1) backstory that may or may not be interesting, but has nothing to do with what’s happening at the start of the novel.
2) sentence upon sentence that delays the incident which gets the ball rolling for our characters.
3) a passage that kicks off the story just right, but should really be labeled Chapter One.
So how does a writer know if her prologue really ought to be a prologue? Here’s my rule of thumb: If the passage passes my Edgar Allan Poe Test, it’s a prologue.
You can put your writing to the Edgar Allan Poe Test, too. If you haven’t read the works of Edgar Allan Poe, all I can say is whoa, Nelly! Run right out and get yourself a copy of his Selected Tales. Next, gobble up Poe’s classic short story, “The Purloined Letter.” Done? Good!
Now, let’s consider “The Purloined Letter.” Poe’s revolutionary detective, Auguste Dupin, must recover a letter a very nasty man has stolen. Smart guy that the nasty man is, he’s hidden the letter so well, the police aren’t able to find it. But Dupin does. He visits the man, hangs out awhile in the guy’s living room. He takes note of everything in the room, including the cheap, utilitarian letter rack full of notes, and cards, and envelopes. And wouldn’t you know it? That’s where the nasty man has hidden the purloined letter—right there in the letter rack—in plain sight.
To me, a good prologue is like the concept behind Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” It subtly reveals to the reader the answer to your mystery, the key to your love story, the tool needed for the quest, or in other words, the significant detail that will be important to the climax of your work. If this passage doesn’t do this, if it details backstory, or if it delays the inciting action or event, it needs to be outta there. If it kicks off your story but has no bearing on the climax of your story, it’s really Chapter One so label it accordingly.
Now, it’s your turn to give the Rockville 8 your take on prologues. Do you write them? Do you read them? What do you think a good prologue should do?