Prologue

Prologue

Now a prologue comes in at somewhere between ‘a total waste of space that I skip’ and ‘I will TBAR this book because I don’t get what is going on (it was ‘set up’ in the prologue)’

I’m in a bit a prologue myself at the moment, as my wife is over in the big city (well, relatively) in hospital, awaiting surgery for gall-bladder issues. It was due to be today, now it’s tomorrow. She was flown out in a howling gale on Saturday… have been in our small island hospital for 24 hours. I’m as a result not at my best and brightest – just wish they’d get on with the story, or that I could do something. This is not making my attempts at work or writing blog posts too coherent (worse than usual) so bear with me.

Should you even have this ‘prologue’ thing? Speaking as the guy who is guilty of doing this a fair number of times… the right answer is probably ‘no’. Pot. Meet kettle. Get the reader to engage with the story as fast as possible.

In my defense, they CAN make a book work better. I’m not saying I always succeed at that. But I think what I trying to say is that it is a technique to be used both with conscious thought and extreme circumspection. That’s fancy words for ‘Keep it short, if you must do it all’

I did this wrong for one of the best books I haven’t written (and yes, the latter does hinge on the former – I was selling books on proposal at the time –including the first few chapters). The story NEEDS a prologue. It makes no sense without the prologue (or so I said to myself) And the prologue is a lot of fun…

The prologue IS a lot of fun. It’s also far, far, far too long, and far too distant from the story itself (there are several thousand years between the two). The characters (which are quite amusing and engaging) in the prologue are long dead and irrelevant except in vaguest sense to the characters in the book. Yes. They do create the frame for the universe of the book. But… at the cost of distracting from the story.

That prologue is either another book, or the information in it needs to be dribbled into the main story, or maybe it needs a re-write to bring it down to a few paragraphs – but as is it a book-killer. Try to learn from my stupidity instead of having to learn from your own. Trust me, it’s much nicer.

I think a good place to start is by asking yourself why you have the prologue in the first place. For me, anyway, it’s often something best interpreted in theater terms as ‘set design, stage direction’ Enter villain left, staggering and bloody, muttering, into what appears to be a ruined castle at dawn… and then the story begins with the frame at least for the back-story established.

In this case I did keep it short but introduced the characters and set the scene and introduces the ‘universe’ of that story and tells the reader what kind of book they’re getting. After all – it’s the first bit they’re likely to read (some of you will probably recognize this as something of a homage to Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Partisan’ by which it was inspired.

Freedom Soon Will Come

Dave Freer

Prologue: “Résigne-toi”

“Move! Get up ramp!” screamed the Nar guards. Their nerve-jangler whips added screams of pain to the clank of heavy machinery, and the rumble of war-wagons hauling more cages full of prisoners across to the starships.

The packed mass of naked humans moved up the ramp, their manacles clanking. They moved or died. The bodies of those who hadn’t, lay next to the ramp. The weight of prisoners pushed Ash and Marcia forward, down the corridor into the dim, reeking racks of the Nar slave-hold.

Ash tried to keep a hold onto his pregnant wife’s hand, but there were just too many people. People pushing them deeper into the layers of mesh shelves –about eighteen inches high by four foot wide.

The dim-red-lit hell was full of people crying, people begging, people screaming, falling and being walked over. People calling desperately for their loved ones, as they were forced into the racks.

Ash was one of them. Maybe Marcia was too. He couldn’t tell.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this when the aliens came.

They’d been cautioned to surrender.

And they’d listened and obeyed.

Once.

***

So: the questions – did it set the scene? Would you want to read the book?

 

47 Comments

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47 responses to “Prologue

  1. One comment. If people are chained together and one dies, how do the guards release the dead weight? Unless you want the image of dead people’s bodies being torn apart as they are dragged by the chained masses, which is a super horrific image that could well set the right tone for the story. Not trying to be critical, just a question.

    • Historically, when people are chained together and one dies, and the captors don’t wish to take the time to properly remove the body, they simply whack off the part that is secured. If it’s the wrist, that means the hand; if the neck, then the head.

