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Thread: An argument for a Prologue

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    Moderator Steerpike's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by FifthView View Post

    The issue of stylistic choice bothers me when the implication is that "anything goes, always, in every case," and as if there's no particular reason to choose one approach over another. I tend to think in terms of techniques which achieve a particular effect, not rules. I do think that author choice plays a paramount role in deciding the story to tell and the effects desired. But once these are known, then deciding on techniques to achieve those goals means ruling out some techniques and choosing others that will best help in achieving those effects.
    I don't know that the implication is necessarily there, but I'm not overly opposed to it. Ellen Kushner said something to the effect (paraphrasing) that you can do anything you want, so long as you seduce the reader into it. Said using your words, it's anything goes so long as you do it effectively. I agree with that point of view. I think critiques are best for helping a writer achieve her particular vision of a work, not for saying "oh, you can't do it that way."

    Success in writing, or any other area of art, is less predictable than in other areas. You can be good at it and never get anywhere. I think that's why people gravitate toward rules--to try to place the illusion of more control around the whole endeavor. If I do x + y I'm going to get z. Of course, the techniques cast as rules have their uses, particularly with brand new writers, but when they go from "here's a way to effectively do what you have in mind" to "here's how you have to do this story" I think they're harmful. I don't see much of the latter here, particularly in comparison to some other writing forums.

    In any event, back to prologues. Certainly there are ways to write effective prologues. I don't think I've ever seen a "necessary" one, but stylistic choices are, by definition, a choice among options. Perhaps the primary argument for not using one is simply that so many people skip them, but that's more of a practical argument and not one that goes to the art itself. If an author really wants a prologue, if that's the vision for the work, so be it.
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    Moderator Steerpike's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Demesnedenoir View Post
    Erikson uses a chapter prologue, different beast than the traditional prologue, just to be clear. I can't comment much beyond that on Erikson because his writing and story telling make me long for the days of listening to the meandering tales of a college buddy's overpowered D&D campaigns. I find Erikson's writing even more boring. I give him credit for my making it as far as I did into Rothfuss' Name of the Wind, Erikson made Patrick look like a genius for a while, heh heh. Mind, this has nothing to do with Erikson's worldbuilding or anything else, I prefer being dropped into a world blind.
    We have quite different tastes in literature, so I expect we'll come out crossways on a lot of these writing topics. I'd put Erikson's Malazan books in the top five fantasy series of the last 20 years. Not just for world-building, where Erikson pretty much outdoes everyone, but just for how much I enjoy reading them.
    All cat stories start with this statement: "My mother, who was the first cat, told me this...”

  3. #53
    Senior Member FifthView's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Steerpike View Post
    I think critiques are best for helping a writer achieve her particular vision of a work, not for saying "oh, you can't do it that way."
    This is part of the problem.

    In the case of something posted to a forum, there's always the chance that the writer has failed to achieve her vision; so, how is anyone coming to that piece of work going to have a clue about what that vision is. How can we help her achieve it? Obviously, some things posted will more accurately convey the writer's vision in a persuasive, engaging, entertaining way, and might have only minor issues. But if I were to take all examples as accurately conveying the writer's vision, then I might be provoked into taking issue with that vision, heh, especially in the case of obviously weak or bad writing.

    I do agree that the blanket "you can't do it that way," in which the critic is looking more at some supposed rule than the work in front of him, doesn't help much. But in an obviously close third person limited story, breaking the POV is precisely the sort of thing that might provoke a "you can't do it that way" sort of criticism. Maybe the softer criticism would be along the lines of, "You can either approach this story as omniscient, or you need to remove this bit of head-hopping." But that's the sort of thing I was thinking about vis-à-vis techniques that achieve a particular effect.

    I think that when discussing these topics in the hypothetical sense, without a specific work before us, advice along the lines of "must have a prologue" or "must never use a prologue" approaches that kind of rules-based approach to criticism—either one.

