Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dread Pirate Prologue




As with books in the first person, I’ve heard again and again and again that you should not have a prologue. Prologues, they say, bore the reader and stop him or her reading.



As someone who has done a lot of slush reading, I have one thing to say to that. Thp. Oh, even more than that, I shall say THP.



What bores a reader is a boring opening. Whether that’s your prologue or your first chapter, if you haven’t engaged the reader by page two or, depending on how busy the reader is, paragraph two, you’ve lost the reader.



This said, clearly the best way to start a story is to dive into the story, head first. There are however reasons for prologues. I have a book for instance, in which I have a prologue to indicate the story contains sex. Why? Because the sex is one of the main plotlines, and it doesn’t start till chapter seven, when it would hit the reader like a mallet to the head. Likewise, in my Shakespeare books, I started with a prologue that gave the idea there was something going on in the fairy realm, before Will comes home and finds his wife missing. In the Shifter’s series for Baen – Draw One In the Dark and Gentleman Takes A Chance – there’s a prologue first to indicate that what seems to be a rather mundane situation between a young man and woman in the first chapter is really much more than that, and that they are at danger.



For this type of reasons – to lend a sense of urgency and immediacy to the plot, or to create a sense of something that’s ahead but won’t hit for a while, or even to set the tone of the book – if your first chapter won’t do try a prologue. However, if you can do without. In DarkShip Thieves, just delivered to Baen, I have Athena do her thing. What passes for a prologue is her musing that she never wanted to go to space. First paragraph. And then she wakes up in peril.
It is very important that you at no time start a novel with a prologue that tells you about the kingdom for the last three thousand years. Naming names. And dates. And expecting the reader to remember them. Also very important – unless your name is Terry Pratchett – never, ever ever start with the creation of the universe.



The most important thing is to make sure you signal with your opening what type of book it’s going to be. If you start a leisurely historical with a fast sequence in a computer room, people are going to be confused. (Not saying this might not be perfectly legitimate, only that this might be one of the those prologue needed cases, to signal the nature of the novel.)



So, the rules are Don’t be Boring & DO Start as You Mean to Go On. And the prologue or no prologue will take care of itself.



Next week – I thought I’d be able to fit it in today, but I think it will work best in parts – I’ll take openings of novels by my fledgelings (all of whom are publishable, even in their most off the cuff efforts and sometimes brilliant beyond my expectations). Openings I believe work, of course, and – exerting mentor privilege explain why they, in my opinion, draw the reader in.

4 comments:

Kate said...

I posted this to my crit group...and we're having a raging discussion about prologues as a result. Apparently people have VERY strong opinions about this.

One person was wondering why, if sex is a main plotline in the book you mentioned, it doesn't come up until Chapter 7. One response was that one can't hit a reader over the head with everything all at once, that's just when it happens in the story. But the discussion still rages on why it could wait til Chapter 7 - and why the readers needed to be warned about it in a prologue. Why couldn't the reader be hit over the head with a mallet? (some of us had responses to that but I'm hoping to hear yours if you have a moment)

I haven't read this particular book...though Heart and Soul is in my towering TBR pile. Can you give us any insight or further tips on why this plot point appears when it does?

Thanks for prompting such a great discussion with your post!!

John Lambshead said...

I like prologues as they can be used to set a critical event that is crucial to the real story.
John

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,

I'm glad I prompted a discussion too.

You couldn't have read that book, because I haven't even submitted it yet. It's something that came to me with force and malice.

To explain -- there are four characters, two third pov characters, and the book has several "anchoring lines" one of them being about acceptance. But simply, it is historic and a parallel world so different/weird relating to ours, that I need to establish the time line and the characters main problems first. To put it another way, the CHARACTERS don't know sex is going to be a main line the enemy attacks, until actually about chapter 10, though there are hints before. Sex cannot happen before chapter 7. Simply can't. The other problems of the book take priority in establishing plot.

So I needed something to give a hint to the reader of what's to come.

Why not hit the reader with a mallet. Look... people read first and last pages, usually
sometimes not last. This is the sort of book I don't want picked up by people to whom sex on the page is anathema, because then they will not only never buy anything of mine again, they will talk to all their friends about how nasty I am. False advertising is a BAD thing.

For you to understand how important that beginning is and also how prologues are at times, contraproductive. I have a grown up fantasy involving murder, regicide, madness, and some rather ancient and NASTY legends. However, to undrestand one of the characters when he comes on stage, and not get the impression he's the villain, you need a scene when two of the characters are about seventeen. My agent suggested this as a prologue and I'm not arguing, it is needed for character establishment reasons. OTOH EVERY editor who has seen it assumes it's a YA. EVERY one of them. Even when their answer indicates they've read the rest. "I think the rape scene is over the top for a YA" -- such the power of the first few pages. (Characters are late twenties through mid thirties through the books.)

IN that case, I think I can change the opening enough to ditch the prologue -- my next line of attack -- but in the sex case above, I really can't. It starts where it has to start. Hence the prologue which are events JUST before the opening. Of course, if you hate the prologue, you'll hate the rest of the book... so.

OTOH I don't CALL it "prologue". As a kid I often skipped prologues, anyway. Sometimes I still do. What I do is I have a date as the title of that section, then the next chapter is named.

I think most people won't even realize it's a prologue. Yes, I could post it here, but it's at the very least somewhere between PG and NC 17 so...

Kate said...

Thank you so much for writing such an in depth response! I really appreciate your taking the time to teach us. We're all learning together, and the clarification is so helpful. This makes total sense to me.

Thanks again!!