      Since you do not makes slaves of those who have no value, and since it’s difficult to enslave a corpse, the idea is to inflict terror on the rest in order to ensure compliance. If this is directed at a slave who is dead, so much the better, as it does not mean taking further loss.

      Pirates in the Caribbean favors the cutlass precisely for this reason. It’s a big blade and makes bloody, impressive, wounds. Just the thing to cow crew and passengers.

      Sorry if this is cold blooded and dark, but sometimes, to understand the villains, you have to think as they would.

    • Hmm should be leg-shackles.

  2. My question back to you is what makes a prologue a prologue? In the example you show, what is it that makes that section not simply “Chapter One”?

    Is that section removed from the rest of the events of the book by time or space or character? If so, what makes it part of the story?

    Without knowing anything about the work in question other than what you have shown here, my guess is that the fact that you describe it as a prologue means that the next part is going to be “X years later”. What is gained by not simply starting there and referring to the tragic backstory somewhere in the text of the actual story?

    In terms of a hook, it doesn’t do much for me, personally. The character of Ash is shown as a passive victim of events, which doesn’t tend to make me sympathetic to the character. I am much more likely to want to spend time with a character who is introduced while doing something, even if it’s not the right thing, than just responding to circumstances.

    • I had a prologue to the Adelsverin Trilogy, which essentially became Chapter 1 on the recommendation of several alpha readers. It was set seven years before the main action began, but was absolutely key for a vital sub-plot.
      In Truckee’s Trail, I also had a prologue (and a closing ‘bookend’) set in the present day, which I ditched because I decided that I wanted to plunge straight into 1844 without any detour in the modern day.
      For what it’s worth, it all depends.

    • A good example that comes to mind is the one at the beginning of Jurassic Park. It’s only purpose is to put the reader immediately into the story. Without the prologue, the book has a slow start. With the prologue, the action starts immediately, and you’re wondering what in the world is going on. This worked better before “raptor” became a household word, and the only association was with birds of prey, for the dying man says “raptor,” and that’s the only clue to what’s happened. When the book came out, it gave it a bit of a mystery, a reason for the reader to continue and learn what is happening.

    • You’re quite right: Ash is indeed too passive.

      I plainly need to work on this far more.

      The story is one of the captured slaves revolting, with Ash and his search for his wife and child.

      The underlying ‘concept’ of the story is that Aliens hit on something (or captured something) which gave them cheap, easy, FTL travel — but in no other sense are they an ‘advanced’ alien race. Their technology is at a lower level than Earth – they have no real interest. They use slaves because they’re cheap, available, and cheap to transport. They are glorified locusts – Swarm a planet that can’t defend itself in space – leave those alone that can. Use overwhelming force – destroying major military and civil targets with no warning (always start with ‘we come in peace’) and subverting those in leadership with appease us and you’ll be fine.

      The point of the entire prologue is the last word.

      • I am a firm believer that a character’s first appearance in a story is like a first date or a job interview. I want to know that someone has some positive qualities from the onset, then I’ll be in a position to accept the faults.

        I’d want to start out seeing Ash in action, maybe taking down a Nar transport. Then you can show him searching for clues to his family’s whereabouts. Over time you can reveal that he is driven to fight because of his guilt over being passive and obedient at first, thereby allowing his family to be taken.

        I really don’t like the current tendency in fiction to show a character at his worst in the opening and then working to redeem him. It seems bas-aackward to me.

      • The underlying ‘concept’ of the story is that Aliens hit on something (or captured something) which gave them cheap, easy, FTL travel — but in no other sense are they an ‘advanced’ alien race.

        Something like Harry Turtledove’s The Road Not Taken?

    • Mary

      I have a beginning of a story where I dramatize what happened to the main character’s father — he’s not there, and the rest of the story is his point of view — so I’m still pondering whether to make it a prologue.

      Against? It would hardly help the story if someone skipped it as irrelevant.

