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Author Topic: Using a Prologue for Backstory?
KPKilburn
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What are prologues typically used for? I haven't read too many books that have them and I don't recall what content they had in them in the books that I did read.

I have a story-in-progress that takes place in a dystopian alternate reality. There is an extensive backstory that I'm not sure is all that relevant to the main story other than to explain why the world is the way it is, but I thought it would set the tone if I used a few paragraphs in the prologue.

The only example I can think of would be like the opening crawl in Star Wars or the opening of Escape from New York that explains how Manhattan Island became a prison. Very quick and to the point.

An example from my story would be something like...

The Franco-Nippon Engagements of the late 20th Century escalated into the most destructive war in history. Thousands of wells in the Ghawar Oil Field became searing pillars of fire that suffocated the world as they filled the atmosphere with acrid black smoke and devastated the economy.

Oil shortages and rising prices caused mass hysteria which turned into uncontrollable chaos that spread worldwide. Local governments, impotent and withering, collapsed as commercial industry absorbed their remnants and replaced elected officials with corporate leaders.

(There's more, but I fit it into the window as not to violate the rules of 14 lines, even here).

Not really looking for a critique on the opening (because it was hastily done) unless you feel compelled to comment. In that case, please go ahead.

Thanks in advance.

Kevin

[This message has been edited by KPKilburn (edited January 11, 2008).]


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rickfisher
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Prologues abound. You can find them all over.

Lots of people just skip them. Usually they find that it's not a problem to do so.

So here's my advice: 1) Don't put anything in a prologue that is important to the book, and 2) Don't put anything in your book that isn't important to it.

Where does that leave the prologue? Nowhere.

Of course, this is a rule made to be broken. If you feel that your prologue actually adds to the book, put it in. But if you feel that it's crucial to understanding the book, make it the first chapter.


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kings_falcon
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A prologue is a short event that happens out of time with the rest of the story that is critical to that story. Generally, the POV is someone who is not the MC.

Steven Horn's Law of Gravity has a 3 page prologue. In it you see a detective who much later becomes important to the story imagining what happened when a women fell, jumped or was pushed from a roof. The story then jumped over 30 years into the future to the present. It hinted that this seemingly random event would be critical for the unravelling of the story and this event was something that the MC didn't know about until the end of the story so Steve couldn't tell the reader about it any other way. It was also wonderfully written. That's probably the best recent use of a prologue I've seen.

I had this same issue with my story. There is an event, out of time with the rest of the story, that the reader won't find out about for, oh, 150-200 pages unless I put that event up front. There are three characters in it. One never reappears, one reappears late in the story (150 pages or so in) and one refuses to think about the event. Because one of my MCs is part of the event, I ended up making it Chapter 1 and then indicating Chapter 2 is 17 years later. Who knows, if it ever gets picked up, Ch 1 may become a prologue again.

The sample you've posted sounds like a history lesson/ info dump. I'd be turned off by that kind of a prologue. Try to work that type of back history into the main story. The characters are going to know all that history so they can educate us as they experience it.


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Robert Nowall
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I don't think I encountered "let's skip the prolog" until I started hanging around here. I figure...I've bought the book, it has a prolog (or prologue)...it's likely to have information important to the narrative, or else why include it?...so why not read it?
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annepin
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I believe the prologue-as-non-essential is an OSCism. I tend to disagree with it as well. I figure if the author thought it important to put in a prologue, I'll read it. Case in point--GRR Martin. Sure, you could skip the prologue to the first book, but man, you'd be missing out on a whole dimension of suspense.

Okay, back to this question--I agree that this sounds more like info-dumping, which won't really work, in my opinion. Back story that's put in a prologue has to be back story that's important to the story itself and the characters. I would be turned off by just a description of setting or history of what's happened to date. Maybe if you gave us a scene that _showed_ the essential history, it might work.


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rickfisher
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Just to be clear: I never skip the prologue. Heck, I never even skip the preface, if there is one. I feel no sympathy whatsoever for people who miss something because they miss the prologue.

But lots of people do skip them. It's a good idea to know that before deciding to use one. That's why I would never put essential information in a prologue, unless my purpose is to confuse a significant percentage of the readers. And if the information is not essential, I think it's a good idea to question closely whether it belongs in there at all. Sometimes it does.

I agree that it should be either from a different POV than what follows, or from a far earlier time, or both. If at least one of those conditions doesn't hold, it should be chapter 1.

I also agree that it should be narrative in format, just like the rest of the book. Info-dumpish summaries are one of the main reasons that so many people have learned to skip prologues. (Another reason is that a number of people don't know the difference between a prologue and a preface--they don't realize that the prologue is actually part of the story.)


