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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Should fantasy have a Prologue?

   
Author Topic: Should fantasy have a Prologue?
Crashburn274
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Personally, I love a prologue, but I also love history. In my opinion, any story which centers on a unique culture wants a prologue to center the reader. Surely elves or goblins ought to be more distinct from us than any two existing human cultures from each other. However, I see considerably more fantasy-genre books without prologues than with them. Am I unusual in desiring a prologue?

When I say prologue, I refer to something similar "concerning Hobbits" in The Fellowship of the Ring and not as much like the prologue of Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher. Who is inclined to read one, and who would rather get on with the story?

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MattLeo
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Well, what I've read over and over on agent blogs is that prologues are the kiss of death. On the other hand, manuscripts with prologues *do* get published. So be warned on that front.

Let's talk about what a prologue is and does artistically, and why and why not have one.

"Concerning Hobbits" is a curious beast. It purports to be something more like a *preface* but it's written by an *in universe* persona. One often finds this devices in pseudo-historical works, which naturally includes LotR. So it's kind of a pseudo-preface.

A preface provides auxiliary information to the text; how it came to be written, sources of information and their shortcomings, basic facts about the historical milieu a story (fictional or true) takes place in. Prefaces are 99% of the time horribly dull and add little or nothing to the enjoyment of the book. I find the best time to read a preface is *after* I finish a book. If I'm really fired up about the book I want to know more. Before I read the book, it's a buzz-killer.

One of the great artistic faults of fantasy writers is that they blather on and on about dull world-building details. So I'd say avoid world-building prefaces, unless you can write one that in its own right is entertaining, and even then probably not.

A prologue is a different animal, and it happens to touch on another common weaknesses of fantasy writers.

What a prologue does is show you the status quo ante for the protagonist. Let's say your protagonist's motivation is revenge for the murder of his family. The murder per se is not part of the story, it's an event that happened *before* the story but is necessary to drive the story forward. So you show how happy protag is cavorting with his family, then the horrible day he comes home and nobody is there...

Prologues are a temptation to engage in another common fault of fantasy writing. Not knowing where to start a story. The front ends of so many MSS are adrift, slowly sinking under their own lack of forward momentum. Sometimes the cure is simply to run your finger down the plot until you find a point well in and say, "it *could* start here."

The temptation is to put all that mind-numbing blah blah back in as a prologue. Don't.

You should only do a prologue when it shows something the reader really needs to see in order to understand the story, you can do it very briefly, and it's entertaining in its own right -- and even then probably not.

But it's hour manuscript, and possibly your manuscript's funeral. If you think it's necessary, go ahead.

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extrinsic
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Frontmatter: the pages pf a book preceding the main body of text.
Frontmatter includes frontispiece, copyright information page, title page, dedication page, acknowledgement page, author foreword, editor or guest introduction, author introduction, synopsis update of previous action, preface, prologue, prelude.

Beginning with the editor introduction, the prescriptive and traditional purpose of prefatory content is to give readers information necessary to understand the main body of text. For fiction that is prefatory content necessary to understand the main dramatic action.

In practice, many prefatory chapters advertise other matters than the main content, frequently personal promotion rather than content related to the main body.

Prescriptively;

A prologue is a prefatory chapter expressing a first speech, introducing, setting up the main action. The ancients called this the chorus act, usually a sung introduction detailing the pedigree and history of the central characters. Later, in more recent times, this was called the exposition act. Exposition meaning the exhibition of introductory contexts, like an exhibition of new wares at a fair, trade show, book fair, etc.

An artful prologue is in the voice of the narrator of the main body of action, removed from the main action and with open narrative distance.

Problems arise with prologues when they are mislabeled prefaces or preludes, or especially when they relate unimportant and noncausal, tensionless, and antagonism-less matters unrelated to the main action.

Exceptional, anymore, prologues set up the main action, and drive causation, tension, and antagonism.