  3. Best wishes to you and your wife.

  4. Is Ash the Main Character? Then it works. If Ash is never seen again, then I think you need to depersonalize the prologue. Don’t show us a character to start to attach to unless we’re going to see him again.

    And if if not, a simple “His grandparents had been among the first humans taken by the Nar slavers . . . ” and go from there.

  5. “So: the questions – did it set the scene? Would you want to read the book?”

    Scene most definitely set. Am I going to read that? Not a chance. Back on the shelf, with a shudder. That is the off-stage shit that I’m not going to put up with reading about. The problem of late with Important Works of Ahhhht is that sort of thing is the whole book.

    • Dave, I read your prologue this morning right after I looked at the atrocity in Las Vegas. It is good writing and it plugged me in pretty hard.
      The prologue. As it stands, its poor bastards having a bad life a million miles away. There’s a ton of that out there, I remain militantly disinterested.

      Now, if you want -me- to read it, just let one of those alien slaver guys loose his head to a plasma bolt from an Imperial Marine. Even if they get away, now I’m interested. Hell, let your male character there quietly shiv a guard and start working on his shackle. But you’ve gotta give me something, otherwise its a Hugo nominee.

      Hope your wife is doing well, old son. I’ve been through that a couple times, it sucks.

  6. The common mistake with prologues is writing them FIRST — they invariably become infodumps, or worldbuilding chatter (and are so even if written *as* normal action), but are not part of the story. Frequently they act as spoilers, or as obvious emotional jerks, and then why should the reader continue? they’ve already learned the secret, or had the high, and the story is done.

    ALWAYS write the prologue LAST. Because when you do that, 99% of the time all that info gets integrated into the story, and a prologue’s function is as a place for necessary material that has NO home inside the body of the story. And even then, for the reader’s sake it might be better handled as an appendix. Me, I absolutely LOVE an appendix full of worldbuilding and history peripheral to the story — by the time I get that far, I care enough to read stuff that’s not directly relevant. But up front? That’s like reading a rulebook for a game you’ve never played.

    In this case, I see absolutely nothing that couldn’t be more-gracefully Heinleined into the main story, regardless of what that might be. One offhand line about “naked ancestors in a slavehold ship” would suffice — if it’s needed at all: context might lead the reader to the right place anyway (in which case they’ll have the powerful satisfaction of figuring it out for themselves, greatly boosting your author cred) — especially if the present-day characters don’t quite have that knowledge.

    And maybe it IS a whole ‘nuther book, not a fragment tacked onto this one.

    • That’s a good point. Another point, as made above, is that (without context) this could easily just be an opening chapter. So what makes a prologue? David Eddings’ Belgariad is a great example of the “classic” prologue, where the storytelling style is different from the main body of the work, the events referenced can be thousands of years before, and while the information is critical, the book can be started without it. (My husband did that when he read them.) It’s often dry and boring, though not as boring as the expository prologue, which has so much info dumping that you have to wonder if it’s really worth reading.

      I think the best example of a completely necessary prologue is the one in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, which describes a scene between two people on the eve of a battle that they know they’re about to lose. It sets up the premise of the book and utterly underscores the horror of what was done to their land in the aftermath of the battle. (Tigana is one of the few books that I both love and find incredibly difficult to take, since it’s one horror after another in a sense. Grand tragedy.)

    • Zsuzsa

      “The common mistake with prologues is writing them FIRST — they invariably become infodumps, or worldbuilding chatter (and are so even if written *as* normal action), but are not part of the story. Frequently they act as spoilers, or as obvious emotional jerks, and then why should the reader continue? they’ve already learned the secret, or had the high, and the story is done.”

      Not directly related to your comment, but this does remind me of one reason that I write prologues sometimes: because I need them in order to get into the story. I remember one in particular where I spend about two days staring at the blank word document starting and stopping and erasing. Finally, I started a prologue, and after I finished it, Chapter 1 flowed easily off my fingers. However, it’s also worth recognizing that just because I needed to write the prologue doesn’t mean that anyone else needs to read it. It’s a rambling mess, and if I ever try to publish that story, the prologue is going to need to be seriously edited or possibly eliminated entirely.

