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Prologues----How and why to write one

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Lunaairis, Aug 17, 2012.

  1. Lunaairis

    Lunaairis Sage

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    NOTE: This is more of an observation than a question, aimed to help get more good prologues out there.​

    PROLOGUES --- How and why to write one

    I was looking at a post about prologues and I couldn’t help but think that there seems to be something wrong with people’s reactions to them. I for one like prologues as they can set the tone for the rest of the story; When they are prologues and not just masses of text. After reading Farlander (By Col Buchanan) I have realized what makes a prologue good, and why more fantasy stories need them.

    1) A prologue should be like the story you will tell but in miniature, it should be no longer then your longest chapter and should never be split into parts (I’ve seen this done and it’s just horrendous). That said you should always leave the prologue to be the last thing you write.

    A prologue is so much like a door hinge I can’t even begin to explain. It is best used with the idea to gather readers; it’s a chapter the average man/woman or child can read at a book store to get a feel for the authors writing without going into the main story. It is what an author should use for getting the reader from the real world to their fictional world. Again like a door hinge it keeps the book open for the public eye to grab a glimpse.

    2) The author can also use the prologue to slip in information that the other characters in the novel might already know (if it is important to the story). You wouldn’t want to write a chapter about a city falling to pieces, only for it to have no purpose for the rest of the story, waste-of-space much? While Farlander presents an assassination never spoken of again, the reader soon finds it wasn’t the assassination that was important but the state of mind the main character- Ash- finds himself in. Don’t allow prologues to become information dumps, remember you are trying to get the average reader into your story, don’t bombard them with names that won’t or can’t be explained till 2-3 chapters in.

    3) Prologues, after keeping in mind that they should not be long, they should also not be short. A prologue consisting of 1-4 paragraphs is rather useless; all the information presented could be bleed into the speech of some of the characters. Removing the need for the prologue all together. If there are only 1-4 paragraphs it’s likely that you just wrote an information dump and should delete it anyways.

    4) There should be a story going on in your prologue, a beginning and an end. Introduce a key character in your story, Maybe a villan? The main character? A magic object? Something that has reason to exist, and has wants and needs. Present them a challenge; it could be a rival, a theft ( the theft of a person’s life, an object, a person or a way of thinking) or maybe the end of a cycle. Farlander presents Ash the main character challenging a revolting king who has killed someone he shouldn’t have ( the theft of a person’s life). Remember when coming up with the challenge, it may be a good idea to take the main problem of you fiction but show it on a miniature scale. If your story is about racism show a glimpse of the racism here.

    5) Now show off the character or object’s skills by somehow getting them though the situation. This is a great way to get your reader interested in the character or object they are going to follow for the rest of the book. It’s time to show their talents, as this character or object may not be the only main character or object of the novel but is the one that pulls the story along, and likely won’t be showing up again for a few chapters.

    6) Never talk history in the prologue; write as it happens. Do you remember sitting in those boring history classes with your unexciting history teacher? Thank god I loved history and never had a crappy history teacher. But I know other people who have and I also know they don’t like to read about it in their fiction, so keep it out of there! There is a time and a place to talk about the last great war between the Jubjubwicks and the Didolgigs but the prologue is not the place to be talking politics from a second source.



    I believe I have covered everything and I hope from this list you will know if your story needs a prologue or not, and I’d hope that you would always leave this question till after you finish writing the story. That’s the best place to tell if your story has too much of a gap that the average reader will have no idea what’s going on in the beginning of it.


    If you don’t think I’m right in my thinking or have other points to talk about leave a comment/ post and discuss things below. Thanks guys!​
     
