Tuesday, September 8, 2009
SAVE THE PROLOGUE! Making Your Prologue Do Its Job
3 full book covers for print books.
And a new, exciting ending for FAERIE.
MOOD: Goal-oriented and focused.
UPDATE: Kitty is doing very well after her surgery, and a cooling fan/laptop stand has saved my crashing laptop. Unfortunately I will be too broke for awhile to buy the bigger hard drive I need so badly.
Saving Prologues can't come close to the importance of fighting fires and saving lives, but I chose this photo to symbolize my topic today, mostly in honor and awe of the amazing fire-fighters who are battling the dangerous blazes in California and around the country right now.
So, what do I mean by 'Save the Prologue? I've told so many authors over the years to ditch their prologues. Why? And why, in spite of that, do I write prologues in my stories?
Prologues aren't bad things. They are just frequently mis-used. They, in fact more hinder a stry than help it. And truthfully, I've mis-used them myself, but always for what I considered a good reason. Not the first one I wrote, though. It was beautiful. Fabulous. It also got in the way of the story. And that right there is the one most important reason to not keep a prologue.
The real question, then, is what do I mean about getting in the way of the story? How does a prologue work, or not work? How can you tell if it is good for the story or not?
By definition, a prologue comes before the story. That makes it the dreaded "backstory". Once upon a time when reading was one of very few forms of entertainment available, people liked long, sometimes slow-paced books. That meant longer time could be spent enjoying them. Much of earlier fiction is like this.
If you pick up THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, for instance, you'll go through 17 pages in the beginning that elaborate history, characters and how they came to be in the area, family trees, and so on. There might be more- I don't know. That's as far as I got with the book on two separate tries. I know there's a great story there. I just didn't have the patience to get to it.
Contrast that with today's action movies and TV, or fast-paced adventure stories. Think of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER by Tom Clancy. Movie or book, it was gripping from the outset. The book did it better than the movie, in my opinion, but that's because a movie actually needs a little bit of time to get the audience settled in their seats and transported into the movie's world. The audience is captive simply because they went to all this trouble and expense to get there, and they aren't about to walk out. But a book can always be picked up later, so it's easier to put down.
Back story isn't story. Simple as that. If it's story, it isn't truly a prologue. If a book starts out with the history behind the story, not only is the reader getting restless in her seat, she's often being told ahead of time something that can be withheld and create suspense, and therefore be much more intriguing if revealed later, possibly as a secret unveiled. If you tell me in the opening of the book the one thing that makes the story a story, why would I want to read the whole book just to see that unfold? Maybe I would in some books, but I honestly can't think of any.
But when does a prologue work?
A prologue must be intriguing, so much so that the reader simply must continue reading into the story. That means a story question is set up, not aswered. It can be a short history lesson for the story, but only if it fulfills this requirement. It must contribute something valuable to the story, and it must not block any other part of the story.
I used one in APHRODITE'S BREW, first because this is a light, humorous book and I needed a humorous opening. I did need to explain why such a brave and dauntless hero, not to mention loyal, clean, reverent and dutiful, could be driven to hide in Bath just at harvest time when he loved most being home. And the reader needed to see for herself just how scheming and determined his match-making mama was that he could be caught off guard and have to flee to save his hide from matrimony. And the reader needed to know why and how much he detested scandal.
Backstory. Every bit of it. But it's full of action and decision, and character development, all of which lead directly into the story. I didn't want to hide this information and reveal it later because unless the reader knows these things, she might see the hero as a silly wimp. She'd know better later, but that's too late.
In my current work, FAERIE, which is a medieval paranormal romance, I need the prologue to help develop the interface between fantasy and reality. Building the world in a fantasy sometimes takes up more room, but it's still a romance so I can't take up much. The scene takes place between two secondary but very important characters who are deciding something about the hero, who stands close by, unsuspecting that his entire life is about to be changed by a promise broken and another fulfilled. The reader may get the feeling of suspense, and when the old crone leaves by walking through the wall, the paranormal theme is firmly set.
It's backstory to the true plot. But it fits in directly with the next scene, the first chapter, which ties hero and heroine, plus the two secondary characters, the king and the crone, together.
In my vampire story, DAMNED AND DANGEROUS, though, the prologue became a first chapter because it is the true beginning. It's when my "Hero's Hero" protagonist meets the vampyr and the dilemma my hero must resolve begins.
That's the clue: A story begins when the story's first conflict is set forth. I like my romances best if hero and heroine can meet in the first chapter, but often when the secondary plot line is very strong, that doesn't work out as well. In adventure stories, or strongly paranormal stories, those other elements have to fit in well, and this can slow down the romance. Sometimes establishing the story world in a prologue can accomplish this. It's a trade-off, and sometimes a very difficult balance to achieve.
It's best if a prologue is very short. A maximum of three pages. And yes, I broke that rule too. I'd say, if you're having trouble deciding whether the beginning is a prologue or a first chapter, go for the first chapter if you can. If you can't be sure to re-evaluate it, in particular asking yourself if you're giving away anything you can withhold and reveal later for better effect.
In other words, a successful prologue must do one thing: move the story forward, not explain the past. If it does this, and especially if it propels the story better because of it, that's when you should keep it.