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  5. #54
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    Quote Originally Posted by FifthView View Post
    But in an obviously close third person limited story, breaking the POV is precisely the sort of thing that might provoke a "you can't do it that way" sort of criticism. Maybe the softer criticism would be along the lines of, "You can either approach this story as omniscient, or you need to remove this bit of head-hopping." But that's the sort of thing I was thinking about vis-à-vis techniques that achieve a particular effect.
    Not to get too far afield, but this may get at some of the underlying disconnect, if there is any, in this discussion. I'm not sure what you've said above is absolutely true, so I wouldn't say someone needs to switch to omniscience or remove head-hopping. Certainly there are books with multiple close third-person points of view. The changes usually come at scene or chapter breaks, but they don't have to come there.

    What happens most often when one comes across the kind of head-hopping you mention is that it is done poorly. In many cases, the writer seems to be doing it inadvertently. It comes across as amateurish. So, is it better to say "you can't do this unless you switch to an omniscience POV" or to simply point out what they've done and why it doesn't work in that particular case?

    I suppose this could really be a separate thread on how to critique. I agree that you can't always tell what the author's vision is, but you can ask, or else qualify the critique with whatever your understanding of that vision happens to be.
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    Senior Member Russ's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Malik View Post
    But the prologue is not backstory. In epic fantasy, the world is a separate character. The prologue is a scene introducing the world as that character, so that we can tell how much it has changed at the end of the book. The world will interact with the other characters, and will go through its own arc through the story


    I agree that many prologues are misused, but I don't think that "setting as character" is a sound reasoning for having a prologue.

    Every other character is the book is usually introduced through the normal narrative, why should setting be any different? If you believe in setting as character (and I surely do), there is no reason to info dump on setting any more than character history.
    “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday.”- John Wayne

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  8. #56
    Senior Member FifthView's Avatar
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    You're right, this is probably too off topic and deserves another thread. I've often thought that a thread on offering helpful critique, and seeking it, would be a good idea.

    The very first thing I'd put on the list is for those seeking critique to be as specific as possible when asking for it unless they simply want a wide range of reactions or a broad sampling of impressions. This could also be a great place for the writer to talk about her vision and what she's trying to achieve; that would help.

    So, is it better to say "you can't do this unless you switch to an omniscience POV" or to simply point out what they've done and why it doesn't work in that particular case?
    Well that was just a little musing. I think that saying it doesn't work in that case is pretty much the same as saying "you can't do that" there. Although, the better approach might be to explain why it doesn't work in this particular case, rather than just say it doesn't work. But sometimes with newer participants, it's hard to know precisely what level of experience they are bringing to the table, and thus the level of required explanation for the criticism.


    Quote Originally Posted by Steerpike View Post
    Not to get too far afield, but this may get at some of the underlying disconnect, if there is any, in this discussion. I'm not sure what you've said above is absolutely true, so I wouldn't say someone needs to switch to omniscience or remove head-hopping. Certainly there are books with multiple close third-person points of view. The changes usually come at scene or chapter breaks, but they don't have to come there.

    What happens most often when one comes across the kind of head-hopping you mention is that it is done poorly. In many cases, the writer seems to be doing it inadvertently. It comes across as amateurish. So, is it better to say "you can't do this unless you switch to an omniscience POV" or to simply point out what they've done and why it doesn't work in that particular case?

    I suppose this could really be a separate thread on how to critique. I agree that you can't always tell what the author's vision is, but you can ask, or else qualify the critique with whatever your understanding of that vision happens to be.

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    Quote Originally Posted by FifthView View Post
    You're right, this is probably too off topic and deserves another thread. I've often thought that a thread on offering helpful critique, and seeking it, would be a good idea.

    The very first thing I'd put on the list is for those seeking critique to be as specific as possible when asking for it unless they simply want a wide range of reactions or a broad sampling of impressions. This could also be a great place for the writer to talk about her vision and what she's trying to achieve; that would help.