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2012
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    Lunaairis
    Thank you for your post.
    You have thought about this.
    For me if there is a prologue [and that is a big “if”], it is setting up the story for the reader, explain why things are as they are so they can jump right in to the action.
    I don't see the prologue as a teaser roll for the rest of the story — it is the history of people, places or objects. I don't want to show that my master thief really is “that good” until they are trapped with their back to the wall and escape is impossible... and then they come up with the incredible plan... “that might just work”.
    The prologue is as you say a way of getting information to the reader that doesn't slow down the plot. We've all read or watched pieces where someone effective says “But doctor how did you know...” and for fifteen pages/minutes the story stops.
    [For me — on TV — Buffy was great at exposition and the West Wing ignored it entirely]
    If the war between the Jubjubwicks and the Didolgigs affects the story but isn't taking place then maybe you need to explain why no-one goes down that road or eats Didolgigs steaks any more... if it doesn't affect them then it should be in the prologue anyway.
    I love “pre-history” it lets me as a writer make my characters do things because I want them to happen that way and not always what might seem most logical. I have a character that was in a desperate siege and now wont stay in fortified positions, he prefers to live in the woods and keep his options open. So far the only reference as to why he does this is one word “Scoona” passed between two other characters. I might have to explain why that is important at some point — a prologue could do this especially if we end up at Scoona...

    So I am thinking of having a “postlogue” to fill some of the blanks if the reader is still interested so I don't have to set things up in a prologue and others can read the story without all the facts.
     
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2012
  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Lunaairis:

    I like the tips you've given here, by and large. If a person is going to write a prologue, they could do worse than to adhere to what you have here. I will disagree with a central premise, though. No story, fantasy or otherwise, ever "needs" a prologue (in other words, it won't work without one). An author may choose to include one (and I may choose to skip it), but I can't imagine any case in which there is no choice but to include a prologue to make the book work.
     
  4. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    In general, I'm anti-prologue.

    I tend to think of prologues to be more about world building than character development. As you say:

    I don't want to transport the reader to my fictional world nearly as much as I want to transport them inside my characters. As such, I want to spend every single word on character development.
     
  5. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    By definition, a prologue is an acknowledgment that you know the story starts elsewhere, but you are going to subject the reader to this other stuff before getting to it. I'd rather just start with the story, personally.
     
  6. Lunaairis

    Lunaairis Sage

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    This is why I said leave the prologue for the last thing you write. If you believe you have a solid novel in which there is no reason to show character or objects before they appear in the story- As if to give the reader solid ground in the character or objects personality or mental state, then there is no reason to have a prologue.

    The best prologues I have ever read show pre-history that is important to the story an example being, Mister Monday: The Keys to the Kingdom series. In which the first paragraph is using pre-history to set the scene as to why this man in a top hat and suit is walking on a dead sun. Its just its not written as a second source, its written as description rather then a retelling.

    I'm not talking about the war between Jubjubwicks and Didolgigs being unimportant I'm saying not many people like to read things from a second source, don't write from a second source, write as its happening, as it keeps readers interested.

    If you're going to talk about some holy object that created the universe and then was stolen, and the rest of the story will revolve around finding this object. Make the prologue following one of the guards or maybe a priest who guards this object, and then show their reaction to the object going missing. It will give your reader a better understanding as to why this object is important to begin with, and someone who picks up your book at the book store will have a better understanding as to what the rest of the book is about, then reading the first chapter of the actual story.
     
  7. JCFarnham

    JCFarnham Auror

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    And this right here is my biggest problem with the common, badly-used prologue. If that prologue flows straight into the main story, includes your main character, begins the main conflict... to me that should all be the first chapter onwards.

    The best prologues for me have always been tangential. Game of Thrones, case in point. If you've read it you'll see what I mean. That has next to nothing to do with the book (and if it does only in passing, becoming more important later in the series). What I'm saying is this: The very best prologues I have ever read, period, have always been an allegory of the main theme. And Martin's prologue was that allegory. Winter is coming.

    However, that's just how I prefer them.

    As Steerpike suggested the prologue by definition is something that can't possibly be present within the book proper. It has to be essential. The story needs to make absolutely no sense with out it. Any tool or element a writer uses should probably have a significant reason for existing in the manuscript. If not it's dead wood.
     
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2012
    Lunaairis likes this.
  8. I still think there's nothing wrong with a prologue if it does the following:

    - Actually has a beginning, middle, and end, so it's a mini-story of its own
    - Introduces you to the world by way of ancillary or expendable characters
    - As JCFarnham says, enscapsulates or is an allegory for the book's main themes

    The story is the main course, but there's no reason you can't have an appetizer first, especially if it complements the rest of the meal.
     
