One result of reading a fair few Authonomy submissions is that I am a fully signed up member of the League Against Irritating Prologues. It’s not that there aren’t some good prologues, and I’m sure you’ll all tell me about the great ones, but experience has made me cynical. In the case of first novels, I think a lot of prologues have been added because the author has lost faith in where the story begins. Faced with the criticism, ‘you need a stronger opening,’ the aspiring writer simply picks up the most dramatic moment in the book and sticks it at the beginning. The chances are he/she will also fling in a few extras – some feverish action or overblown description to soup the whole thing up. It’s quite easy to spot where this has happened: the first few pages feel disjointed (and frequently have basic errors resulting from the cut and paste process); chapter two settles down to a much more fluid and convincing narrative.
Obviously turning the story around (i.e. beginning at the middle or even the end) can provide tension for the whole narrative and keep the reader engaged, but only if the author makes the right judgement on how much to reveal. If the reader knows too much, he’ll think ‘I know where this is going, do I care how we get there?’ (Yes, Sarah Waters did it in The Night Watch, and no, I didn’t like that either.) A prologue, by definition, is what comes before. Some stories spring from an action or state of affairs that predates the main plot. If so, a prologue is required. Otherwise just begin at the beginning and tell the story as well as you can. An agent or editor will judge it on its merits. If it’s good enough for them to be interested, let them decide if the structure or chronology needs tweaking.
I’d like to say it’s just experience as a reader that has made me cynical, but I have to confess that ‘New History’ has had as many starting points as it has had titles, and at one time, yes, it did have a prologue.