Let's first talk about ways in which to use a prologue (examples, not necessarily books, are in parenthesis). Then dos and don'ts.
Past is Prologue:
- If your novel is about someone in the present discovering some link to history (paranormal or not), you might show a scene of a significant event that will be important in the future (present) (The Mummy)
- You show the murder or crime (without giving away the killer or thief) (Dan Brown)
- An extremely important event that doesn't quite go with the body (maybe for POV or VOICE reasons) but you must include it
- The character died and the body is about their afterlife (Heaven, Angel, Vampire, etc)
- Foreshadowing a death or near death (Twilight)
- Foreshadowing some horrific experience
- Reflection upon the events in the story (The Notebook)
- The character died and the body is about their life
More often than not with manuscripts, I find myself skipping the prologue (I even do this with some published books, naughty naughty me, I know). You've heard people say that maybe your ms doesn't start in the right place? Don't discount the prologue. It might not be working. You've heard people say (me especially, it's a dedicated section in my Wednesday Reads) how important the first line and page are. That includes the prologue. Many times in my Wednesday Reads you'll notice how I'll give you both the prologue first line and first chapter first line, probably because the prologue wasn't thrilling.
- Have action
- Have intrigue
- Have VOICE
- Leave unanswered questions
- Give too much detail. It isn't a textbook of history or of events in your novel
- Use it as a back story dumping ground (and/or info dump)
- Use it as a device to reveal information not found in the body--important information in the first page can easily be forgotten by the reader
- Include a prologue just because you think it will sell more books
Here's the answer to all prologue questions: when using a prologue, no matter what it does, reveals, or foreshadows, it must fit with your story. It must work. And it must be interesting. Don't include it for the sake of having a prologue. The majority of books on the shelf probably don't have one, and they haven't suffered any for it.
Favorite prologues? Any books in which you didn't like the prologue?