Many novels open the main body with unlabeled prefatory content, prologue-like expression. The syncrisis opening of Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities is one example: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. . . ."

The verbally ironic opening paragraphs of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is another example of a prologue opening. William Makepeace Thackeray's narrator opening Vanity Fair another. More recently, Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions opens with a preface-labeled chapter that is actually a prologue. Susanna Clark's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel opens with a prescriptively compliant prologue, as befits the setting of that dramatic fantasy saga. Stephenie Meyer's opening for the Twilight saga is labeled a preface, but is actually a nonlinear timeline prelude, the action expressed in the prelude catching up time-wise at the time of the novel's tragic crisis scene.

The above examples are illustrative templates of what a prologue is and does most artfully. Each introduces the main dramatic complication as the narrator sees it. That is the gold standard for a prologue: Introducing the main dramatic complication of the main body of action.

A preface or prelude, too, introduces a main dramatic complication for that matter. This is drama. The difference is a preface is in an author's voice, and a prelude is in the same voice of the main action; with a prologue being in the voice of the narrator of the main body of action.

Whose voice is another significant key for a prologue. A prologue introduces the narrator's voice, the narrator of the main body of action.

[ March 18, 2012, 02:54 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Meredith
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I've seen very few really well-done prologues. Most, IME, like the one I just finished reading, are merely an excuse to info dump the world building without going to the work of parsing it out in a "learn as you go" fashion.

They are not the plague and probably have a place sometimes. But I sure wouldn't want to see them in every book I picked up.

That said, I have no objection to a brief introduction to the story this far in the second or third book in a series. Especially if the books are spaced far apart in publication.

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LDWriter2
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I don't mind prologues of whatever type.. I will read them. My wife however usually skips them.

But I think it would be okay to have one even if they seem to be going out of style. Especially if one is needed to explain things to the reader who would be lost without it. I have one prologue in one novel of mine and have thought about doing one or two more.

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Owasm
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I'm not a fan of prologues. I wrote one novel with one and ripped it out before I published it. If the intent of the author is to immerse the reader into the story as quickly as possible, a prologue merely stands in the way.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule and some prologues are useful or needed, but most that I have read are, as Meredith said, excuses for info dumps.

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C@R3Y
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Short response: I usually don't like prologues and I always feel inclined to just skip them and get on with the story. I know prologues are in there for a reason, so I force myself not to skip them.

However, in most cases for me, I won't even read a story that begins with a prologue. That's in most cases for me. Not all cases, mind you. x]

Get on with the story and weave the back story or history or aspects of a world or whatever it is you want your reader to know in the story itself. x]

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MartinV
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There are prologues (read: OSC) and then there are prologues (read: LOTR). The LOTR prologue had me drop the book for a month before I got to the story itself. Then I skipped the prologue, went to chapter 1 straight away and found myself... in another prologue.
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MattLeo
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You know, I think a *prologue* contest might be an interesting one to run once Meredith's first chapter contest is over.

If you need one of the things, can you write one that stands on its own?

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Merlion-Emrys
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I don't understand a difference between "prologue" and "story." If the content of the book interests me, then its going to interest me and neither the presence nor absence of a prologue is going to make much difference.
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babooher
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I agree with Merlion-Emrys on this. I know the difference, but I don't care.
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MattLeo
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Merlion-Emrys -- it has to do with *plot*. What makes a prologue a prologue is that it is not continuous with the main plot. You can delete a prologue and the main plot still holds together, provided you can convey the information from the prologue as you go along. Another way of saying this is that prologues take place before the inciting incident, and don't necessarily have any causal relationship to it.

The reason so many prologues stink is because they're a crutch for writers who can't deal with the information load they have to deliver to get a story started. But you're right: if a prologue is interesting or entertaining by itself, there's no reason for us to turn our noses up at it. It's like poetry. I like poetry, but most poetry I run across in fantasy makes me cringe (probably *because* I like poetry). It's not that *poetry* is bad; it's that *bad poetry* is bad.