  7. Terry Sanders

    It would depend on my mood. If I wanted to read something slavey and post-apocalyptic that day, then yes. If not, no.

    Either way, the prologue as prologue wouldn’t put me off. I get tired of all the *in media res* s–ah–stuff sometimes–I’m not from the music-video generation.

    Far as I’m concerned, prologue is fine, as long as it’s relevant–and not overdone. This one qualifies on both counts.

    • I’d definitely read it – although it depends on if the two characters are in the main story…

    • It gave me the idea for a very nasty slavery story where there’re clear links to progressive ideas, but don’t know how to pull it off without sermonizing.

      • SheSellsSeashells

        Poke me. Seriously. I am very, very good at smoothing out tone and finding sermons wherever they may lurk, whether that’s to cut them out or to hide them deeper. 🙂 Address is a-g-g-r-o-k-i-t-t-y at the mail of Gs.

        • I’d have to write it first, and I don’t know if it would gel. I’m in the middle of a story about a couple of comedians who have a serious disagreement with the mob that I need to finish before it gets cold. Lately I’ve been doing crime stories, for some reason.

  8. paladin3001

    I am of mixed minds of this prologue. I do find it interesting, if it’s tied into a recent history happening after this introduction. Otherwise I would be expecting more of these characters when I started the meat of the story.
    I find that a prologue set far back in the past is good only if it’s immediately relative to the current story, say for example talking about the hiding away of a powerful item. Where the item is kind of a character in itself.
    I might read this story. Depends on how quickly chapter one grabs me from here.

  9. Shouldn’t it be “Se résigne-toi?” Otherwise I expect a direct object.

    • Robin Munn

      No, it shouldn’t. Résigne-toi is correct: toi is the direct object, and would translate to “yourself” in English. There could be an indirect object, say Résigne-toi à la souffrance or something. But as it stands, that phrase is perfectly grammatical, with “to suffering” being implied by the context.

      And se résigne-toi would be incorrect grammar anyway, since you’ve got third-person se mixed up with second-person toi in there.

      P.S. If anyone has questions about French, I’m a good person to ask. English is my native language, but I grew up in France so I’m an almost-native speaker of French as well. I acquired French grammar just like a native, but I’m missing some vocabulary since I left France to go to college in the US, so I only have an adolescent’s vocabulary. (I don’t know advanced words for political subjects, economics, scientific subjects, and so on).

  10. Hope everything turns out well.

  11. Zsuzsa

    I usually use prologues, and my main purpose in doing so is to give the reader a taste of where we’re going. The early chapters are usually about introducing the characters, doing some world building, and generally setting up the situation. I like to use the prologue as a sample of what things are going to be like once that set up is done. Sometimes it’s something that happened long before the start of the story, sometimes it’s a flash-forward to a more exciting time, but essentially it’s all about saying to the reader, “Yes, I know that right now this looks like a story about a woman moving across country and settling into a new house and a new job, but it’s really about ghosts and spooky things and desperate searches through dark places. Just wait.”

    Now, I’m not sure that this is a good thing. Maybe it’s a flaw in my writing that the early chapters aren’t that exciting, and that I shouldn’t need a prologue to hook the reader. None the less, that’s what I usually use them for.

  12. Zsuzsa

    Some thoughts on other books/series I’ve read with prologues:

    (1) The Wheel of Time. The prologue to the first book is one that I’ve usually seen cited as something that really works. It gives a sense of the scope of the conflict and the enormous powers that both the light and the dark can bring to bear. The story coasts for a long time on the good will generated by that prologue.

    In the later books, the prologues devolve until they’re essentially indistinguishable from any other chapter except usually far longer. They could easily be renamed “Chapter 1” (and 2 and 3 and 4 and sometimes 5) without anyone noticing the difference between that and a normal chapter.

