Can a bad one immediately turn a reader off? Absolutely. A bad prologue is one that is boring, does nothing to drive the story forward or give critical context, is too long, and/or is only used for an info dump.
Is a prologue a good idea for every story? Nope. A simple story without a mystery or complicated/compelling backstory isn't usually a good fit for a prologue. When writing contemporary romance, I rarely use a prologue. Not that I can't, I just don't find them as useful in that genre. Paranormal romance, however, is another matter.
When done right, I find that a prologue is like an appetizer--it leaves you wanting to dig into the main course.
There are many reasons why a writer would choose to use a prologue. According to Writer's Digest, a prologue can be used:
- To provide a “quick-and-dirty” glimpse of important background information without the need of flashbacks, dialogue, or memories that interrupt the action later on in the book.
- Hook the reader into the action right away while having the readers asking questions relevant to the central plot—and therefore eager to learn those answers in the opening chapters.
- Offer information the reader couldn’t otherwise glean from the plot (such as a break from the point-of-view narration or from a different character’s perspective).
- Introduce the antagonist—providing background motives that either humanizes the character or exhibits his/her evil intentions. This angle can be handy if the protagonist doesn’t meet the antagonist until later on in the book.
- Introduce a philosophy or religious belief important to the plot/setting.
- Foreshadow future events, thereby creating suspense for the reader and get them asking questions (and eagerly reading on).
How about an example?
I use prologue's frequently with my paranormal romances, and they are one of my favorite parts of a book to write. There is a prologue in my recent dragon shifter new release, The Boss.
I decided to do a prologue because I needed to set up the hero's internal conflict in a way that was more immediate than him just telling the heroine or the reader about it or doing a flashback later in the book. I needed the reader to feel that moment in a way that would help them understand everything single one of his future actions from chapter one.
Did I do my job well? You tell me...
PROLOGUE FROM THE BOSSMy mate.
Finn Conleth had never experienced wonder, but this moment, looking down at the sweet, gentle human woman the fates had deigned to grant him as a mate, must’ve been it.
Fear niggled at the back of his mind, but he pushed it away. This woman was a rare and precious thing. Fewer were discovered each year. And not every attempt worked, resulting in deaths of potential mates.
Finn told himself to remain confident. The Council had matched him and Phoebe. He’d chosen her, and she’d chosen him in return.
It had to be right. It was supposed to be right.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
She gave an eager nod, and her wide blue eyes gazed back at him with total trust. He’d known her only a few days, but he was sure she’d fit in with his Blue Clan back home.
Slowly, purposefully, he stoked the fire within his body—the inferno every dragon shifter carried inside themselves, even in human form—then stilled. The sound of his swirling fire, similar to the heaving of a forge’s bellows, broke the cadence of their breathing.
She blinked up at him and smiled. “Finn?”
What are you waiting for? A mating was a huge deal, but he was acting like a nervous virgin. Pushing through his hesitation, Finn placed his mouth over hers and released his flame into her body, starting the process that would make her into the dragon shifter she was meant to be, and bond her to him for the rest of their extra-long lives.
Those blue eyes widened, and Finn breathed a sigh of relief. There. Only death could separate them now.
She opened her mouth, but instead of sighing with happiness, Phoebe tipped her head back in a silent scream as her body arched off the bed, lifting him with the force of the spasm.
Panic gripped him so hard, pain ripped through his muscles.
She took a shuddering breath and this time her scream forced its way out of her, piercing the air with such agony his insides withered. Down her throat, he could see hateful blue flames consuming her from the inside out. Eating her body alive.
No, no, no. This can’t be happening.
The familiar, rich scent of fire turned sour as her flesh charred from the intense heat. On the outside, her skin turned black, then started to glow eerie red through ragged cracks—like lava with a dry and broken crust over the top of the red-orange liquid magma flowing below.
“No.” Finn’s voice broke over the word as he pulled her into his arms, rocking her.
Her soft skin became hard and rough against him. He couldn’t stop this. He couldn’t protect her from his. All he could do was hold her until the end. Helpless. Useless.
“I’m here. I’m here. Don’t be scared.” Gods, how could he tell her that? She was dying. Because of him. Could she even hear him?
Her screams abruptly cut off as her lips sealed shut. In his arms, she stilled. Her eyes, now ash black, stared back at him.
“I’m sorry,” Finn whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
He kept repeating the words as the glow dissipated, leaving only a charred body that slowly disintegrated, turning to cinders on the bed. Not even an ember remained of the woman he’d believed was his destined mate.
How could he have been so wrong?
Numbness consumed him as he curled up in the bed. Pain would come, he knew, but right now, he welcomed the nothing. Only one word echoed through his mind.
As he lay in her ashes, Finn made himself a vow. He would never try to mate again. He would never risk another woman’s life to this excruciating, unbearable death.
He’d rather cut out his heart and feed it to the fire himself.