As yesterday’s piece on this subject has proved surprisingly popular, it’s impelled me to think further about the subject, particularly as it connects to the all-important realm of backstory.
Every writer struggles with backstory. It’s a particular challenge for those of us who work in a speculative genre: science fiction, fantasy, or horror. SF writers, in particular, are under immense pressure to explain things: the sociopolitical nature of their fictional world; the scientific discoveries and technological developments that have occurred in it; the social, economic, and political positions of its most important figures. There’s this sense that the reader needs the information to grasp what will follow: what brought about the story’s initial conditions and why the actions of the characters are rational (if they are). That sense is not always incorrect. (NB: The periphrasis in the concluding sentence of the paragraph immediately above should imply something. That’s the only hint I’ll give you. And now, back to our Swedish movie.)
To serve that sense of a need, the writer will often resort to a prologue.
The purpose of a prologue is to convey backstory information to the reader. It can be as narratively clever as any segment clipped from the story-time present, but it is not part of the story; it is prior to the story, often separated from story-present by a large number of years. In most cases, no one involved in the prologue participates in the story’s present events.
Just now, Pub World editors deem prologues to be bad things. They have a good case, for a prologue puts the reasons the reader bought the book some distance from the front cover. A long or awkward prologue can cause the reader to toss the book aside. If the writer has done his job really badly, that can happen in the bookstore.
Yet there are cases in which a prologue is vitally necessary. I’ve written one that I felt the novel couldn’t do without. I might have been wrong, but so far no one who’s gone on to read the whole book has complained about it. Of course, that omits the opinions of those who didn’t read the whole book, which might be the most important ones.
The need or lack thereof for a prologue will always be a judgment call. No one but the author is qualified to make it. Accordingly, it behooves us to consider the following questions:
- What makes a prologue desirable?
- How can a prologue enhance the story?
- How can a prologue discourage the reader?
One of the most important architectural techniques in fiction goes by a Latin name: In media res. In English, that’s “in the middle of the matter.” It denotes the technique of dropping the reader into the middle of the action without any preparation: i.e., without prior acquaintance with the setting, the characters, or the backstory. The reader is immediately confronted with events important to one or more of the Marquee Characters and is compelled to claw for a purchase on them. The opening to On Broken Wings provides a good example:
At first, there was only darkness, and a dim sense of upward motion, like swimming through dark water. Then there was light, and noise, and incredible pain.
Christine half-remembered the crash, but had no idea where she was or what was being done to her. The flood of pain from her face blocked her rational powers. The perception of restraint threatened her sanity. A single phrase roared through the torture.
"She's coming awake!"
She surged upward against whatever was holding her. Strong hands pressed her back. Something metallic attached to her face, pulling upon it, tore loose and fell off to rest against her ear. Her scream could have shattered stone.
A needle pierced her arm. Her terror flew beyond any recall. She dropped back into the darkness, certain she would never see light again.
What’s happening in the above? If you’ve read the whole book, you already know, but did you have a firm idea before you proceeded to the subsequent material? If I managed to pique your interest with the opening, such that you felt a strong desire to discover what was going on, then my employment of in media res architecture was a success. If you frowned, muttered “I don’t have time for this,” and tossed the book aside, then I failed.
When in media res works, which is often, it obviates the need for a prologue. Indeed, it makes adding a prologue a redundant notion, something that would insult the reader’s intelligence. But it will only work if the subsequent narration introduces the necessary information about what the reader has just read in a smooth and timely fashion: i.e., without creating any significant expository lumps. That, too, is a judgment call...one the author isn’t guaranteed to get right.
Perhaps the most famous dispute over whether a prologue was necessary concerns J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The first volume thereof, The Fellowship of the Ring, contains a fifteen-page, single spaced prologue packed densely with important information about hobbits, the Shire, and the world of Middle Earth. Quite a number of Tolkien’s critics considered that prologue unnecessary, owing to the existence of The Hobbit, his earlier novel about the adventures of the young Bilbo Baggins. Yet a considerable percentage of those who’ve read The Lord of the Rings did so without having read the earlier novel. Perhaps for them, the prologue was vitally necessary. Needless to say, the matter will never be unanimously agreed.
A prologue can enhance the subsequent story when:
- It’s kept brief;
- It doesn’t digress;
- It functions as a story of its own.
Brevity, of course, is relative. Tolkien’s five thousand word prologue to The Lord of the Rings is followed by a half-million word fantasy adventure. The ratio is appropriate. But were that prologue attached to a shorter novel, it would look grotesquely disproportionate.
The prologue to Which Art In Hope is just under 1800 words long. I fretted over it, fearing that so much precursory narrative might detract from what follows. Nevertheless, I found that I couldn’t reduce it in length without omitting details I felt the reader had to have before I dragged him into the story proper. In any event, “what follows” proved to be longer and wider in scope than I’d anticipated, which eventually allowed me to relax about the length of the prologue.
A prologue can discourage the reader in several ways:
- By being overly long or discursive;
- By drowning the reader in too much detail;
- By being unappealing as a separate narrative.
I trust the first of those conditions is self-explanatory. No one picks up a 50,000 word novel – approximately 200 mass-market paperback pages – expecting to slog through a 50 page prologue. Proportion is essential. So also is a sense for the proper degree of detail. It’s vital to remain rigidly within Chekhov’s Law:
“Everything not essential to the story must be ruthlessly cut away. If in Act One you say that a gun hung on the wall, then by Act Two or Act Three at the latest, it must be discharged.” – Anton Chekhov
If you violate that precept in your prologue, you risk the very worst sort of “loose end:” the sort that has the reader wondering “why did he tell me that?” throughout the rest of the novel. So don’t!
The third condition discriminates between narrative prologues, which tell a brief, dramatic story of their own, and “encyclopedia” prologues, which do nothing but convey information. The latter are inherently dry, anti-fictional. They’re very hard to get away with. It’s been done – see the earlier material about The Lord of the Rings -- but successes of the “encyclopedia” sort are rare.
If you decide upon a prologue for your novel, try to structure it as a narrative of its own. Imagine a Marquee character or two within it, even if none will actually appear, and write it from their perspective. One constructive approach is “a story told around the campfire.” I heartily recommend it.
So much for prologues. If you intend to pursue “conventional” publication, remember that the majority of editors frown upon them. If you decide to “go indie,” there’s still reason for caution. You want readers; more, you want those readers to finish the book. If they don’t, how likely are they to purchase your next book – or, God help us all, this one’s sequel?
Best of luck.