I think I'm going to be doing some off-topic rants here, because I am just feeling annoyed with my reading material and want to gripe.
I don't have a problem with epilogues, but I strongly dislike prologues, and would ban them. Here's why:
A prologue, as I define it, is a first chapter of a book that starts out with a different story (different time and place, at least Distant Prologue) than where the actual story is going to start in the official Chapter One. It is usually either:
- tangentially related to the main story, and won't be picked up again for the most part after the prologue ends, or
- it cuts ahead in the main story, showing either a chase scene, a murder, or the narrator/hero/ine in massive danger.
Let's group them, shall we?
The tangentally related ones usually feature a random woman being murdered. You meet her, then she dies. Or once in awhile it's a guy. Sometimes it's narrated in the most vague sort of way by the killer itself. If it's not a murder, it's a chase scene or some vague bad guys are doing something you can't figure out. Frequently, the main character or characters in the prologue are nameless. The key thing is that you probably won't have ANY idea what this has to do with the main plot of the book until the book is about 3/4 of the way through. It's pretty much a strange fragmented story tacked on to the front of the book.
So why is this bad? Because the reader (a) is getting a whopping dose of false advertising when they pick up the book, because your prologue isn't at all what the story is about, and they may or may not buy/like the rest of the book based on that, and (b) THE READER HAS NO EFFING CLUE, FOR MOST OF THE BOOK, WHAT THE PROLOGUE HAS TO DO WITH GODDAMNED ANYTHING. Why are you starting out a book with the reader doing a whopping, "Huh?!?!" It's irritating. I do not like it. This is the number one reason I usually hate prologues.
Then there's the flash forward, or Action Prologue. Usually this one is done because the actual story starts out slow and non-action-y, and someone (maybe the publisher for all I know) wants it to start with a bang, so thus we have this fast-forward scene that starts out with thrilling action... and then you cut the tension immediately by starting the actual story where it starts, unexcitedly, two days earlier. To some degree there is also some "uh, what the fuck just happened?" going on, but since the flash forwards usually start out with the narrator/hero/ine, at least you know who one or more characters are going in. It's not quite as baffllng on the reader as the tangentials.
To be fair, some stories actually work well starting out with the main character dead/in jeopardy and then we roll back, but a good chunk of the time it just feels like they needed to start out less boring, rather than telling the damn story as it should go. (Battlestar Galactica did this a LOT.) For example, Private Scandals starts out like this, as did many 1980's romance books just like this, but does it really add to the story to know that Angela is going to end up dead? Do you wonder why? No, because Angela is awful and clearly deserves it. Do you wonder whodunit? No, because once you find out Deanna has a stalker it's pretty obvious. It's just there to get someone to read the book. Hope you like where it really stars...
I think I've mentioned before that I think the worst prologue I have ever seen is in Crystal Dragon. I went into great whopping detail about why over there, so I won't do it again.
The best (which is what prompted me to write this rant) prologue I have ever seen? Running Hot by Jayne Ann Krentz.
This book starts out with many of the tropes I've mentioned above: there's action, someone gets killed, and the featured character is nameless. However... within a few chapters of the original story, you actually find out WHY and HOW this prologue fits into the book. You don't wait until 3/4 of the book is done to find out the nameless woman's name. Hell, you hear a name for her, but find out that after the events of the prologue, she needed to change it. Which makes sense (though you never do hear her original name, which is odd). You figure out very early on that what happened to the bad guy in the prologue will tie in to this overall story. And suddenly, a prologue makes sense! And works! Who woulda thunk it?