Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, April 27, 2009

On Prologues

It seems that after a bit of a discussion on Twitter, Neil Williamson and Jetse de Vries have got into an interesting discussion on the purpose of prologues. Neil asks the open question: is a prologue ever a good idea? Then talks about scene-setting and backgrounding, exposition and the negative effect it can have in doing little more than present a barrier between the reader and the actual novel itself. Why not just cut to the chase? Couldn’t that scene that takes place “one year earlier” just be Chapter One? And so on. Jetse responds in the comments with a thoughtful cross-posting from his own blog entry on where prologues might function well to get essential info across and/or set the scene. It’s interesting stuff, so you should go read it.

Myself, I’m thinking Todorov’s notion of narrative equilibrium might shed some light on why prologues seem superfluous or otherwise. The conventional narrative in Todorov’s model — with its five “stages” of equilibrium, disruption, recognition, reaction, restitution — is not too different from a practical model of situation, problem, engagement, try/fail cycle, resolution. The actual dynamics is more gnarly, to my mind, with nested and threaded sub-narratives of disruption, recognition and reaction (ump-thousand word blog post on this here). But in your classic simplest-of-the-simple narrative structure all the complex plottiness of the mid-section is still bookended by an obvious beginning (initial situation) and an obvious ending (final resolution). You don’t need a prologue and an epilogue. You just have a Chapter One and a Chapter Umpteen (or Umpty-Ump or whatever).

Here’s a way to look at it though, I reckon: If you have a Chapter One that simply describes equilibrium and a Chapter Umpteen that deals solely with restitution, this might come across as a bit dull, as both of these states are lacking in tension. The whole point is that they’re lacking in tension; the disruption that the plot manifests has not happened yet in one case, while in the other it has been resolved. So maybe there’s a tendency for beginnings and endings to show transitions rather than states, no? In other words Chapter One gives us the start-action (initial situation > initial disruption) and Chapter Umpteen gives us the end-action (final reaction > final resolution).

So I’m wondering if the problem Neil and Jetse are thrashing about comes from a use of prologues to “set the scene”, and if this is fundamentally about establishing equilibrium. Cause I can see how this wold go wrong, reading as pointless infodump to a modern audience.

With the omniscient PoV of Victorian Realism, I mean, you can take the time to establish the worldscape and even tell what’s gone wrong with it, and only then slowly focus in on the protagonist or protagonists who’re going to be engaging with that. The equilibrium is described. A gradual destabilisation is described. Ramifications are described. The point at which characters properly become active agents in plot terms can be hard to identify in that type of fiction because structurally it’s all very organic, all very emergent. The omniscient PoV only gradually winds its way in from the frame to settle on the key players. Thomas Hardy seems like a fair example here. That start-action (initial situation > initial disruption) might well take place over the first two, three or even more chapters. To the omniscient PoV, potentailly scrutinizing social interactions without an immediate involvement, the key disruption is just one of many perturbations in a disrupted-equilibrium of a homeostatic social system. Which is to say, it’s only as the detail is built up that we come to see that there’s a plot in action. There’s a long period at the start which could pretty much be described as “setting the scene”.

Contrast that with the equally omniscient PoV of traditional Epic, which tends to cut to the chase quicker, I’d say, but in doing so makes its scene-setting more blatant, more artificed. In many such narratives you actually get a short spiel, a ritualistic introduction — gather round, boys and girls; once upon a time; long ago, in a distant land; let us speak of a great hero, blah blah blah. In Gilgamesh, it’s the description of the hero and the walls of Uruk that he’s built, an expository laying down of context that’s all just scene-setting — from one persepective at least. Then, of course, it’s on with the Ripping Yarn, equilibrium out of the way as quickly as possible — sorta “stasis is boring; let’s get this narrative rolling already.” Enkidu is found at the watering-hole. The disruption has arrived toot-sweet. In the Epic, there’s more focus on action, on physical agency, so that start-action comes in like the kicking down of a door. Still, the omniscient narrator of Epic does get to lay out the Big Picture in what’s basically just description. There’s a distinct sense of the equilibrium being established upfront rather than revealed as we go along.

With modern fiction — especially pulp fiction — I’m not sure we all have the patience for that anymore. With the shift to the first person or limited third person PoVs of 20th century pulp, as the omniscient narrator falls out of fashion, it seems to me like any attempt to set up the equilibrium may well read as flat exposition. Without the omnisicent PoV, stories sort of become bound to characters who are either involved in the disruption from the get-go, or have no awareness of it until its ramifications force their engagement. The story doesn’t start — from their PoV — until they (perhaps accidentally) pull the narrative trigger and blow equilibrium to shit, or until some ramification of a disruption that’s already taken place comes up and kicks their feet out from under them. You can get away with maybe a chapter (maybe even less) of backgrounding if it’s integrated into a “character getting on with their daily life” scene or two, preferably primed with sufficient foreshadowing, (and the more character-driven or theme-driven a work is, the more you can get away with… perhaps,) but I don’t think the modern pulp reader is very patient. We’re looking for the narrative trigger to be pulled ASAP, for the plot to kick in pretty sharpish.

