This subject seems to be popping up recently-- or maybe I'm just in one of those weird cycles, where a particular thing you've never really noticed suddenly seems to be everywhere, you know? It happens all the time with me and words -- I'll see a word I don't recognize, then I'll be seeing everywhere. No? Just me? Anyway, the topic of prologues is often a sore spot and one of those classic 'writer arguments', like outlining or writing by the seat of your pants. It's one of those things that can spark a huge debate and often a flame war between writers.
How do you feel about prologues? Well, I'll admit that I towed the 'party line' about them for a long time -- unnecessary and wrong. If you have a prologue then you've started your story in the wrong place. And I've certainly struggled with starting my stories in the wrong places. Usually I end up cutting pages of stuff until I get to the real beginning. But I've been getting better about it, and plotting (not outlining!) has been a big help. I've heard the advice that you should never submit a manuscript with a prologue. Take the information and weave it into the story, or just call the prologue Chapter 1 and have done with it. And it was advice I followed, because none of my books ever needed a prologue.
Or so I thought.
The manuscript that is currently seeking a home and/or agent, my Steampunk Cinderella, did not have a prologue either when I was first sending it out. Then I had a phone conversation with an editor and he said to me: "This needs a prologue".
I admit, I was a little taken aback by that advice, because it went against everything I'd been told. But he gave me very clear reasons that he thought the story would benefit from the addition of a prologue. And after thinking about it, I agreed. So I wrote a five-page prologue -- not nearly long enough to be a chapter-- that filled the need he described, and then completely re-wrote the rest of the book. The beta reader I sent it to, before sending it back to that editor, didn't say anything about it having a prologue. Another reader sent me a note after reading it, and she loved it. Said it read like a fairy tale, in fact. Which was the goal, so I guess that's a good thing!
What's the lesson in all this? There are no absolutes in writing. Every "rule", once you learn it, can be broken. Things a prologue should NOT be: an infodump, a crutch, a way to completely introduce every single character in the story, or a gimmick. Your first chapter should get us into the story proper, so don't lean on a prologue to give us background that you can put somewhere else. We don't NEED to know EVERYTHING right away; in fact sometimes it's better if we don't. Surprise us.
My prologue has legitimate rights to be where it is, and it occurs nearly ten years before the story starts, so it doesn't fit in as a chapter. If you have something from a non-character point-of-view, or maybe something happens before your Hero is born that directly affects his story, maybe a prologue is a good idea.
As with everything else in writing: do what works for you and the story. Keep writing!