Saturday, February 17, 2007

Technical Topic -- Prologues

Seems to me there are three ways to feed necessary backstory into the beginning of a ms.

-- You can feed it in, line by tedious line, across the first several chapters. Skilled writers do this without endangering the pacing and focus ... but it's seldom an improvement to said pacing and focus.

-- You can heap your backstory together in a paragraph or two and 'tell' it, assigning it to a character or placing it in narrative. Good writers do this without imperilling the pace and focus, but, as above, it's never a positive poke to prod the story along its way.

-- Or you can write a vignette. You can present the backstory as 'story' -- a miniscene of elsewhere and elsewhen. Good writers slip these backstory vignettes in skillfully, even use them for story purposes. But the miniscene remains inescapably a diversion from the storyline.

A prologue has the advantages of a backstory vignette -- it can be active and engaging 'story'. A prologue has none of the disadvantages of inter-laced backstory. The prologue doesn't distract from focus or impede pace.

Where prologue is intriguing in its own right, where it slingshots the reader into the ongoing action of Chapter One, and where it offers a true sample of the story flavor, I say, 'Go with it.'

Now, why does this scene or vignette become a prologue instead of, say, Chapter One?

Because Chapter One is the start of the story.

Generally -- not always but generally -- Chapter One is the first essential action of the story line. It is the inciting incident. The big change. The pebble that starts the avalanche. The turning point from which there is no retreat or emendation. The first hundred notes of Beethoven's Fifth.

Backstory is a whole 'nother animal. It can be interesting and essential to understanding the story .... but it is not IN the storyline. An inability to distinguish between backstory and the storyline has led to many dull first-three-chapters which were later, mercifully excised.

Prologues are not a replacement for Chapter One because they are not part of the story action.

A prologues is a nugget of backstory so powerful and necessary, so inciting and harmonious to the mood of Chapter One, that its inclusion prepares us for the storyline action.

Prologues are antipasti. One does not serve the antipasto on the same plate as the veal piccata, nor as a side dish. One does not sprinkle it over the pasta. To do so is missing the whole antipasto point.


  1. Jo, I agree on every point--but so many readers skip the appetizer. What then?

  2. I'd say this prologue thingum goes genre by genre.

    Probably you folks in fantasy/SciFi,
    with yer sprawling three-planet, four-non-human-species, 6000-years-before-the-story-starts prologues
    are more likely to be skipped than yer average Romance writer.

    Romance readers just know the prologue ties in tight with the story. The baby will turn out to the the heroine. The disinherited 16-year-old son is about to walk on stage in Chapter One.

    And if it's a three pager, which sounds about right for a prologue, that impatient reader can always come back and skim it the first time she hits a 'huh?' moment.

    That'll teach her.

  3. You've got a point. So many fantasy prologues are too long and often irrelevant--or at least, the relevancy is highly obscure.

    I'm thinking romance writers are smarter about prologues, on the whole.

  4. I was thinking, in s.f., of Asimov's Foundation series and excerpts from the -- what was it called? the Galatcic Encyclopedia -- that prefaced them.

    Since I'd read earlier books, I'd just skip over the info included in the Prologue.

    Romances are fond of both Prologues and Epilogues ... but they seem to keep them firmly under control.

    who admits she uses prologues sometimes