My Fiction Site

In the right sidebar are clickable images of the covers of my novels, which will take you to their Amazon listings. Other posts will link to available free works – mostly shorter ones – and assorted thoughts on the writing of fiction.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cancerous Lumps Continued: The Dreaded Prologue

     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.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Beware: Cancerous Lump!

     In your fiction reading, have you ever run into a passage that reads like a segment cut and pasted out of an encyclopedia, or perhaps a geography text? Perhaps something like the following:

     At last, after eleven years of traveling at trans-light seven, the Earth colonists had arrived at the planet his grandfather, Emilio Nandez, had discovered almost a century ago. Suspecting conditions on the planet were favorable for life, Emilio had convinced the Colonization Alliance of Independent Nations to send an auto-ship on a scouting mission. What the ship found exceeded even Emilio’s wildest dreams.
     Even though the planet had one small continent above sea level, it offered an interesting geological formation: a huge fissure that split the continent in half. Millions of years ago, the planet’s tectonic plates had formed a mountain range, leaving two valleys on either side. Dark green moss covered the thousands of canyons of the planet’s large valley, which was thousands of kilometers in length and stretched for hundreds of kilometers in width.
     Rivers, some a kilometer or more wide, and others narrow enough for a man to jump across, ran through the canyons, which split off from the large valley like branches on a tree. Spectacular waterfalls fell thousands of feet to the valley below.

     Behold, in all its dread beauty, the expository lump.

     What’s above is only half of the lump. It goes on for two more long paragraphs: approximately 400 words in toto. I simply haven’t the patience to type out the rest. It’s one of the most egregious cases I’ve seen lately...and it’s from a writer who prides himself on his writing and will tell you so.

     Anyone can fall into this trap. I certainly have. It had to be pointed out to me by a crack editor. It was a harsh but quite necessary lesson of a fundamental sort:

The reader is there for an emotional journey.

     The writer’s fascination with his imaginings (or his skill with words) is of no importance to the reader. The reader is there to experience events and changes in the lives of your characters, especially your protagonists. This flows from the never-too-often repeated Two Great Commandments of Fiction:

1. The raw material of fiction is people.
2. The essence of story is change.

     A landscape can be attractive, but what’s more important to the fiction reader is how the viewpoint character reacts emotionally (if he does) to the landscape. The backstory events of a novel can be critically important, but again, what really matters is how they influence the viewpoint character as he remembers them in the context of some significant story-time event.

     When a writer departs from the lives of his characters for a sizable expository lump, he risks causing the reader to disaffiliate himself from the characters – in other words, to lose his reason for reading the story. No matter how important the facts being conveyed in the lump, it’s a bad bargain. It risks a reader reaction so deadly that it’s usually referred to by its acronym: MEGO, or “Mine eyes glazeth over.”

     As if more were necessary, the innate dynamic of the expository lump, like all cancers, is to expand. The lump swells; the reader’s distance from the characters’ story-time lives and events tends to grow. The narrative loses focus from being drowned in exposition.

     The lethal power of the expository lump is one of the reasons for Elmore Leonard’s famous advice about descriptive passages:

Avoid writing passages the reader will be tempted to skip.

     Long descriptions of physical settings are the most obvious kind. Backstory exposition is just as poisonous to reader involvement, though often less obvious. There are other temptations toward the creation of an expository lump, but these are the most important ones.

     If you’ve ever encountered the fiction writer’s maxim “Show, don’t tell,” it’s advice that should immediately warn a storyteller away from such lumps. At the very least, he should be ready to recognize them when he rereads his own work. A number of indie writers I’ve encountered recently seem never to have heard that maxim. A pity.

     As a writer of fiction, your principal task is to engage the reader’s emotions and take him for a dramatic ride. No matter how charmed you might be by the factual details of the setting you’ve imagined, your reader will stay with you – if he does – because of the drama you depict. Drama is about emotion, and emotion stems from the changes in your characters’ lives. It can be found nowhere else.