start off with your character as an older adult, looking back on life specifically at the point in time that your novel takes place or, in your case, Michelle, if you have multiple viewpoints. But you shouldn't limit yourself.
I think a prologue could work for any genre as long as it's done right and fits with your story. It's more the story that determines a prologue's need rather than the genre, so if you're working on something that either doesn't fit a genre (like I am) or isn't one of the ones I mentioned above, don't discount the prologue just yet.
How does an author know whether to include one in his or her book?
If you feel that your story is further enhanced by a prologue, then go for it! But I would also get opinions of fellow writers and readers to see if they agree with you as well. Sometimes we're so invested in our writing that we tend to blind ourselves to any faults that might be in it. So having a few other opinions keeps us grounded and non-egomaniacal.
Is there anything else writers should keep in mind when considering a prologue?
Like I mentioned before, a killer first sentence is a must. It needs to pack a punch right to the gut so that your reader is hooked and doesn't want to put your book down. Consider these two opening prologue sentences that I've just made up:
1. The car was parked at the intersection of Lexington and East 81st Street.
2. It'd been three hours since he'd crawled under Richardson's car, waiting for the CEO to come out, and the smell of motor oil and gasoline was almost enough to kill him faster than what that rat had planned.
I'll leave it to you to decide which one you'd like to read more of.
Oh, and stay open to suggestion. You don't have to take all of what you're told to heart, but just listening to it and considering it can be extremely helpful in the long run, for all of your writing.
Thank you very much, Marlena, for this excellent advice!
P.S. Author Sharon Bayliss of The Blue Word wrote an excellent post last month about which agents are anti-prologue. Like Marlena, Sharon has a blog that rocks!
HELPING HANDS AWARD
The end of August, critique partner and blogger extraordinaire Elizabeth Varadan of Elizabeth Varadan's Fourth Wish honored me with the Helping Hands Award. Few people deserve this more than Marlena, as she is a true champion of others' writing careers through her thoughtful blog comments and Twitter shout outs.
No obligation goes with this award except to pass it to those you feel have helped you.
Your turn: Do you like prologues in books you read? Do you include prologues in books you write?