I've already written a little bit about prologues, but recently, Agent Kristin did a post listing the reasons why, in her experience, most prologues don't work. Yeah, I agree with her. In my own experience as a reader, most prologues either give away too much, thus ruining the book, or don't tell me enough, leaving me confused and wondering why I should care. I can think of only one prologue in the books I've read recently that worked at all, and even then, when I saw it I almost put the book back on the shelf.*
Perhaps part of the reason why I'm anti-prologue is that I haven't had an idea yet that would require one, so I don't understand why every one else shouldn't just chop theirs off their books to conform with my ideas of right and wrong. I don't understand why they're necessary, why a writer would think it was important to have one.**
Some authors have said that they use a prologue to convey backstory, but can't backstory be worked into the story story? Like can't it be broken up into smaller chunks and salted throughout the narrative? I mean, if J.R.R. Tolkien didn't need a prologue to convey his backstory, why do I?
Also, isn't the point of the backstory to, you know, remain in the back? Backstory, from my perspective, is part of what makes a story three dimensional, part of what makes it live, but it's not the most important stuff--that's the story story. So my characters have to have a past, and they do, but their pasts aren't the most significant things about them. Most important is what they do now, in the present of the story.
Sometimes, I think authors use backstory to give the characters "reasons" for doing things. You see this a lot in television shows, usually involving a hero and a past love that went really wrong.
the hero is a dark and mysterious guy with a woman who died/did him wrong/left him and that's why he can never allow himself to get close to another woman, et cetera. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with this particular backstory, it's just pretty common. But there's no reason it needs to be in a prologue.
* The book in question was Into the Woods, by Tana French, and seriously, I almost didn't buy it because it had a prologue.
** I know this is because I can't think of a situation in which I would ever use one. In other hundred reasons why prologues are awesome and necessary.