Prologues aren't bad. *Bad* prologues are bad. In fact *mediocre* prologues are bad. Given what prologues are supposed to do, they need to be your best writing, not a place to stick things.

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Robert Nowall
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There's a lot of hard feeling about prologues 'round here, if some of the comments in the earlier discussions of the topic are any judge.

On the one hand, you can't really compare "Concerning Hobbits" with what gets published in the commercial genre category of fantasy---Lord of the Rings is such a unique effort that it's something of a miracle that it was published at all, and, by and large, founded the genre. But the genre publishers, who are by definition commercially-minded, has little toleration for much of what Tolkien actually did---the foreword, the appendices, the languages, all that non-commercial nonsense.

On the other hand...if you must, why not put a little action and plot and such right at the beginning of it, then dump your information, and call it "Chapter One?"

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enigmaticuser
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Being a self-proclaimed ideal read (it takes utter boredom and another pressing more inviting story to make me drop the current one I am reading), a prologue has yet to stop me from enjoying a book. Tolkien's was work to get through, but it did add to the experience (if not the story). But then I'm the ideal reader.

Having said that later in LoTR I found a lot of stuff was present without explanation (or explanation that would later be in the Silmarion). And I found that great on a different level. I think if life does not give you all the why/how this came to be, then neither should a good story.

I mean you move to a town, a small town, and you have to figure out the relationships, no one tells you--ok in a small town, there is a 'bard' who will tell you--but for the most part you're left with a lifetime of questions. To me, over explanation whether its skillfully injected or infodumped is like new music where you can tell its the computer that sounds great and the actual voice is mediocre.

So . . . prologues . . . can be good if well done but I've never seen a 'need' for one. I could have figured out the hobbits and formed my own opinions.

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rcmann
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I depends on how you define a prologue. A prologue *can be* a preliminary infodump. I can also be a teasing hint, an intriguing glimpse into something that is only touched upon for much of the book, or a way to give the reader a clue about something that might otherwise go unnoticed because it is so subtle. It all depends on how it is written, as has been said above.
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MAP
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I'm not interested in fake history. I like real history, but the history of a fantasy world where I don't know or care about anyone living in that world is not interesting to me.

I care about the story, the plot and characters, and when you give me history that doesn't seem relevant to the plot and characters at that moment, my eyes gloss over.

If I need to know the history for the story to make sense, you need to give it to me when it is important to the plot or I won't remember it. In fact, if you dump too much irrevelant information (it may be important later, but at that moment if it isn't revelant to the story, it isn't interesting to me) before I'm interested in the story, I may not read on.

I know that there are others who will disagree with me. Some people are more fascinated with world-building and fake history then me, but this is how I feel about it, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone.

So I'm not a fan of prologues as history lessons. That information is better given at the time when it is pertinent to the plot. And from the books I've read with a history prologue, it usually is given again at those moments in the plot when it is important, so the whole history prologue is redundant, and not needed.

I don't think all prologues are bad. Some work. IMO, this is what works in a prologue.

1. Make it a visual scene that will draw the reader in. (I thought Robert Jordan did this well in the Eye of the World, although I've hated everyone of his prologues since).

2. Make it relevant to the story. Not a random action scene just because you want an action start.

3. The shorter the better.

This is just my opinion. Do whatever you feel is best. A prologue never kept me from reading a story that had an interesting premise, but they do annoy me, and if I'm on the fence about the book, the prologue might convince me not to buy it.

If you want to go the traditional publishing route, keep in my that many agents and editors are not fans of prologues, so that may keep you from getting your foot in the door.

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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
Merlion-Emrys -- it has to do with *plot*. What makes a prologue a prologue is that it is not continuous with the main plot. You can delete a prologue and the main plot still holds together, provided you can convey the information from the prologue as you go along. Another way of saying this is that prologues take place before the inciting incident, and don't necessarily have any causal relationship to it.
Yes, I know all that. I probably should have worded it differently. For me, at least, this isn't a meaningful difference. Its still story. I am all about content. How you present it is mostly irrelevant to me. Many books are going to have many things without which the main plot still holds together.

