Monday, August 24, 2009

Prologues are Like Onions

I love creamed onions. Little ones about half the size of a golf ball. My wife makes them every Thanksgiving, mostly at my request and I scarf them down. But even though they are one of my favorite vegetables, I wouldn’t bring them as a side dish if I went to a friend’s house for dinner. That’s because not everyone likes creamed onions. In fact, most people I mention creamed onions to give me a funny look—like maybe I’m talking about something really odd; say chocolate zucchini mousse with potato chip crust or something.

That’s the same way I feel about prologues. Most writers who have spent much time around me think I don’t like prologues. I’m definitely mean to them. I call them names, pick them last for kickball, occasionally even stick their sentences in the toilet and give them swirlies. So you can understand why people would get that idea.

The truth is, prologues and I are actually good friends. I always, always, read them in books. I have used them several times in my own books. I have used them in both of my Farworld books (although I called the one in Water Keep, “Chapter One” and the five I spread throughout Land Keep “Interludes.” I believe they are almost required these days for epic fantasy. So why the hate fest when prologues and I are out in public?

Let’s start with the beginning of a novel. When most beginning writers finally start the story they’ve been waiting their whole life to write, there are certain things they tend to do. I call it “setting the table.” They know they have a great meal (story) coming, but before we are ready to eat (read) we need to get our plates, silverware, seating assignment, etc. In a story these settings come out as background information. What does the setting look like? Is it an ocean villa? A dense jungle? A world where everyone dances, or sings, or does magic? Who are the characters? Why are they there? What do they look like? If it’s a new world, we need to know that the village is located at the banks of a rushing river that originates deep in the bowels of a forested mountain populated by dark creatures that sit around fires making evil brews. If it’s a mystery we need to see the bad guy strangling an innocent. If it’s historically-based we need to see the main characters ancestors.

Right? I know this is true, because I talk to beginning writers all the time, and I browse local bookstores and read books by authors who I know have new books out.

But what does the reader want? Immediacy. Action. Intrigue. They want to get sucked into the story so completely that they can’t bear to put the book down for a minute. Of course, even most beginning authors know that a book needs to begin with something interesting. So when they read their own beginning, they have to admit it really isn’t all that gripping. What to do?

The right answer here is, fix the problem. Gut the first chapter. Take out all the flashbacks, infodumps, flowery descriptions, history, etc. Get rid of the whole first chapter if you need to. Start where the story is so gripping that any reader would have to keep reading. So what if they don’t know where the story is going? So what if they might be a little confused at first? So what if they don’t know why the main character wakes up in a jungle or how the plane crashed on the island, or even that he is a doctor at first? If the story is gripping enough, they will read on. They will find out. That’s your goal as an author. And as a reader, you know that you love books where you are thinking, “Okay this is cool, but what’s going on here?”

The easy answer is to throw in a prologue. Tim Travaglini, editor at Putnam spoke at a writers conference I attended last year. He called prologues and flashbacks lazy writing. I’m not sure that everyone understood what he was saying. My take on his comment was that many writers realize they have the problems mentioned above in their first chapter. But instead of fixing the problem, they try to band-aid it.

A friend of mine asked me to look at his first chapter a couple of months ago. Since we are friends I felt that I could tell him the truth. His writing is very good, but his first chapter sucked rocks. Nothing happened. There were lots of thoughts, back story, information—even a little heavy-handed foreshadowing. But zero story. When I pointed this out to him he thanked me. A week later, he sent me a very slightly altered first chapter. But to fix the problem, he added—get ready—an exciting prologue. Arghhh!!!!!! This is why I tear my hair out when writers bring up prologues. A prologue isn’t a fix. It doesn’t change the fact that your baby is still ugly. It just puts a little eye shadow on it and calls it good.

“What’s the problem?” you ask. The prologue is exciting enough. People will open the book, read the beginning pages, get hooked, and keep reading. That’s like saying a crappy movie beginning can be fixed by an entertaining animated short before the feature starts. Your book is still starting in the wrong place. If it won’t stand on its own, you to get back to work and fix it.