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KPKilburn
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Now that I've thought about this, I think I've seen some books that take a clip from later in the story and put it in a prologue (or preface)?

What is a preface used for? Is it part of the story or something like "why I (the author) wrote this book"?

As a rule of thumb, how long should the prologue be? When does it stop being a prologue and starts being "Chapter 1"?

So an "info dump" is not acceptable even in a prologue (or is it just that info dumps bore readers)? Again, my only real frame of reference is movies that have a narrator or text explaining something and it's written sort of like an info dump. Not acceptable in books though, right?


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JeanneT
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Agree or disagree--there are polls out there that say that majority of people do skip prologues, and I number myself among them.

Why? Because I have in general found prologues to be both boring and irrelevent. I sometimes go BACK and read the prologue--sometimes after I have decided I trust the author or like the story. But I rarely read it first. Everything I read about this subject indicates I'm pretty average in this.

So if you really think you need to, include a prologue. But do it with the awareness that some people don't read them.


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KayTi
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It seems like you might be better served to have a few line summary in italics at the opening of Chapter one, at least with the style of what you've shown in your sample.

I think several posters have hit on what is a good strategy for prologues if you're going to use them - have something HAPPEN. Have it be event-based, usually removed in time from the events of the story, usually setting up some element of a character or otherwise getting the ball rolling. If what you feel the need to convey isn't event-based, then I suggest (not that I've written anything like this, just basing it off gut feel from the books I've read) looking hard at what info you feel compelled to explain, and looking hard at the beginning of your story, and seeing if the info you feel is necessary can work itself into a scene early in the story so that the info is present, but happened in an event-based way.

I would hazard a guess that the prologues most often skipped are the ones that are summary-style instead of event-based.

Whatever you decide, good luck!


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InarticulateBabbler
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I, for one, do not skip the prologues. Robert Jordan's Eye of the World gained something--besides a hook--in the insanity of his prologue. Stephen King used a prologue in The Dark Half, and it worked--for me--to hauntingly resonate with a later part of the tale.

There is, however, a cost: Many people skip them. I don't know about "a majority", but it's not infrequent to hear the arguement come up in writers workshops. The people that I know who are just readers, read the prologues--even if they don't unmdertsand them.


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annepin
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To answer your questions:

Yes, a preface is usually an author's note, usually providing some context to the book or author. Sometimes the preface will be written by someone else--an editor, another author, or critic.

I don't think there's any rule of thumb on how long the prologue should be. Perhaps as short as it can be, and as long as it needs to be. It becomes "Chapter 1" in my opinion, if the events that occur immediately cause the events in the following chapter. I.e. If the prologue has Cindy going off to get candy, and on the way she meets the bogeyman, then Chapter One has Cindy trying to stab the bogey man with her candy cane, then the "prologue" should be "Chapter one". But if Chapter One cuts to Cindy ten years later having a nightmare about the same bogeyman, then maybe it should remain as a prologue, even though the events are related, they do not constitute a continuous sequence of cause and effect.

In my opinion, an "info dump" is never acceptable but always some that should be avoided because yes, it does bore readers (though I do think there's a small group of people out there who relish info dumps on certain topics)

You can, I think, get away with a narrator explaining the situation. But there has to be a reason for the narrator (and I'm talking about one of the characters acting as narrator here) to be spilling the beans, as it were. In other words, the best prologues are immersed in the story-telling, perpetuate the fictive dream, and are certainly not exempt from it.


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Pyre Dynasty
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Okay lets say the prologue is from a POV that is used later in the story, but it is very short, the rest of the chapters are of similar length, would it still be better to make it a chapter 1?
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annepin
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Hm... I think it would depend on the events detailed in the prologue/ chapter one. I don't know that POV alone is enough to put it in one category or the other.
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JamieFord
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The next time you're in the bookstore, pick up Water for Elephants and read the prologue. It's what a prologue should be.
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rickfisher
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quote:
from a POV that is used later in the story, but it is very short

I'd say that if it's over a page, make it Chapter 1. I'm basing this pronouncement on personal experience. My first chapter, from a POV used later in the book--and of a character who doesn't even reappear for maybe fifty pages or so, and has to wait substantially longer to get another POV section--was a page and a half. NO ONE has ever said, "This should be a prologue." I guarantee that if it had been a prologue, some people would have said, "I don't read prologues" or something along those lines.

[This message has been edited by rickfisher (edited January 13, 2008).]


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kings_falcon
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Water for the Elephants is a wonderful book and a great prologue. Even though the author withholds some critical information at the end of the prologue, you easily forgive her for it.

It's also a good example of many of the other story telling tools we talk about here.