For me, personally, there is no difference. There is just the story and I may like or dislike parts of it, or whatever, but in the end if I like the content, whether its described as a "prologue" or "main plot" or "side plot" or whatever is meaningless to me. I like and dislike things based on what they contain not what they are called, when it comes to stories anyway.

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angel011
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Most of the time, I skip the prologue and start with the story itself. "Concerning Hobbits" was interesting, but only after I've read the novel and knew enough about the characters to care what this one is saying.
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Merlion-Emrys
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For me its usually the opposite. Background information makes me care about the characters more.

Of course, I pretty much automatically care about characters anyway, most of the time...I don't generally need to be given a reason beyond their being people.

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History
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On consideration, I'm not a fan of Prologues. unless:
--they occur in book 2 or 3 of a trilogy, etc to summarize what has gone before (which the reader can choose to skip)
--they provide a key story element (hook) from the story's past, present, or future which is important to the main story's characters or conflicts (e.g. the gods of Olympus debating the fates of a hero whose tale is about to be told; a past event is reviewed/described that is central to what the protagonists in the story will encounter; etc.).

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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angel011
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I care about characters too, but if the background is given before I meet the characters (the specific characters, not talking about Hobbits or the world or whatever in general), there's no one to care for yet. [Smile]
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MattLeo
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Well, Merlion-Emrys, I hope I didn't come across as patronizing. I agree with your position, at least to the degree there is anything in it that could be disagreed with. You like what you like.

I have some peculiar tastes too. I like overwrought Victorian prose. I am fond of Thomas DeQuincey, and I fancy that my writing, before it's been hammered into shape, has a certain DeQuincey-esque syntactic flavor. I could leave it that way on the grounds I've produced the kind of writing I enjoy, and I'd be justified in doing so. But I'd be writing exclusively for a narrow group of people just like me.

This is one of the great things about the Internet. It makes it possible for people with very specific interests to share those interests, and I see nothing wrong or contemptible about that. But if you want a broader audience, you have to accept that most people have very short attention spans at the start of a book, and not much tolerance for information. That doesn't mean you have to cater to that limitation, but you do have to work around it.

For example if a first page "hook" doesn't fit the kind of story you're doing, then you're just going to have to write very well to keep your readers going. This is frequently done. Likewise if you want to paint a picture of the history and setting before anything happens, that can be done too, but it takes marvelously good writing. I've seen at least one unpublished manuscript where the first chapter was exactly like this. Nothing happened and no characters were introduced, but the chapter was so amazingly well-written I didn't realize this until after I'd finished.

If you can write like that, have at it. If not, then still have at it, but know the consequences.

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Merlion-Emrys
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You didn't, Matt. I just belatedly realized I should have worded things differently than I did...often when I say I "don't understand" a thing its usually that I don't understand some distinction that is made between this and that which to me are the same thing.

I can't even really remember what I've read that did or didn't have things labeled as "prologues" cause I just don't pay attention. Much like I don't really pay attention to person, tense, POV or any of the other stuff we talk about here a lot. I'm just all about the content. And I love world building, setting and backstory and I don't have the character connection as necessity thing so for me it just rarely makes any difference.

I also don't think some "narrow" tastes or audiences are actual as narrow as Hatrack leads us to believe. And even if they are...trends tend to come and go.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by Merlion-Emrys:
I also don't think some "narrow" tastes or audiences are actual as narrow as Hatrack leads us to believe. And even if they are...trends tend to come and go.

You know, I'm still trying to figure out who this "Hatrack" is and why he or she is leading anyone to believe anything at all.

[Confused]

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Robert Nowall
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Remember, too, that The Lord of the Rings is also a sequel, to a book that starts "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," goes on for a couple of pages of info dump, and then starts the action.

