Prologues in Fiction


Prologues in Fiction

Prologues are tricky things in fiction and operate quite differently from their role in non-fiction. In non-fiction, they often let you know what’s coming. On the lines of tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and then tell them what you’ve told them. And in non-fiction that often works as the focus is on facts and information. But fiction is about emotion and the unseen.

Non-fiction approach to fiction

I once reviewed a would-be novel using a non-fiction approach. I recreate sort of what it read like:

Prologue: Jason is deeply concerned about the upcoming battle with his brother. He knows that all their history will come to bear and it wouldn’t be just about dividing up Mom’s furniture. It is going to be a knock-down, drag-out.

Story: Jason and his brother fight about who gets what in their mother’s house. Jason wants the blue bowl but so does his brother. His brother accuses him of always trying to grab the best. They fight endlessly.

Last chapter:  Jason is alone in the house. He puts his head in his hands. Just as he feared, things got out of hand.

In short, Jason feared it was going to wrong, it went wrong, and he reflected on the wrongness. I.e. tell ‘em what’s gonna happen, write what happens, and tell ‘em what happened.

Instead of prologues

Now, truthfully, if you wanted to use a prologue as I set out in the example, I suppose you could do it if it were short enough—a fleeting thought as Jason enters the house, for example. But then of course, that’s not a prologue.

Generally, I think you need to ask yourself why you need prologues at all.

I can think of some reasons which I then will go on to brilliantly refute.

I want to give readers the back story.

Why? Why do they need to know what happened before the story starts? How come you don’t start with this back story stuff as the beginning of the plot if it’s so important? Back story is usually most useful at the point readers need it to inform the story. Use a flashback or other device to impart the important bit of history rather than piling it all up front.

 I want to let them know how to approach the story

Doesn’t this sound suspiciously like telling the reader what conclusions they should come to or feelings they should have while reading? As I’ve mentioned, you heighten the reader’s pleasure when you Let the Reader Participate in the Story by allowing her to come to her own decisions. If deep down, this is the reason, for your prologue, I’d dump it completely. Trust that you can get the message across in the story and trust your readers to find it.

I can’t find another place to stick this stuff that I want them to know

I know—during research for the book, you found many riveting facts. But you can’t shoehorn them all into the plot, so why not whet the readers’ appetite in the prologue with all these cool things?

But news—unlike you, they’re not fascinated by your research. Instead, they want to be fascinated by the saga you tell, using the insights you gleaned from the facts.

So bite the bullet and drop all the information which doesn’t in some way further your plot. Save it for boring dinner guests.

Your Reader is Smarter than You


Your Reader is Smarter than You

Jack Bickam, a writer of fiction, quoted the above from a newsroom sign, somewhere, sometime. A warning to reporters to remember that readers are smarter than they are. A good thing for writers of any kind to keep in mind.

Now, I know that you would never condescend in this way. You’re not that kind of person. Would you? You can do it without meaning to.

Ways you don’t treat your readers as smarter

Too much background

As I’ve discussed in Exposition, giving the reader a lot of background before the real action starts slows down the forward motion of the story. It can also accidentally send the message that you think the reader is too stupid to pick up what’s going on unless you spell it out for him. But he can do very well even with a minimal amount of information. In fact, it can be intriguing. Who’s talking? What’s going on? Why did she say that? Readers can tolerate not only being puzzled but positively enjoy it. So enthrall rather than underrate.

Showing off your expertise

A related thing but it can happen at any point in the plot. I paraphrase an actual amateur writer’s approach.

“This dishonors my family!” he shouted. “I must have revenge!” He pulled out a scimitar, which is a short sword with a curved blade, used originally in Eastern countries.

Exactly the wrong time to drop in a piece of research. It can kick your reader right out of the story. If you really, really think your readers don’t know what a scimitar is and cannot get it from the context, introduce the term sometime earlier.

Telling them how to interpret your story

You want to get your message across. Of course you do. But it is both clunky and insulting to write:

This is a story of hope. Despite almost insurmountable odds, Ryan will triumph, showing the world that no disability can prevent his true spirit shining through.

This is what you want your reader to conclude (hopefully with less hackneyed words) once she has read your compelling tale of your protagonist’s travails and final triumph. Again, show don’t tell.

Driving the point home

Some writers think they can sneak in the message by one of the characters articulating it.

Brenda wiped a tear away. “It’s hard to believe Ryan could accomplish that with all his challenges.”

Gary nodded. “He’s an example of the unconquerable human spirit.”

Even if you write it more elegantly than this bit, you’re still trying to give the reader the ‘correct’ conclusion. The right one is the one the reader comes up with himself.

Trying to get away with something

You can run into a plot point which is needed but doesn’t fit with what has gone before. Yes, she’s a bitch but if she doesn’t volunteer at the shelter, she won’t meet Jake. Or The floor has to collapse. Otherwise, how do I get them to the underground cave?

The temptation is to motor along with what you need for the plot, hoping that your readers won’t notice. News. They do with annoying frequency. Whenever I have tried an easy way out, someone invariably says, “But wouldn’t they feel that the floor wasn’t solid as soon as they stepped on it?”

The answer is to go back and fix the bits inconsistent with where you now want to go in the action. A nuisance, I know, but you often get a better plot if you do.

It is easy to inadvertently give the impression you think you’re smarter than your readers. You can avoid it by being alert to unintentional slips.