I love when writers talk about prologues. There are good prologues and bad prologues. I’ve always kind of loved the prologue to The Hobbit. I think it really helped inform me, the reader, to the pace and the style of the story. I know a lot of writers who hate it because it is dull, descriptive and doesn’t move the story.
A lot of writers blogs have said this is probably the most grievous sin of a prologue: the data dump. World building should be organic or show don’t tell. And I think these rules have their place. But really, being told something of the land:
In the sixth year of the reign of Emperor Deniad, they came out of the wilderness. Mixed of race, their lineage is only defined by one feature: their beasts. Each man and woman claims a bond to a beast. Not merely horses, oxen, sheep, and pigs, but some with wolves, some with elk or horses, some with birds or rabbits. Sometimes one claimed a single animal, sometimes they claimed several. They petitioned the emperor to live among the people, offering their talents – including their magic. The priests and mages informed the emperor they knew not this magic, but it would not spread among his own peoples. So the emperor wrote the bond and they sealed it in blood.
In five sentences there is already at least two possible conflicts defined: 1) Where did these people come from and 2) why is there concern that this strange magic would spread? An emperor has different implications than a king (titles are another post) and using “peoples” instead of “people” is telling that there are potentially-conflicting powers within the land. Magic and blood usually have some kind of power, but it isn’t stated.
Now, this isn’t a total prologue. It’s just an intro paragraph. But it breaks the rule of data-dumping. It is, without argument, a data-dump.
The next sin in the tie-in. George RR Martin writes prologues which (I think never, but at least mostly) don’t tie into any of the main characters of the universe. I definitely have a note in my brain that he always kills the prologue character(s). I struggle the most with this sin, because I have seen it done well. GRRM (again, going from old memories here!) uses these disconnected prologues to help create a sense of danger – especially in those books that are less action-oriented, it helps to remind the reader that even those heavy political books… there is action happening somewhere in the world.
I would argue a prologue can be a powerful tool, but should be used carefully. The author should always have a true purpose in their prologue: world building or conflict development. I personally like prologues that set the world up. Take Harry Potter for instance. The prologue of Dumbledore dropping off Harry at his aunt’s house. There is a LOT of world-building that occurs in that short scene and a LOT of conflict development.