Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Past is prologue?
On September 19, 2012, Charlotte wrote, I have a sort of beginning-related question for the comments section (and a post, if you think it's big enough for one): What's everyone's opinion on prologues? I read somewhere that everybody knows that "prologue" is just code for "backstory", but then again, backstory is important, now isn't it? I say this because the first chapter in my current project takes place six years before the main conflict, so technically I ought to be calling it a prologue, but I've always shied away from the term for the above reason. If there's tension in the backstory scenes, is there any reason to leave them off until later? When you jump in medias res, does anyone really dictate which medias res you're jumping in?
(By the way, as a student of Latin, I'm very excited to have finally realised that in medias res, when translated literally, means "into the middle things". Which doesn't sound quite as good, but means the same thing. And explains why I just said "jumping in" instead of "jumping into".)
I’m with you about which res the writer can begin with. You can start the body of your book at any point. There’s no law.
And, rather than calling our beginning a prologue, we can use a heading, like June, 2006. Once we finish with the events of that period, we can call the next part January, 2013. Or, if the rest of the story takes place in January, we can have it be January 2, 2013, and we can make the earlier segment be June 12, 2006.
My chief objection to prologues is that children often skip them. My only book that has one is The Wish, and I half regret it, because what happens in the prologue, which takes place just minutes before the body of the novel begins, is crucial.
I discovered by googling that children aren’t the only ones who skip prologues, which alone may be a good reason to avoid including one if you can. If the material in your prologue is essential, you may have a bunch of confused readers among those who skipped. They may then give up and stop reading.
Of course people stop reading for lots of reasons. I know this for fact because some kids have confessed to me that they abandoned one or another of my books, even those without prologues. So we shouldn’t be ruled by what readers may or not do; it’s just a consideration.
I didn’t think that prologue necessarily means backstory, so I googled about it and found several sites that agreed with me. A prologue can give background about the world that the reader is about to enter. As Patricia C. Wrede says in her blog post on the subject, this background shouldn’t just be an information dump. We have to make it exciting.
Suppose our story is about an alien culture on the planet Hemmi in a distant galaxy. The Hemmians are intelligent and look like us, and like us they have a right side of the brain and a left side, but unlike us the two aren’t connected; they act independently. Like us again, one side is more artistic and the other more logical. Our human heroine Moni, age fifteen, is on a spaceship that’s about to land on the planet. When it does, she’ll stay and the spaceship will take off again. She’s to spend a year in a Hemmian school forging friendships that will heal the rift between the two planets. We want the reader to understand about the Hemmians before the landing and we do this in a prologue. Here are some choices of the sort of prologue we might choose:
• A scene of the dust-up fifty years ago that caused the last delegation to leave Hemmi. People and aliens are enraged. There’s shouting and table pounding. Someone on either side is injured or killed. This is the backstory prologue.
• A fragment of an earthling newspaper announcing the departure of the spaceship that's carrying Moni and explaining its purpose and including background about the Hemmians.
• Narration from a different POV from the rest of the story. A Hemmian boy, Divis, in the family where Moni is going to live narrates his preparations for her arrival and his expectations. We show him in action and reveal his thoughts. Through both we give the reader an idea of the differences between Hemmians and humans. For the sake of tension, at least one side of his brain isn't looking forward to the coming of Moni. When the book continues in Chapter One, Moni, not the Hemmian, is the narrator.
• A retrospective perspective. Moni at the age of sixty-five is telling her grandson about her adventure. The reader is given the impression that there’s something a little unusual about the grandson. Moni sets the stage for the story in the prologue. Chapter One opens on the first-person narration of Moni at age fifteen.
• A scene from the middle of the novel that’s right before a turning point, maybe the moment when Moni profoundly misunderstands something Divis has done. The first half of our story works up to that scene and the second half unravels its consequences.
• A scene from the distant future, long after the events of the story took place. The scene is connected to our story in ways that are revealed as the plot develops.
• A Hemmian prophesy that plays out surprisingly.
I’m being won over to prologues by the possibilities. It’s just too bad we can’t make our books frustrate readers’ attempts to skip them. It would be very cool if the book itself always returned to the prologue if its pages hadn’t been read. I hope some e-book publishers are looking into this!
Another thought from Patricia C. Wrede is that the prologue should be short because we don’t want the reader to get so invested in what’s happening there that she resents leaving and has trouble entering the main event.
Here's one more idea in favor of prologues: By calling our beginning a prologue, not merely Chapter One, we set it apart, which signals the reader that what’s in here is especially significant. After all, there’s only one prologue in the entire book.
So, my only objection is the risk of reader avoidance. You can check out Patricia C. Wrede’s blog post here: http://pcwrede.com/blog/moreprologue/. The link is to her second post on the subject, which is a lot like this one, minus the Hemmians. In the first she lays out some of her reasons for not writing prologues, and you can click on that, too.
∙ Write the scene when Moni and Divis meet. If you like, keep going. If the divided brain is hard to work with, imagine that all Hemmians are split personalities, one only dimly aware of the other. You can decide on other splits besides logical and artistic. Or make them alien in any way you like.
∙ Write each of the kind of prologues I suggest, either for the Hemmian story or for another of your stories.
Have fun, and save what you write!