    (2) Song of Ice and Fire. Most of these, I think should have been eliminated and their events worked into the books proper. Book 1’s prologue seems to be doing more or less the same thing Wheel of Time was, demonstrating the real threat of the Others so that the reader can keep it in mind while we see the politics and war developing in the South. However, it just didn’t work for me. Not sure why. I just think it would have been better to start with Bran’s first chapter, and drop hints about the Others from rumours we hear from the Night Watch.

    Books 2 and 3 described events that probably needed to be included (the proof of Melisandre’s magic and the Other’s attack on the camp), but they could easily have been included in Davos’s and Sam’s chapters without much if anything being lost.

    Books 4 and 5 had prologues that were pretty much a waste of space. Book 4, okay I see what it was trying to set up, but given that there is no payoff to that set up in either Books 4 or 5, it feels pretty unnecessary. Book 5, not only do I not really see what if anything he was setting up, I can barely even remember it unless I really strain.

    • Luke

      I disagree with part of that assessment.

      The doomed protagonist of his own (very short) story is a lot more immediate than seeing the events at a remove. Further, being the first thing the reader encounters, it sets the frame for the entire book. I’d cite the first three episodes of SoIaF as an excellent example of how to do it properly. (After that, IMO GRRM loses the plot.)

  13. I had one prologue, then worked it into a later chapter because it didn’t work that well. The other prologue, and epilogue, I wrote in a completely different style, and used as mythological book-ends. That worked far better, and it gave the reader a glimpse into the bad guys as well as the protagonist. (_Blackbird_, for those who are curious).

  14. Luke

    I’m one of those odd birds who likes infodumps and thinking over implications. So if the author is kind enough take the back of the watch and show me the gears, you won’t hear complaints from me.
    (Ok, maybe I’ll complain that his concept was better than whatever execution he chose, but that’s not complaining about the infodump.)

    That said, I agree that most prologues are unnecessary.
    But they are sometimes useful.
    I think in the cases where they work especially well, they’re a self-contained story that establishes the setting and tone.
    The unsuspecting scientists/explorers/guards who inadvertently discover a major threat and die is a common trope in this vein. (But far from the only option.)

  15. SheSellsSeashells

    OK, this *is* something I’m struggling with. The current Thing seems to work well without a prologue, but the prologue in question does have a hint or two as to How We Got Here. As a reader I like things like that, but this one feels like dead weight exactly 50.1 percent of the time. So, dialogue-heavy and *short*, here is my prologue, which has no identifiable characters and promptly bops off to the POV character a Very Long Time Later:

    I will never let them near.
    Power flexed, and the world twisted under its pressure.
    We can’t hold the magic, but we can scatter it.
    The world twisted again.
    Our secrets, MY secrets, I won’t let them touch–
    And again.
    Someone has to pay. I don’t even care who any more.
    The world twisted, and began to fray.”

    Thoughts? I could use ’em.

    • It’s too vague to hold my interest. And I wouldn’t remember it enough later in the book to get that pleased sense of: “Oh, there were hints!” Could you place it later in the book as a sort of flashback or “interlude of legend”? YMMV.

      • SheSellsSeashells

        It’ll get vaguer, but at least my protagonist will be able to ask questions at that point. 🙂

    • Honestly, it’s too vague and confusing to hold my interest, either. Especially if it’s not immediately related to the character on the very next page. Somebody’s making vague dramatic statements followed by a world twisting – which doesn’t make sense without context. It’s short enough I’d likely continue on to the first chapter, but it doesn’t make me feel interested, or make me care about the characters, or make me want to know what happens next.

      But then, I’m some random reader who may or may not be your target market. Pick readers in your target market, and check with them.

  16. One question I’ve often had with prologues and the general disdain for them I’ve seen in writing communities is what about the readers?

    I can only speak anecdotally here but many of my friends that are more casual readers love prologues, especially the grim portents of badness and epicness to come type prologues.

    We, as heavy readers (presuming as such since it’s less likely someone becomes a writer if they are not heavy readers) may have read them too much. They blur together, we ignore them, we mock them and consequently don’t see the utility. But the casual reader? Who reads five books a year, and only one of them a fantasy?