But what about prologues that give background information necessary to the story? Maybe what happened two-hundred years ago? That is so far back that it has to be a prologue. So what happens if the reader skips the prologue and misses the vital information? WE don’t skip prologues of course, because we are good readers. But poll after poll has shown that lots of readers do skip the prologue. So they’ll never see your “vital” information. Or what if you have the opposite problem? What if your first chapter is exciting, but your prologue is not so much—because it’s giving all that background information? What happens if a good reader picks up your book in the store starts with the prologue and puts it back because the story isn’t gripping enough?
Trust me, I speak from experience here. Eight years ago I wrote a high-tech thriller called, Cutting Edge, under the name Jeffrey S Savage. It was published by a medium sized Utah press. My first chapter was all the bad things I just talked about. The second wasn’t much better. I was a beginning writer. I hadn’t attended any writers conferences. But I recognized the problem just enough to create a really cool prologue with FBI agents discussing something really dark and exciting.

You know what happened? The book did get published. And it did sell. But over and over people said, “After the first couple of chapters, your book got really good.” Critics caught the problem right away and pointed out—rightfully so—that the prologue was unnecessary to the story. If I could rewrite that book, the first thing I would do is rip out the first two chapters. The second thing I would do is trash the prologue.

So what’s the moral of this story? That prologues are bad? Nope. Like people, prologues can be bad. But they can also be interesting, funny, charming, witty, and even useful on occasion. So do try this. Write your book without a prologue on the first pass. Make sure that all the information necessary to the story is in the book without a prologue. Then, when you are completely done with writing a book which can stand on its own, carefully consider how a well written, exciting prologue might add to the story. You can then write your prologue (if you still want to) guilt-free, knowing that it doesn’t matter of people read the prologue or not. The book will still stand on its own.

Here’s a quick example from an idea I’ve been playing with lately, called Demon Spawn. It’s a YA adventure with dystopian and sci-fi elements. I won’t post the whole first chapter because it’s quite long, It may not be the best example in the world, but it's mine so I can publish it without any copyright issues. What I want you to look for is how the reader discovers things, like where the story takes place, what the characters are, and what’s happening, through the action of the story. This book will not have a prologue.

* * *

Welcome to Hell, please keep moving. Have your identistamp ready for inspection. Welcome to Hell, please keep moving . . .

The speakers started booming their repeating message when I was still six blocks from the immigration station and I nearly bolted out of my skin. How could it be that late already? The J-trans would arrive before I got there; I’d be kicked out of academy on my first day. I broke into a terrified sprint—searching the sky for silver tracks and listening for the rumble of approaching engines—before realizing Cinder was standing perfectly still thirty for forty feet behind me, laughing. Her black eyes shined with wicked humor in the early morning darkness.

“Oh, girl, that was great. You should have seen yourself. Priceless.” She clapped a palm to her mouth.

One by the one, the tentacles of panic unwrapped themselves from my brain and I realized the J-trans couldn’t be arriving yet. Although the messages continued to batter the air, thousands of feet overhead the cavern roof was still hidden from view. It would be at least another hour before the stone began heating to a faint dusky red that would eventually blaze to orange. The air that would be broiling by mid-day was actually cool enough that I felt chilled through my snug leather uni.

“You knew that was going to happen didn’t you?” I said, waiting for my heart to stop racing. Cinder was my best friend, but at that moment I could gladly have wrapped my hands around her throat and shaken her until her pointy little teeth rattled like dice.

Her tail twined itself around her waist as if trying to hold in the giggles that slipped through her fingers. “Your eyes got all buggy. Your mouth went wahhh! I swear if your horns weren’t connected, they’d have shot fifty feet straight into the air. Funniest thing I’ve seen in weeks.”