*****

quote:
I'm not interested in fake history. I like real history, but the history of a fantasy world where I don't know or care about anyone living in that world is not interesting to me.
I figure even fictional characters came from somewhere and are going somewhere, and that "somewhere" is their history, personal and otherwise---and the reader's gotta find it out somehow.
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MAP
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
Remember, too, that The Lord of the Rings is also a sequel, to a book that starts "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," goes on for a couple of pages of info dump, and then starts the action.

*****

quote:
I'm not interested in fake history. I like real history, but the history of a fantasy world where I don't know or care about anyone living in that world is not interesting to me.
I figure even fictional characters came from somewhere and are going somewhere, and that "somewhere" is their history, personal and otherwise---and the reader's gotta find it out somehow.
Of course. I know that stuff is important. But it is where that information is presented that makes the difference. I don't like it up front before I'm invested in the story. Good story telling is releasing that information when it is interesting and relevant to the reader.

This is hard to do. I struggle with it. And I think a lot of beginning writers make the mistake of thinking that everything has to be given at the beginning. That because they had to know all of this stuff before they wrote the story that the reader needs to know all this before they start the story. Thus they do the big history lesson info dump prologue, which is boring to me.

This information can be worked into the story as it unfolds. That is a better way to do it, but it takes more skill.

I never said it wasn't important, only that I don't care about that stuff until I'm invested in the story. I care about characters. I'm interested in the plot. I'm not interested in fake history except for how it relates to the characters and the plot. It is all about releasing the information at the RIGHT time. It is something we all need to learn in order to be good writers, IMO.

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MattLeo
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Well, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," is a hook. It's a rare, *philological* hook.

*The Hobbit* opening is well worth studying, but not easy to copy. Tolkien was a marvelous writer. Notice how he *doesn't* immediately work the hook, he plays you for a page or two giving you a subtly humorous portrait of Bilbo as a parochial country squire. Then he suddenly "remembers" you might not know what a hobbit is.

There's another thing going on here; Tokien's painting picture of the narrator's persona. Clearly the speaker is an old and clever man, a master storyteller who knows darn well you have no idea what "hobbit" is, as well as how to use that to get you to eat your expository vegetables. The description of Bag End is vivid, but prosaic and perfectly understandable, and only after he's fed you this that he gives you the slug of information you need to get on with the story.

The establishment of the narrator as a character also gives Tolkien a platform from which to make editorial comments on the moral character of each player and his actions. That's a tricky and risky kind of narration to attempt, because you've got to get the readers to *like* the narrator if you don't want them to feel like they're being talked down to.

[ March 11, 2012, 07:20 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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LDWriter2
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I was just reminded of an epic fantasy I have thought about writing.
I am debating if the first chapter should actually be a prologue so that the events of the opening can take place months --maybe a year or so-- after the events in the prologue.

Not sure when I will get to it but right now the prologue idea is winning.

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extrinsic
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If events are separated in time and the narrative voice and narrative distance are the same as the main action, consider labeling the opening chapter a prelude. A transition bridging across a prelude time gap to a later present time is far less challenging to write and a good bit less challenging for readers to follow.

[ March 11, 2012, 09:26 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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One point about "Concerning Hobbits"...in the course of it, Tolkien lets us know that several of the main characters, in fact, survived all the events in the body of the narrative...so we, the readers, know that fate (or Tolkien) will be kind to them...and, generally, this is something that we-the-writer should avoid...
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Crashburn274
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
...There's another thing going on here; Tokien's painting picture of the narrator's persona. Clearly the speaker is an old and clever man, a master storyteller...

This is the best explication I've seen for why Tolkien "works." Is this your idea, or can you reference some commentator I could look at for more relevant insight?
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Crashburn274
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quote:
Originally posted by MAP:
... Good story telling is releasing that information when it is interesting and relevant to the reader.

This is hard to do. I struggle with it. And I think a lot of beginning writers make the mistake of thinking that everything has to be given at the beginning...

