Thursday, March 27, 2008

Writing the Prologue--Part 2

A prologue should be removed from the main story by either time or space.


Often a prologue will be an event that happened before the main story. Could be years. Could be mere days. It depends on the time length of the main story. If it's a suspense that takes place in eighteen hours, a scene that occurs one week previously seems like a large space of time by contrast.

One reader sent in a question to the intro post on this topic, wondering about novels with first chapters that happen years before the second chapter. "Is this a prologue in disguise?" she asked.

Probably. And I think it's a fudge on the part of the author/editor, who perhaps were too cautious of prologues to call one what it is. I don't agree with this "label fixing." If a scene fits the bill for a prologue and truly enhances the story, I say label it as such. If it doesn't, don't try to disguise your use of the scene by calling it "Chapter One." If it's labeled as a prologue, the reader will understand right away it's removed from the main story. If it's called "Chapter One," the reader's expectations are that the main story begins there, in that space in time. Jumping years ahead in chapter two seems jarring to me.

I'm speaking in generalities here, without having any example novel in mind. Have you read one like this that you think works? Let me know in the comments.


This one's tricky. Most don't work. (More on that in a minute.) There's only one way I have seen it work. That's if the prologue (remember, short and compelling) shows a snippet of some future event that isn't clear to the reader at that time. It will become clear when the story ends. This kind of scene is often a clue as to the story's outcome, but doesn't unveil enough to give the scene away. For example, it could be a scene of man, trembling with tension, walking into a darkened room to meet someone. Not until the crisis/climax do you find out what man, what room, why the man's tense, etc.

I have never written a prologue like this. If I did, it would most likely be to twist the story in some way. I'd want the reader all along to assume it's Man A, in Room B, meeting character C. In fact, it would be Man C, in Room A, meeting character B. In other words it would be a red herring. But is this the best way to introduce such a red herring, or real clue? Usually not. I think it's the rare case where this really works.

Most time-forward prologues fall into a different category. These are the ones that take an action- or emotion-filled scene from further into the story and stick part of it up front. I strongly advise against this. As discussed yesterday, what's really happening in these circumstances is the author senses, perhaps only subconciously, that chapter one is a slow start, and he wants to throw some higher energy up front. The problem is two-fold. One, it doesn't fix the slow start in chapter one. After an exciting prologue, there's a huge dip in energy. In fact, here a compelling prologue works against itself. The more grabbing it is, the more we'll feel the dip in chapter one. Two, even worse--everything in the story up until the point we catch up with that prologue scene is negated.

Think about it. If we know that exciting scene is coming, all else before it becomes backstory. Readers will be impatient to catch up to that exciting scene and move on. You've launched the all-important "what happens next?" question in their minds--based on a scene that won't occur until page 45. Pages 1-44 now become mere set-up.

Admittedly, I'm speaking like a suspense author here. You may be thinking this technique is more viable in other genres. You'll get varied opinions on that. Mine, of course, is no. Books that have used this technique may succeed, but I think they'd be even better without this weakness. I'd argue there was a better way to tell the story.


The obvious thought here is geographical space. Your story takes place on an island in the Bahamas, while the prologue is set in Colorado. The scene may also be removed by time. My cautions here would be the general ones for prologues. Is the scene a set-up or explanation for chapter one? Is your opening strong without it? Then why use it? (You need to have good reason.)

However, there's a conceptual kind of "space" that also applies--the space between reader and character. This plays out through changes in POV (point of view.) Let's say your story is told in close third. (For further explanation on this, see "Third Person POV" in archives.) The prologue may then be a scene that needs to be told in omniscient POV, or a removed third, which is somewhere in the middle. Here again the reader's inherent understanding of a prologue helps make the technique work. The reader will accept that the POV used in the prologue varies from the POV in the main story.

Still--and I know I'm repeating myself--the same cautions apply. Does your story really benefit from adding such a prologue?

Another variance on this technique--your story may be told in first person, but the prologue needs to focus on another character and is told in third. In today's fiction it's not uncommon to see POV shifts between first and third in different chapters. However, a first person story needs to present the protagonist's POV in chapter one. First person is very intimate. You want your reader to connect with that character right away. A chapter one written from some supporting character's third person POV leads the reader to assume that's the character she should empathize with most. She'll be jarred by the sudden first person at the beginning of chapter two.

In a first person story, if you write a third-person prologue--which means delaying the entrance of your protagonist--you'd better have a strong reason. I have written this kind of prologue. We'll talk about that and other examples of prologues tomorrow.

Read Part 3


Timothy Fish said...

The problem with generalization is that there are usually exceptions. For an excellent example of how to do a prologue in disguise, you might consider Oliver Twist in which Dickens begins the story with the night of Oliver’s birth. The majority of the story takes place when Oliver is older, so Dickens uses chapter two as a transition from showing us the horrid conditions under which Oliver was born to a time in which Oliver was old enough to influence his destiny, but didn’t.

He called it “A Word of Explanation” rather than a prologue, but the prologue in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court demonstrates Time-Back, Time-Forward, and Space all rolled into one. After the events, the narrator is listening to the Yankee tell what led to his experience, while somewhere very far from King Author’s Court. Twain’s prologue provides a gateway from the real world into a world of fantasy. It is quite bereft of action, but it exudes conflict. It draws the reader in, so by the time the reader gets to the first chapter, he is like the protagonist, in Camelot but he isn’t sure how he got there.

We would do well to learn from these two examples.

C.J. Darlington said...

Mary Higgins Clark is one who likes to do the snippet of a future emotional event, and I must admit it was very effective. I can't remember the title, but the essence of the prologue was that a woman had been buried alive in a coffin and only had a short amount of time to live. Did it grab me? You betcha. I didn't feel that chapter one was a huge let down either. In some ways it actually built suspense because you never knew who was going to be responsible for putting her there.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Timothy, you're right. Exceptions abound, and it's hard to cover them all.

The only caution I'd add to the books you mention is that they're classic literature. We can read them and enjoy them for the classics they are today--and say that the prologues work. But today's fiction tends to be written differently. What was published then may not be accepted as the best way to go today.

C.J., glad you enjoyed MHC's technique. Shows it can be done and get published--and some will enjoy it. I wouldn't do it myself, however. The subjectivity of fiction! :) I still say it gives away too much and negates too much of the story. I'd rather be surprised when this event happens, rather than anticipating it.

Timothy Fish said...

I hear your warning and I agree that there are aspects of classic novels that would not fit within modern novels. I still think they are worth our study because it takes a mastery of storytelling to produce a classic. For a more modern example of a prologue that works, we can turn to another classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. His prologue is another example of a little time-forward, a little time-backward and space displaced. He also breaks nearly every rule of writing fiction, but it works, resulting in 42 and so long and thanks for all the fish being forever ingrained in our society.

C.J. Darlington said...

Yeah, I probably wouldn't try it either, Brandilyn. Better to stick with what works for all readers. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this subject. It's been one I've thought about a good bit lately.