Turning away, I stomped toward the station. I was sure I’d see the humor in it all later, but right now I was so nervous I hadn’t dared to eat breakfast. The last thing I needed was to think I was late for my first day of duty.

“Wait, Blaze.” Behind me the sharp click-clack-click of cloven hooves echoed off the densely-packed apartment buildings on either side of the street as Cinder ran to catch up with me. “I’m sorry,” she said, trying to stop laughing and failing miserably. “It’s a tradition. Every newbie freaks out the first time they hear the speakers start up.” She put a hand on my shoulder and I allowed her to turn me around.

“You could at least have warned me,” I grumped. “When I heard the message, the only thing I could think of was explaining to my parents how I’d been kicked out of academy my first day on the job.”

Cinder nodded and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I know, I know. I was the exact same way when it happened to me three months ago—sure I’d read my clock wrong or something.”

“Why do they start the message so early?” I asked, folding my arms across my chest to keep warm.

Cinder shrugged and we began walking again. A brief gust of wind caught a foil coffee cup and sent it dancing into the unsteady circle of illumination cast by a buzzing lamp pole. Across the street a fist-sized blue imp darted out of a crack, sniffed the inside of the cup, and dragged it into the darkness.

“Who knows? Maybe it starts when the J-trans leaves Judgement. Or maybe the halos just want everybody to know they’re coming so we have plenty of time to drop down on our knees and get ready to worship at their golden feet.”

Instinctively I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was listening. “One of these days you’re going to get in real trouble talking that way.”

“Huh.” Cinder stuck out her tongue as if nothing scared her. “No one around here but humies.” To prove her point she shouted, “Hear that, everyone. All you halos can kiss my shiny red butt!”

I couldn’t help grinning in spite of my nervousness. “Hate to break it to you, but your butt’s not all that shiny.”

Two stories above us a light went on and a pale white face pressed itself to the glass. Cinder unclipped her move-along from her belt and triggered a sizzling bolt of blue fire into the air. “Go back to bed, humie.” The face darted from sight and the light went out

“See, I told you nothing—”

Cinder’s voice cut off in mid-sentence as a hulking figure appeared out of the shadows. A pair of bright white lights pinned both of us to the soot-covered brick wall. “Drop your weapon, demon spawn,” a deep voice commanded.

Cinder’s move-along fell from her limp fingers, bouncing off the cracked sidewalk with a metallic clatter and rolled into the gutter. Her face went from pink to red as the blood drained out of it—her eyes so wide they looked like bottomless black pits.

“You too.” The spotlights moved to me and I had to squint to keep from being blinded.

“Don’t think so,” I said. I held out my hands, palms up. “Guess you’ll just have to take me in, big bad demon.”


J.N. Future Author said...

I think that was probably one of the best sugestions I have ever read! It had so many elements to it that I realized I could change in my own stories!

*saves to Word*

I usually print things like that out later and read them when I don't feel like writing.


Also, that was a highly intriguing story! I do want to know more about them and their world! So you need to tell us when that book is finally going to be done ^.~

Magenta said...

Wow, this was a great post on prologues! (My friend J.N. wrote about this, so I thought I'd check it out. And I'm glad I did. ^,^)

I remember when my story had way too much information in the beginning and not nearly enough action. It didn't even properly get started until a few chapters!!! So instinctively I chopped them all out of the way, and the story is soooo much the better for it. In my opinion, anyway.

I really like the prologue I wrote too.

Juliana said...

Great advice. Thanks!

Bluestocking said...

Wow! That was a great prologue!

KT said...

I found this super interesting. And, you're right. I don't enjoy stories that take too long to get exciting (though I hate being totally confused too). A little action to suck one in is never a bad idea.

PS I've only rediscovered this blog recently. I thought I had updated my feed reader when you switched back to blogger, but apparently not. The new cover looks great!

Brian said...

Wow! Great advice! But it can't be easy to follow through on. I'm sorta attached to my prologue, although it really is just Chapter 1.