Monday, May 30, 2005

Pro for Prologues

Stephanie Tyler's column at RTB brings up a topic I've long been meaning to discuss. And actually, this is one of those Commandments of Romance Novel Writing I mentioned earlier, so it is doubly timely for me.

Romance Novel Writing Commandment II: Thou Shalt Never Include A Prologue.

While it seems like Stephanie has heard that the rule is very flexible, almost everything I've ever seen supports the idea that editors hate hate hate LOATHE manuscripts that include a prologue. From what I can make out, this has to do with the theory that any book should begin when the real story begins, and if the stuff included in the prologue is not directly pertinent to the action at hand, it's backstory and should be handled in some other way than a straight dump via prologue.

I've always had a big problem with that. Mostly this is because sometimes an event might occur in a character's past that is truly defining and worthy of showing and not telling. However, if you cannot use a prologue to show this event, you are stuck with some pretty annoying alternatives if you hope/need/want to get this information across.

You could go with flashback. I myself have yet to attempt flashback. I'm not quite sure what to do with the verb tenses. I mean, I understand how to start off. Suzi couldn't believe it. Once again she was being chased by wolves. It seemed like only yesterday that she'd been sitting on the front porch of her parents' log cabin, coloring a picture of bunny rabbits for her grandma. It had been a sunny day, and she had worn her favorite sundress...But when do you stop using past perfect tense (had been, had worn) and move into simple past tense? And how do you make the jump back to the present time?

All in all, flashbacks require a special touch that I have yet to develop.

Another alternative is the true-confession technique. One character can fill in another character, and thus the readers, on critical information by telling a story.

"Let me tell you, little missy," Old Uncle Joe said, "there's a good reason Jeb is so standoffish. When he weren't nothing more than a young'un, his momma done him real wrong. Seems a traveling salesman passed through town, and Jeb's momma fell hard for the city slicker..."

This works, but as it is with most things in life, a little goes a long way. If the characters constantly have to interrupt their normal realistic sounding dialogue in order to exposit background to us, I think that would clearly fall into the Writing Don'ts catagory.

I know that it is good form to slip a character's backstory into the story in little bits and pieces. Slowly reveal those details that are important to know so that we as readers - and ostensibly other characters - can understand motivation and reaction and the like.

But sometimes a character's backstory - especially if it's a specific incident - cannot be conveyed effectively in little bits and pieces. If our heroine suffered a horrific trauma - perhaps she witnessed her parents being murdered (gak!) - which would pack more drama and therefore help the readers feel what the heroine must have felt? Little dribbles sprinkled throughout the story or an entire section devoted to living the events in "real time" standing next to the heroine? I'd vote for the latter. Problem is, if the real story of the book is about the grown-up heroine meeting a man and learning to put the demons of her past to rest, according to the no-prologue directive, we just have to take it on the writer's word that the horrible trauma the heroine suffered was truly horrible.

I have one story written that has a wonderful prologue (and when I say wonderful, I'm not claiming that the writing is wonderful). In it I show the defining event in the hero's young life, the event that turned him against love and made him distrustful of women as a whole. It's sad and moving and important to known and understand so that when he does some pretty harsh things, he doesn't come across as 100% monster. If I ever try to sell this story, which is my plan, I'm not sure what I'll do if I'm told the prologue has to go.

No, I don't want to read a prologue if it contains nothing more than endless detail and facts that have no pertinence to the upcoming story. But if the prologue tells me something that happened in the past that is very important to understanding the characters, I'm glad to have it.

I figure it this way. If the characters have been written so well that I enjoy spending time with them - an entire book's worth - the prologue is a bonus. And if I don't like the characters that much, a prologue won't change my mind but at least might help me understand them a bit better.

End of day word count: 12,832


Anonymous said...

A truly good editor or an editor who also writes will comprehend the need for a well done prologue.

One who's an idiot and clearly doesn't get it, won't.

Best of luck to you.

Wendy said...

Hmmm, I have a confession: I don't like prologues. There have been few books in which the prologues that seemed absolutely necessary. More often than not, the information given would seem to benefit from a more subtle weaving into the body of the work. I'm especially put off by romance prologues that occur a month or a couple of days prior to the start of the story. In those instances why not just call it what it is: chapter one.

By comparison my feelings for prologues are generous next to my out right hatred of epilogues. Grrr...

Lynn M said...

Wendy, why your intense dislike of epilogues? I'm curious.

Generally I don't mind them EXCEPT when the writer takes a nice, clean ending and ruins it by showing the couple months/years later after the heroine has given birth. I feel like they couldn't resist (or the publisher/editor insisted) that they tie a nice shiny bow on something that didn't need any further dressing. For example, I know Anne Stuart wrote a fun faux epilogue to tie up Black Ice. I've read it and I hate it. As much as I'd love to have the ending of the book a little less abrupt than it was, the epilogue didn't work for me.

But I do admit that when I've loved the characters so much I hate to see the book end, that epilogue is always welcome because it is just more.

And I do agree about the prologues that show events only a few months earlier. Is it okay, though, if that prologue becomes Chapter 1, to start Chapter 2 with the line Two Months Later...??

Anonymous said...

I do like prologues, when they're done well and clearly needed. And in those cases they're not just 'chapter 1'. A good prologue should be short and it should be important - maybe it gives us a real-time look at a traumatic incident in the hero or heroine's life, or an event which is crucial to the story but which just doesn't fit into the timeline of the story itself.

But, of course, far from all books need prologues. The trick is in knowing which do and which don't. And keeping them short!

wendy said...

EXCEPT when the writer takes a nice, clean ending and ruins it by showing the couple months/years later after the heroine has given birth. I feel like they couldn't resist (or the publisher/editor insisted) that they tie a nice shiny bow on something that didn't need any further dressing.

That is exactly why I hate them. I realize that all genres of fiction employ epilogues, but I closely associate them with category romance. And they are usually exactly as you describe. They aren't compelling to read because the story is over, the conflict has been resolved.

Or, what's worse is when the epilogue is turned over to characters who will star in the next book in the series and the space is used as a met and greet for the next hero and heroine. Double grrr…

As far as time jumps between the first and second chapters of books, I've seen lots of books with 6 weeks later to start chapter two.

Steph T. said...

I could live with or without prologues as long as I get my backstory fix somehow - but really, reading that agent's submission process just left me scratching my head. I mean, if someone had a prologue and after the agent signed the person and wanted the prologue taken out, then it could be up for discussion. But to say no to it before having read it?

Of course, my CP's laughing at me -because I don't usually write prologues, so it wouldn't have affected me, but it just got under my skin;)

And in one of my books, I do have a 'two months later' heading on chapter two. In fact, I think Brockmann's (bowing) done that...

McVane said...

I'm not a fan of prologues, flashbacks and epilogues, either. I admit I sometimes skimmed them. I don't even like them in films and TV dramas. I watched BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER on DVD last year and every time it harked back to Angel's old days, I fast-forwarded to the present day. Because I find that most flashbacks can be summed up in one line or two in present day. A flashback is a long way round to illustrate that line or two. I think I consider these 'fillers' or padding. That's probably why I was bored with KILL BILL. :>