    Lunaairis likes this.
  9. The Din

    The Din Troubadour

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    Soon as I saw the title of this post, I knew to expect the same few scribes propagandaring their anti-prologue postulations. Good to see some sterling advice got thrown in before succumbing to the inane to-and-fro. Thanks lunaairis.
     
  10. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Anything of actual value to add to the discussion?

    Seems like your simply taking shots at people with differing opinions on prologues with "propagandaring postulations" & "inane to-and-fro" comments.
     
  11. The Din

    The Din Troubadour

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    Yeah, I'm thanking lunaairis for her advice/helpful tips. Seems simple enough. I'm not taking shots at anyone's opinions, I'm taking shots at the fact that as soon as someone says 'Here's how to make your prologue better,' someone else must come and say 'Don't do prologues, i won't read them.'

    Not looking for an exchange of fisticuffs, just defending some sound advice. Take a look at all the discussions on prologues, they all end in some serious to-and-froing that does nothing but assert people's stance on whether to include them or not. I'd just like to see one discussion remain on the writing of said prologues and how to better them.
     
  12. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Fair enough & it's a valid assertion to keep the thread on point.

    It's hard to expect members not to post their opinions though. This is especially true considering Lunaairis is a new member who may not have full knowledge of those viewpoints from other posts.
     
  13. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    If you read the original post more carefully, I think you'll find that a discussion of whether to have a prologue in the first place is on-topic with respect to comments made by the OP. If you're uncomfortable reading opinions that do not reflect your own, I don't know what to tell you except that participation on a writing forums risks exposure to differing views.

    Contrary to what you say in your post to T.Allen.Smith, taking potshots is exactly what this is. It's not "defending some sound advice," which is something that would be accomplished by a substantive discussion of the subject at hand - something along the lines of "I like prologues because of X," and "I think they're effective when an author does Y," for example.
     
    Butterfly likes this.
  14. The Din

    The Din Troubadour

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    My bad for any potshots, and also for inadvertently getting sidetracked from the point of the original post.

    If you are including a prologue in your story, you could do far worse than to follow Lunaairis' observations. I personally like prologues short and action packed, say 4-6 pages. They should entrap the reader and pull them into the world and its characters, make them forget their annoying kids begging to go play ball, or the pretty girl sitting across the beach in a g-string.

    The best prologues offer a taste of the author's range, something a first chapter often cannot achieve without destroying the pace of the novel. As JCFarnham said, they should reflect the book's main theme, show the reader what they might expect from the coming conflict. If all ends in tragedy, give the reader a clue in those first few pages, let them know what they're getting themselves in for.
     
  15. MichaelJWinegar

    MichaelJWinegar Acolyte

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    One of the best prologues I've ever seen is in Elantris by Brandon Sanderson.

    It's just a third-person omniscient paragraph that tells of a momentous event ten years before the story starts.
     
  16. Some prologues work, others don't. When I want to use one I do, and when people tell me not to... well I won't repeat the words I use. This is a nice board.
     
  17. FatCat

    FatCat Maester

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    .......and you are doing what? Wait, what am I doing.....let the cycle continue, don't mind me.
     
  18. Zero Angel

    Zero Angel Auror

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    I'd be interested to know people's opinions on my prologue. It's not the first thing I wrote for the novel, but is the oldest thing written that is still in the current draft.

    My prologue follows my protagonist's foil character and sets up a dicey situation with him. What happens between the end of the prologue (which is almost literally a cliffhanger) and the beginning of Chapter 1 is something that is revealed slowly throughout the novel. Although the health and present status of the character is known almost immediately in Chapter 1/2 of the novel, the details are left a mystery.

    My prologues are used more as a way to show the events that will be affecting the main storyline (whether they include main characters or not...although they usually do) than anything else and also as a way to have some action without having to do much exposition or character development.

    I suppose my Book I prologue could be skipped without ill effect, although my Book II prologue has some rather major developments that I think might make readers go "huh" if they skipped. I have it as a prologue mainly because it occurs at least 6 months before Chapter 1.
     
  19. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    I'm not sure what you're getting at...
     
  20. FatCat

    FatCat Maester

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    T. Allen- I'm not either haha. Sometimes these things happen when you decide happy hour is starting a little early :) No offense was meant, apologies for inducing confusion!
     
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2012
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