This is exactly the problem I'm grappling with. If I were writing a movie, rather than a novel, the images would give all the details I think are essential, in a subtle way. If the reader can "see" setting and characters as I imagine them, no further info dump would be necessary.

Perhaps the real question is this: what does the opening (prologue or first chapter) of a fantasy novel need to accomplish? What concerns are secondary?

If I understand the responses correctly, the opening needs to establish characters first, then suggest a plot, and creating a setting is a tertiary concern. If that's the case, a historical prologue would be generally ineffective. Is that a fair summary?

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MAP
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quote:
Perhaps the real question is this: what does the opening (prologue or first chapter) of a fantasy novel need to accomplish? What concerns are secondary?

If I understand the responses correctly, the opening needs to establish characters first, then suggest a plot, and creating a setting is a tertiary concern. If that's the case, a historical prologue would be generally ineffective. Is that a fair summary?

I think that setting is important to work in early because as a reader I struggle with the scene if I'm not grounded (I'm not talking about building an entire world, but just giving the reader an idea of where the character is).

But remember you can do double duty. You can establish character and scene at the same time if you show your character interacting with it.

So crude example:
"Bob slapped a mosquito off of his neck, but he was certain there were ten others he missed. He should've used more bug spray. If he'd have known Jenny's fishing hole was in the middle of some god-forsaken swamp he would have."

So from the first paragraph you get an idea of who Bob is and where Bob is, then you build from there adding details as they relate to Bob and what is happening to him.

This isn't easy. I really think this is one of the most challenging part of story-telling (at least it is for me) and is what separates amateurs from professionals.

I struggle a lot with this.

I think an effective beginning presents a character, a problem or situation, and some sense of setting all at the same time. [Smile]

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Natej11
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I honestly don't get what the hostility to prologues is. A majority of the best books I've read have included prologues, and I always read them. I'm just as likely to get bogged down in a boring first chapter as I'd be in a prologue.

I do agree that the best use for prologues is to help set up the main story, so people have some idea of what the book is about. This allows the first chapters to be about introducing the characters and the world without readers thinking "come on and tell me what's going on already!"

That said, Robert Jordan's prologues farther into his series just seemed to be part of his frantic attempts to give every single one of his giant cast of characters extensive screen time. Mostly they seemed to be info dumps about what the Forsaken were doing, lest one forget that the Dark One is actually a threat in that story. It's hard for me to read them more than once.

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enigmaticuser
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It seems prologue as an idea is not the problem in any of the hostility as Natej11 puts it. What is really being discussed is narrator visibility.

Imagine we're talking about another medium. If you see the film mic slip into view in a movie, you are suddenly reminded "oh, this is a film." Notice the moments in a movie where you stop to just look at the audience.

The point is that the story has taken a back seat to the device (whatever that device may be). It could be killing off a character to get a reaction, even a typo can be this, so it's not what a prologue is, it's how a prologue appears. Call it whatever you want, its when the story takes back seat to a device.

A prologue is just particularly suspect because in real life you do not usually get an info dump unless you're in a class--and for some of us, class is the height of boredom. Being in the non-prologue areas and discovering background info is like prac app or lab work, "oh really? This kindgom has a portal to the orc city that is its sworn enemy?"

Yet. Big YET. I am currently reading "Map of Time" by some english guy, and his narrative voice is like you would see in H.G. Wells or Brahm Stoker. It feels like you're sitting at a fireside in a highback chair and he's telling you the story.

In this case, the story seems to be taking back seat to the device of the narrator, but it changes the setting until it makes it acceptable. At one point, about 60 pages in, the narrator closes one chapter with imminent suicide and opens the next with "Now, I know you're expecting there to be something about a time machine in this story, and there may be, but don't you feel the pieces must first be set on the board before we play?" Or something like that.

In essence, he has a 60 page prologue. But I didn't notice (didn't care really, it was enjoyable) because it had a story, an episode if you will, an opening gambit like you'd have in Star Trek before the theme plays, and also because it felt in step with the tone.

