I've been reading Michelle Fayard's excerpt of her Young Adult novel The Underground Gift (go over to her blog and look at it; it's wonderfully written and engaging) and in one of her posts some of the commentators talked about how much they hated prologues.
In the defense of the prologue, I must ask, what's so bad about it? Why do you hate it so? All the prologue wants is some love. Yes, it knows that it's a little blurb, not even big enough to call a chapter, and yes, sometimes it just hangs on to the beginning of the book with one little hand, wanting desperately to feel like part of the family, but really? Really? You're going to hate on the poor, defenseless prologue? Look, you've hurt its feelings. Poor little prologue.
In the novel that I'm working on at the moment, I have a tiny little prologue. It's a mere little baby. Are you going to hate on it too? Hmmm?
I was surprised by how many people said they skipped over prologues. Granted, as readers, we all skip over things sometimes. I skip over author's notes and dedications for the most part. But I've never skipped a prologue. They can give you some good insight into a book or introduce in a roundabout way a character who will be integral to the story later on. They can give you a hint to the mystery before you even know the mystery has begun, a clue for you to hold onto as you read.
This is an example of a good prologue.
I suppose that if you're not writing a mystery, a prologue might seem out of place. You could see it as a cheap way to garner interest in your book by writing a short blip from the middle of the book and then pasting it to the beginning of it in the hopes that someone will read it and stick with the book long enough to figure out why your middle is in your beginning.
That is an example of a bad prologue.
I guess it can go either way. If your prologue seems more like an excerpt you would use on your back cover to generate conversation, then maybe your prologue should disappear into the night. If your prologue helps deepen the mystery of your book and provides essential information in a way that becomes clear later on but isn't obvious on the first read, then go for it. I think it really depends on your genre and what you're trying to do with your book. Mysteries and thrillers seem to work better with prologues. Other genres can survive without it, but could benefit from one if you want to challenge your readers and their perceptions of your book.
If you really want to generate interest in your first few pages of your book, then do so with a powerful first sentence and chapter. A prologue might strike the wrong chord if you're doing it to hook readers. We can tell when you're doing that. And we don't like it. We will retaliate.
Oh yes, we will. We are a scary folk.
UPDATE: Sharon Bayliss of The Blue Word wrote an awesome post about prologues that contains really helpful links to agents and their opinions on prologues. Go check it out!