    Personally, I’d agree that it’s usually better to fold that information in to the plot, especially world building. But that’s for me, I’ve got lots of experience reading and following along to a fantasy world and figuring out how the pieces fit together, that’s part of the joy. For me.

    For a casual reader? I think they might appreciate not having to do that work, not having to be versed in how to build a world in your head given some hints, having the stage set as the curtain draws and recognizing the throne room and knowing what the play is probably going to be about.

    As a reader, I can ignore a prologue, because I don’t care and I presume I’ll get enough information that the plot, setting, and sort of story will be revealed. But someone else might appreciate it, and enjoy reading it. It’s there to be read or not to be read, depending on the preference of the reader.

    I’m not being definitive, I’m asking the question and wondering if we heavy readers (whether we be editors or writers), write for US and people like us, and don’t pay attention to those who are less invested than us and make sure they feel included.

    Steve

    • *grins* Yep, you’re right. Voracious readers have a chance to get sufficient exposure that get annoyed by trends, while occasional readers may not notice – or may like the trend, because they want something comfortable and familiar.

      You know who’s worse than voracious readers? Slush pile readers. Someone – I think it was Kris Rusch – told of getting waves of stories all based on the same theme or concept. Sometimes, it was vampires. Sometimes, mailboxes that eat people. Sometimes there was a popular show or movie to explain the mass inspiration hitting all over – other times, it was completely inexplicable. But you might write a completely original, really awesome story about a mailbox that eats people… and unbeknownst to you, an editor will reject it, because “Oh, Gnu, not another one of those!” None of the other stories may have made it into print, or maybe just one or two across the entire field – so you have no way of knowing that the editors are completely sick of mailboxes.

      And sometimes your story gets rejected because the editor got sick of mailboxes ten years ago, and isn’t over it yet.

      When it comes to prologues, I remember as a kid reading my way through the entire adult section of SF &F in the library – and then arranging to do so all over again at the next really tiny city over. Of the stories that made it into print, and made it into the library in rural town & three nearby small cities, there was a good chunk of 60’s-80’s SF&F. Of those, a large number had prologues. Most of those were of the “let me explain the worldbuilding”, or the “Here’s what’s happened in the series so far,” variety.

      So my base of experience is “prologue = skip and you miss a little worldbuilding, but nothing critical to this story… or if it is, it’s all boring blah-blah-blah, and the story wouldn’t stand on its own anyway.” And I note the editors who were working in the timeframe I was reading, and since then, seem to take this impression of prologues as an ironclad law, and therefore exhorted “skip all prologues! No prologues!”

      But a prologue is a tool, and there’s a time and place for that tool. Used well, it may be perfect. George Martin stuck an ice monster prologue in a book that otherwise had a very slow and magic-free beginning with a whole lot of character introductions, and many people found it riveting enough that they stuck around through the beginning and got hooked into the rest of the plots.

      Many mystery & thriller shows and some books will start with the crime as a prologue – introduce character, make them sympathetic. then action, tension, suspense, drama, and… cut to corpse discovery. Now we want to find out who, or even if we already know whodunit, we are invested in them being brought to justice as the cops race against the killer. (The sheer whodunit is more mystery, the knowing who and race to stop them from striking again is more thriller.)

      If you’re going to use it, use it well, not as a crutch for storytelling. And make the story awesome enough that even voracious readers who are likely to roll their eyes and go “Oh, another British boarding school mystery. This time with magic. yawn.” still can fall in love with Harry Potter anyway, and root for the heroes.

  17. snelson134

    Dave, about the gall bladder procedure, if they do it arthroscopically especially, have them do an endoscopy a couple days later to make sure a gall stone hasn’t gotten away from them. When I had gall bladder surgery in 2008, they lost one…. and we all found it about 2-3 months later after it had blocked up my pancreatic duct and my pancreas started digesting itself from the inside while my body attempted to encapsulate it.

    Emergency surgery, 30 days in the hospital, 6 months of surgical drain changes, and a hernia repair in 2010 later, I was finally past it. Have them double check!

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