Perhaps, that is the essence of what we're looking for? It doesn't matter whether its a prologue, prelude, inbetwequel, or whatever, it matters whether we WANT TO READ IT. And that has to do with whether it feels important to the story. I mean if someone slapped the opening of Harry Potter into the front of Twilight they may be both good, but they are not in step with each other.

If I think about a bad prologue, it feels like its something other-than-story that is between me and the story. So that connection to the story (this isn't in your way, it's part of the way).

What's that look like in action though? Outside of vaguries? The nearest I can say is that a prologue should be simply a mini-earlier story. It should be paced to its size. If I need to cover a massive war then it should skim the wavetops and quickly TIEING it to what's to come (hey, I think the prologue can give spoilers about the beginning of the main act). If its about what happened eight years ago in a disasterous fling (Map of Time) then it should be more detailed and personal because it has less to cover and it directly connects.

I'm done talking in circles. At least I helped talk myself through it.

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Meredith
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I don't think all prologues are evil. I just think that they are very rarely done well.

I'm thinking of a book I just finished that I very nearly didn't read at all because of the prologue. It was a ten-page treatise on the world-building that ended up having very little to do with the actual story. Okay, the author had to get it out of her head. I know all about that. But she didn't have to publish it.

Now, there are a very few prologues that serve a real purpose to the story.

While I never finished the book (I have zero-tolerance for Robert-Jordian series that go on and on and on without resolving anything), I recall the prologue to the first book of GRR Martin's SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series. That prologue it seemed to me did a good job of setting up the world, giving a feeling that winter is coming, and hinting that there might be something even worse outside those walls than the people fighting each other inside the walls.

The problem isn't that prologues are evil. It's that they're so often bad.

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extrinsic
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I believe weak prologues are a product of writers, editors, and publishers misunderstanding or in general not knowing what prolougues' functions are.

1. Expressing prefatory content vital for understanding the main action.
2. Introducing a narrator to readers when a narrative voice will spend a noticeable amount of narrative time coming from a narrator's perspective removed from a main action.

The second function is where the risks of prologues come from. If readers don't identify with a narrator, narrative distance will be too open for most readers' sensibilities and comfort zones.

Narrative distance is a measure of how far apart a narrator's voice is from a central character's voice. Traditionally, readers favored close identification with narrators and less close identification with central characters. Those narrators tended to preach about the characters' flawed humanity: morality pageantries. Audiences for those narratives were culturally high-brow readers who enjoyed joining with narrators looking down their noses at central characters' misdeeds.

It's no stretch to see the historical progression of literature over the centuries, from religious texts to morality pageantries to character-focused drama. Readers in general don't like to be preached at anymore.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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The prologue to TIGANA, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is one that I would submit is essential to a major reveal near the end of the book.

It introduces a particularly sympathetic character, right before he disappears, and the reveal later explains what happened to him--something everyone in the book wonders about at one point or another.

It was cleverly and well done, in my opinion, and I'd recommend the book as a good example of a prologue that works (for this reader, at least).

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Natej11
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You make a good point with that, enigmaticuser. Like with any popular plot device, the problem becomes that people use it for its own sake or because it's popular, usually at the expense of the story.

A great example of this in the TV world (and one that I complain about quite a bit), is the intro where you have some major action at the very beginning and then it fades to black just at the most tense moment and you see (___ unit of time later).

I absolutely hate this device. I hate that every single TV show seems obligated to have at least one episode featuring it. What they're basically doing is showing the most exciting scene of the episode before we have any reason to be excited about it. Not only does that not do anything to draw us in, but when we actually DO get to that scene we no longer care because it's already ruined for us.

I'll admit there may be times when that plot device would help the story, but very, very rarely.

I suppose from that perspective, someone who feels the same way about prologues would find them equally off-putting. Not only that, but where so many people use them and so few use them right, on the occasion where the device IS used correctly they wouldn't care because they've learned to hate it.

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