When is a Prologue just a prologue

According to Wiki – A prologue (Greek πρόλογος prologos, from the word pro (before) and lógos, word) is an opening to a story that establishes the setting and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information. In a book, the prologue is a part of the front matter which is in the voice of one of the book’s characters rather than in that of the author.

So, to prologue or not to prologue? Another issue, of course, is where do you start your book? “Why, at the beginning, of course!” Says the bookshelf across the room.

I know of several prologues – let’s use GRRM, for an example. He gets you hooked on a character in the prologue, or at least invested in him, as the character is pretty engaging… and then he kills them. Was it necessary for the plot? Not really. It could definitely have been worked in elsewhere. In fact, it seems kind of wordy, in my opinion. The one advantage he does pick up, that would be hard to squeeze in elsewhere, is if he has a scene that he wants the reader to know about, but it’s outside of his normal plot or character arcs.

I am not a fan of prologues that take place “twenty years before” – although, if they’re done well, they can still work. Perhaps we went to see the character’s uniqueness through the eyes of the parents, or what have you. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, it starts out several YEARS before the story really gets going. But it works. We get a great hand-off the story from Bilbo to Frodo, we’re re-introduced to the much more serious Gandalf, and of course, we are introduced to the non-speaking member of the cast – The One Ring. However, Tolkien doesn’t call it a prologue, he just makes it the start of his book.

The recent Star Trek movie has a similar take. We see James T. Kirk’s father playing a heroic role in saving the people on a starship, including his wife who is giving birth to Captain Kirk. Why does it work? We get to see a riveting scene, action-filled, that wrenches the heart, gives us believability as well as a peek into what makes Capt. Kirk tick later on – why is he a rebel, rash, daring and heroic? Having both the genetic make-up of and the need to live up to, a legendary hero… that has an effect on you.

If you’re going to have a prologue – make it profound.