    Well that was just a little musing. I think that saying it doesn't work in that case is pretty much the same as saying "you can't do that" there. Although, the better approach might be to explain why it doesn't work in this particular case, rather than just say it doesn't work. But sometimes with newer participants, it's hard to know precisely what level of experience they are bringing to the table, and thus the level of required explanation for the criticism.
    Yes...I agree with all of this. The derail is my fault--a thread on critique is a good idea. Perhaps we could even put together a resource for critiquing, based on best practices or what have you. That would require discussion and a consensus on what best practices are. I don't know whether such a consensus exists, but a discussion of it would be interesting.
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    There are any number of critiquing guides floating around. We could use those as a starting point.
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  12. #59
    Senior Member Michael K. Eidson's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Demesnedenoir View Post
    First, I will preface this: It is often best not to have a traditional worldbuilding prologue (not speaking of chapter prologues, like GRRM has) in the novel, the info is best twined through the book proper.

    I read the "sample" of The Warded Man a couple times thinking about buying it, mainly as a possible comp for my WIP. So, I broke down and bought it, and right after the sample Brett goes into the age old story teller giving us the history of the world setup, in this case, the demon corelings and their relationship with humans.

    My eyes just glaze over. I would rather the author just hit me with a prologue up front than stop the story to tell me a story. It would take fewer words and get it over with. Then, no need to break my flow in the story while reading later.

    So, if the writer decides they can't weave in the history in small doses, which do you prefer? Obvious info dumps framed as story tellers, or whatever, or a quick, succinct prologue?
    Here's the gist of it when I'm the reader: If some passage of text is boring, it is either skimmed or skipped, whether it's in the prologue or midway through your novel. If a passage is not boring, chances are improved that I will read it, but even then, I may skip it, if the not boring part is proceeded by a boring part, and I misjudge how far to skip.

    If I decide to skip some part of a prologue, it's easy to skip to the end of the prologue, because the author has conveniently identified for me where the prologue ends. It's called Chapter 1.

    I usually will give a prologue a chance (reading at least the first few paragraphs) if I have decided to read the book. But prologues for me already have a strike against them by virtue of being called a prologue. Don't call it a prologue, and maybe I won't realize it is one until I've already read it. If it's not Chapter 1, you don't have to call it anything. Just jump into the text, with no heading, or maybe with some italicized poetry to start, or an entry from a fictional journal, or something else artsy. Just by being different, you boost my interest level, and break the mindset I have against prologues.

    How readers react to any written work does not depend solely on that written work. It also depends on the prior experiences the reader has had in reading other books, which has shaped their expectations about future books. By giving the reader something unexpected in the beginning, you're putting them on notice not to skim or skip, because they might miss something interesting. Start your story following the same pattern as other authors, and the reader will expect your work to continue to follow the patterns they have observed in other works. If they see prologues as boring because most of the ones they've read before were boring, and you start with a prologue that follows the same pattern as all the other prologues they've read, then they will expect your prologue to be boring too, possibly without having read a single word of it.

    Of course, some readers have not had such bad experiences with prologues, and if your prologue is great, then it will help solidify their position that there's nothing wrong with prologues. So if you write a prologue, do the reading world a favor, and write an interesting one, starting with the first sentence. If you write a boring prologue -- or in some cases, if even just the first sentence of your prologue is boring -- that will reaffirm for those who don't like prologues that prologues are bad, and might make those who don't have a problem with prologues to reconsider their stance on the matter.
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    Senior Member Malik's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Russ View Post
    I agree that many prologues are misused, but I don't think that "setting as character" is a sound reasoning for having a prologue.

    Every other character is the book is usually introduced through the normal narrative, why should setting be any different? If you believe in setting as character (and I surely do), there is no reason to info dump on setting any more than character history.
    I'm not saying infodump in your prologue. For God's sake, don't infodump. Ever. But in an introductory scene of a character, you have the character doing their normal, everyday thing, which gives you an idea of who they are. A wizard puttering around his workshop. A princess sighing and staring out a window. Whatever. The prologue tells us what the world is up to. You don't have to go into the full backstory, or really even explain anything about how the world works. Just show us what normal looks like, so we'll know what effect the story has on it. That's the prologue.

    Bop over to Amazon and read the Prelude and prologue to "The Unremembered" by Peter Orullian. Holy crap. A double-prologue followed by two notional quotes, and he nails it. By the time you're through those 2-3 pages, you know exactly where you are and what the world looks like; your feet are solidly in the starting blocks, without him ever once explaining anything to you.

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