Catriona McPherson’s novel the day she died begins with a frightening prologue. A woman is trapped in a completely dark room, fumbling about, searching for a way out. Tension immediately builds. The reader wants to know who this woman is and how she got in this predicament.
When the story begins, the main character is introduced, a young, naive woman named Jessie. We go to work with her, see who she sees, follow her to the market, and go to her home. In a relatively short period of time we begin to questions Jessie’s decision-making, and feel, deep inside, that she is walking into trouble. All along we wonder if she is the woman in the prologue.
In this case, the prologue works. It provides a scenario that brings chills and causes anxiety. It does not detract from the story, but rather pulls the arc along its path.
Not all prologues are as effective, however. Some are simply backstory that the author wants the reader to know, yet can find no tidy way to include it in the narrative. Some are dream-cycles, nightmares from which the protagonist awakens in a sweat. Some are a marriage scene, the first love in a relationship that fell apart due to death or divorce.
When you write a novel, think carefully about whether or not to begin with a prologue. Ask yourself questions about why your story needs this device.
If you do write one, after you’ve moved on a few chapters into your novel, go back and reread the prologue. Does it still work? Is the reader tantalized by the story or pulled away from the following action? What purpose does it serve?
If the prologue serves as a distraction, then remove it. Save it for later to use in the novel itself, if you decide that it works better in a different spot.
The bottom line is that the prologue acts as an enticing force. It spurs the reader to continue. It sets up action to come in such a way as to provide hints as to what is to come.