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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Prologues

   
Author Topic: Prologues
Meredith
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I know we've discussed this before, but . . .

It hasn't been quite long enough for me to start on the revisions to THE BARD'S GIFT, yet. That doesn't mean I'm not thinking about them, of course.

One of the things I'm thinking about is whether or not to add a short--a very short--prologue. (I'm talking one or two pages, tops). Normally, I hate prologues as a reader and as a writer.

In this case, though, I've got a fantastical element to what's otherwise an alternate history. And this element won't be introduced in the story line until three quarters or four fifths of the way through, because the characters simply won't be where they can encounter it much sooner than that. The prologue would give me a chance to introduce that element so it won't feel like it dropped from the sky, while also introducing one of the external conflicts.

Any opinions?

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lizluka
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I'm also generally not a fan of prologues. That said, if you can't alert the reader to the fantastical element early in the story itself, then a prologue is worth considering, IMO.
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genevive42
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I usually don't like prologues, but one or two pages wouldn't bother me. It tells me that there's something important I need to know but that the author isn't just going to ramble on about it and other things. Short means important, in this case. I say, go for it.
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extrinsic
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If the prologue sets forth circumstances necessary to understand the main action, and if the voice of the prologue doesn't summarize or explain the circumstances or give stale backstory; in other words, if it's not witten in an expository voice, and if it's not labeled as a prologue or preface, I'd say Barb's your aunt. You could set the prefatory part apart from the main action with a line break, which is a widely accepted signal there's a transition jump from the prologue to the main introductory action of the first chapter.
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Meredith
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Well, I went ahead and drafted the "prologue". I can always cut it later. [Wink] The scene came out at two and a quarter pages. That's before revisions, though.
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Robert Nowall
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Boy have we discussed it...

http://www.hatrack.com/cgi-bin/ubbwriters/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=1;t=007206;p=0&r=nfx

...which on a quick look-through is the last time we discussed it...

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MAP
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Personally, I have no problems with prologues. I always read them no matter how long. Just make it interesting.
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Rhaythe
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It really surprises me the utter hatred for prologues on this forum. That might be because I'm a thriller author and not anything that even remotely approaches fantasy and sci-fi. You can't pick up a thriller novel these days without some form of prologue or introductory teaser, so I think I just assumed it was the norm.
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Grumpy old guy
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For the novel I'm trying to write, I needed a separate introductory piece so readers would understand a concept that, while it could be explained in exposition, it would have come across as the author blatantly saying, "This is the way it is, and I can't come up with a better way of saying it."

What I ended up writing was, in effect, a short story at the beginning of the main story. It was too long to call it a Prologue, so I call it a Prelude; an 'act' before the main body of the work.

So, my belief is; if there is no better way of introducing a reader into the world your story lives in, what the problem with a prologue, a prelude or a quote?

Phil.

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philocinemas
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I have been working on a comedic story (potentially novel length) and I'm purposely including a short prologue (with a rather long subheading) that serves to set the mood - absurdity. I havent read the above responses, so I apologize if I'm repeating what someone else has said, but I've come to the realization that effective prologues serve a purpose other than storytelling or waxing eloquent.

Here is my OPINION: Ineffective prologues summarize previous events, whether from prequels or as a lead-up to the actual sory, or they seek to impress the reader. They are ineffective because they are a lazy form of preparation. Weaving this information into the story requires much more skill, but it is also much more digestible. Card usually does this very well in his sequels and makes for a good model.

Effective prologues serve as a hook by either establishing a mystery/tension or setting the mood. Although I don't consider myself a fan, I think Crichton wrote effective prologues.

Again, this is only my opinion.

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philocinemas
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I went back and read the responses: I personally feel there are better means of simply providing information other than having a prologue. I present Card as a modern example - we learn how FTL communication was obtained, that there had been a war with a race of insect creatures, how society has changed, etc., and all without a prologue.

Also, I just checked Speaker for the Dead, and it did have a short prologue (1 full page), but it also serves to establish tension.