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Lord Darkstorm
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This might not happen as much now as it has in the past, but I've read series where the author used the prolog to recap prior events of books that came before. That way the author could continue the story as if the reader had read the previous stories (to some extent) without the long recapping within the story. I know I got into a habit of skipping prologs because of that.

Now I tend to look at the first few paragraphs and see if it is deserving of my attention. If it is dull, even minorly, I'm probably going to jump right to chapter 1.


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Antinomy
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A prolog is seldom needed in fiction writing. I’ve use it only once to set the scene for a story about a family’s first auto trip across the country in 1920.

The Indians and the Mexican bandits were gone, and with the invention of the automobile, rudimentary roads were built across the USA for the first time. Americans were free to leave a lifetime of drudgery on the farm and hit the road seeking new adventures and opportunities.

Roads were narrow, steep, dangerous and for the most part still unpaved, and a disastrous attempt was made to build a wooden highway across 5 miles of shifting California sand dunes.

I used info like this in a prolog to set the scene and illustrate the risks involved, and I was able to avoid cluttering up the story of the journey with factual minutia.


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Lynda
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A wooden highway across five miles of shifting sand dunes???? Wow, there's a story in itself!

Back to prologues. If they are info-dumps, as has been said here, I skip them. I don't want to read an exhaustive history or cultural explanation - I want to read a STORY!!! And that's the way a lot of people feel.

I felt my novel needed to start earlier than it did, giving a bit of backstory, but instead of any kind of info-dump, I wrote up several incidents resulting in two chapters of story, then had a nine year time jump (specified at the top of chapter 3 as "October ___, nine years later" - the first chapter began, "April ___" to set it in a particular time - and yes, the years are given in the novel). Nobody who's read it thinks of those first two chapters as prologue - they just consider it "story."

Lynda


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MrsBrown
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If I see a prologue that is info-dump style as shown above, or a poem or song, I may very well skip it, versus if the prologue is an event I will want to read it and find out what happens. Maybe the style indicates to the author whether or not vital information can be included?

I've noticed that headers for book sections often do not say "Prologue", "Chapter One", etc. A descriptive section header about the content means it doesn't matter what you call it, but the opening scene should probably be an event, not info-dump. (The topic for Chapters and Parts is a better place to discuss section headers.)

[This message has been edited by MrsBrown (edited January 15, 2008).]


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KPKilburn
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I just picked up a Ken Follett book (A Dangerous Fortune) and noticed that it has a lengthy prologue. It's probably about 8-10 pages and takes place several years before Chapter 1. I don't know how the chapters play out, but some of his other books have the chapters as times of the day. I haven't read it yet, but the first few pages of the prologue were written like a story - not info-dumpish.
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smncameron
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I disagree with OSC in that if the book has a prologue, I'll read it. After all, I paid for it!

I do think, however, that when possible it is better to avoid prologues. I have yet to see a prologue that excites me about reading the remainder of the book (With the exception of the Star Wars crawl, but that's mainly because of the music)

Edit:
I'm not sure what sort of dystopian society you are aiming for, but in the event that it is a 'big-brother government' type thing you already have a vehicle for throwing in the pertinent details: propoganda messages. You can fill in the readers AND create atmosphere at the same time.

[This message has been edited by smncameron (edited January 17, 2008).]


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kings_falcon
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David's Wolverton's daily Kick in the Pants deals with this issue today. You might want to check his site for it because he talks about the "throw away" aspect and the use of prologue in certain genres.

The bottom line, though, if if you use it, all the normal writing rules apply. The first 13 must catch and hold our attention. The writing must be wonderful. There should be mysteries left unsolved so the reader wants to move into Chapter 1.


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InarticulateBabbler
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David Wolverton also mentioned the prologue being expected in fantasy novels--even demanded by some editors--because they were useful to bring readers who are starting a series in a disjointed place up to date.

He, in fact, uses Robert Jordan's prologue for The Eye of the World as an example of using a prologue to introduce ideas, mystery, and a hook without being overly beneficial or detrimental to the rest of the book. You can read it, get a lot out of it, and still not know what's going on, so that you have to read on just to clarify things. Dave Wolverton calls this brilliant.

It profoundly disturbed me. Of course, I read it late at night and went to sleep before even starting chapter one, and it gave me a nightmare. I just chalked it up to an overactive imagination and lack of defining input. So, in a wierd way, it worked for me.

[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited January 17, 2008).]


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KPKilburn
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quote:
David's Wolverton's daily Kick in the Pants deals with this issue today. You might want to check his site for it because he talks about the "throw away" aspect and the use of prologue in certain genres.

I've gone through several pages of the site, but can't seem to find it. Can you send me a link? Thanks.


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smncameron
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I believe it's under discussions, or groups, or something. I've seen the link somewhere, but personally I just googled it.
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