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Meredith
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I hope my prologue does both. I can't really bring in this speculative element credibly until the characters get to where they'll encounter it. Currently, that's about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through. And that's too late to introduce something like this, in my opinion. It'd risk making the ending, which partly depends on this element, deus ex machina (even though it's the characters' own decision on how to deal with this element that brings the resolution).

The "prologue" I've drafted is a short scene between two characters--one who will appear at the end of the first chapter and the other one that embodies the speculative element that doesn't show up until late. Neither of them are main characters in the story. There's a certain amount of tension between these two characters and what they want and an element of mystery and threat concerning what might happen to the main characters if certain conditions aren't met.

I guess I'll just have to wait and see what beta readers think about it once the revisions are done. The story as a whole still has a week or so to cool before I pick it up again, but this scene was just in my head so I went ahead and wrote it. [Smile]

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rcmann
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I think people worry too much about this. A good story can be presented in different ways. A poor story won't matter. Tell a good story, then tweak the presentation. Go with what works for the way your brain operates.
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MattLeo
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Well, there's two problems with advice; first there's what advice to give, and then there's when it is appropriate to give that advice. We all know Meredith well enough to know she's aware that editors and agents claim to hate prologues. She also knows that despite this, books with prologues are routinely published.

I think there's only two conclusions we can draw from this prologue situation. The first is to do what you think is right, even if it is against conventional wisdom.

By now I've seen plenty of unpublished MSS. Once you set aside all the writers who have no idea what they're doing, once you focus on the very *best* of the still-totally-unpublishable MSS, they tend to have a common problem: No identity. No style. No soul. The writing provides little for a line editor to do and less for a story development editor to work with, because the story is constructed to be devoid of mistakes rather than full of individuality. When something is too perfectly conventional it is a creative dead-end. I much prefer a flawed but vivid MS to one that is so tasteful it's insipid.

So when an author does something she knows is controversial, it's counterproductive to rehash all the reasons (good, bad, or dubious) for not doing it. The best response is, "let's see how this turns out."

The second thing I think we can take from the prologue situation is that they're hard to do well; or at least there are significant pitfalls. One of the pitfalls is using the prologue as a place to put briefing details that you can't weave into the story itself. Yet even that kind of background briefing prologue can be pulled off successfully. Then there's the prologues that set up a situation you can't really understand until you read well into the book, and having accumulated enough information you're supposed to get an "aha!" moment. I find them irritating, except when they work and they're brilliant.

And that's the rub with prologues. When they're good they add to the story, but because they're unnecessary they are annoying as hell when they are less than good. So if you choose to do a prologue, it had better be first-rate, and the opening that follows has to be even better than usual to sustain the reader through the discontinuity in the story.

I believe that if you think you can break some canon of taste successfully you ought to give it a try. It might not work, but so what? That's much easier to fix than sounding like everyone else. And if you can successfully do something against conventional wisdom, you're bound to stand out.

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Pyre Dynasty
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Call it chapter 0.

It's true Matt, I trust Meredith's skills to pull it off. It sounds like this is the exactly right situation to include one.

The trouble is that for an increasing number of readers these days the word Prologue means the same thing "special features" on a DVD. They don't see it as part of the story. I love the structure that a prologue provides, but I've read so many reviews of books with them that say "I don't read prologues." That's why I say call it Chapter 0 or 1.

Again, the trouble isn't with the form, it's with the word "prologue."

Or perhaps we need to teach those people how important prologues are by writing really good/relevant ones. I don't know.

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lizluka
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quote:
Originally posted by Pyre Dynasty:
The trouble is that for an increasing number of readers these days the word Prologue means the same thing "special features" on a DVD. They don't see it as part of the story.

There's a lot of truth to this. I know several people who don't even think about reading the prologue because they assume that it's not really part of the story. For a certain number of readers out there (not most, I know), it won't matter how well-crafted the prologue is because they're never going to read it in the first place. Simply because of the term 'prologue.' In addition to Chapter 0, I've read a book or two where the author labels it with a place and time (i.e., Earth--2950). You don't realize you're reading the prologue until you get to Chapter 1.
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Rhaythe
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Maybe I shouldn't use that term, then. My prologues normally offer a fly-on-the-wall view of what events kick off the story (again, thriller convention).
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