In story terms, I reckon this creates a stronger tendency to open in media res, to dump the reader in with the protagonist right at the “disruption” stage, if not even later. How many fictions these days actually start at the point where the disruption is just about to impact the protagonist’s life and drag them into the plot — i.e. in the “recognition” stage? In the narrative grammar of Mystery / Crime / Noir which underlies a fair amount of contemporary strange fiction, this may be a fundamental technique. You can make the protagonist’s subsequent discovery of the nature/source of the disruption a key driving force of the narrative. You can kick off in media res with the protagonist’s sudden embroilment due to a ramification of the initial disruption (secondary disruption > initial engagement) and only later reveal the backstory of exactly how this all came about (initial equilibrium > initial disruption = Big Revelation).

Where you’ve got a narrative grammar falling more towards the Epic / Heroic / Adventure end of the spectrum, however, making a mystery of the original start-action might mean telling a completely different story from the one you’re trying to tell. Maybe it’s not a story of discovery you’re aiming for. Maybe it’s just a simple story of dealing with the fucking disruption. There’s a problem to be sorted and the story is of it being sorted, not of faffing about in the mire of complexities, trying to figure out how this all came to be and finding resolution in the realisation of such. Now you can probably get away with a more classic narrative structure if the protagonist is personally involved in the disruption. The first chapter or two can present the disruption from their PoV with a little bit of subtly integrated backgrounding revealing the equilibrium in its negation, via that disruption. But if your protagonist is not personally involved in that disruption, because it’s a large scale disruption and they’re just the ickle bitty farmboy, born in obscurity but destined for greatness… well maybe you do want to lay down the context of the Enchanted Land into which — oh dear — the Dark Lord has broken loose. Or to talk in slightly less conventional terms — maybe you need to get your heroes into Hell in the first place, but you know that the real story only begins with them deciding to engage with it and try to bust their way out, guns blazing.

But this is shifting towards a distinct type of prologue that’s not entirely what Neil and Jetse are (largely) talking about. This is a sort of prologue that presents action in the form of disruption. What about that very expository type of backgrounding prologue which is really just about establishing equilibrium?

What we’re talking about there is framing, I think, and that change in PoV style means it’s harder to get away with that pure framing these days, or even with heavily descriptive introductions from which the plot only gradually emerges. That sort of malarky reads as editorialising blather, authorial infodump, telling rather than showing. (Does Contemporary Realism get way with more? Seems to me the first person CR work might be allowed more leeway with the chatty protagonist doing an explicit introduction with brief personal bio? But I’m not sure.) You do still see it though; classic Epic Fantasy (or Epic SF, for that matter), with its wandering PoV — pseudo-omniscient, multiple third person, or some hamfisted hybrid of the two — seems to have inherited that preambulatory approach, and where it lays out the equilibrium of the worldscape it seems to do so even more distinctly. Why? Epic strives for the sense of scale that comes with the frame, I think. It seeks the grandeur of a bona fide “Hear ye!” announcement that Story is about to commence. So in place of the “gentle reader” malarky of the obsolete omniscient narrator we have the literary equivalent of the scrolling text, the throaty voice-over, the burning map. It’s the modern equivalent of an invocation of the muses, or a description of Gilgamesh the King on the walls of Uruk.

This can fail because we just don’t buy into the artifice or because… well… it’s badly written. One common failure — when the prologue reads as pure infodump, usually because it’s too damn long, and too damn dry — is generally because it’s been written as backgrounding rather than framing, I reckon. The purpose of the “stage-setting” prologue of traditional Epic is not actually to impart information; it’s to impart significance. It’s a conjuration, an invocation, a sales pitch rather than a history lesson. If it paints a picture of the world and the players in it at all, (“Behold the mighty Gilgamesh! Behold the walls he built for Ururk!”) this function is subordinate to the seductive purpose (“Listen up, motherfucker, cause I’ve got a fucking Story!”) The prologue shouldn’t be a big block of blather the reader has to trawl through to get to the hook. It should be a hook in its own right, a sideshow barker saying, “Step right up,” and teasing with a taste of what’s inside.

Now maybe some just react against the blatant sales pitch, but a lot of the time I suspect it’s just that the deliberately leaden (i.e. transparent) prose of commerical fantasy and science fiction doesn’t match this purpose: transparent prose rules out any possibility of enchantment. There’s none of the distinctive lyricism of a narrative voice calculated to draw the reader in. And, man, if you’re simply setting the stage… a map takes up one page; scrolling text should be a few paragraphs max; the voice-over should not drone on for twenty fucking minutes. What we’re looking for is short and snappy. Think Chorus from King Henry the Fifth or the “two star-crossed lovers” intro to Romeo and Juliet. Think of how these are made to work in the Branagh and Luhrman movie versions respectively. Contrast this with the interminable opening of Lynch’s Dune. A prologue should not be worldbuilding, and thinking that’s what theyre is for is just a misunderstanding of the convention. IMHO. The exposition might — just might — work for some viewers on a gosh-wow sense-of-wonder basis, but to be brutally honest I think it’s… tickling the toes of what M. John Harrison so famously referred to as “the clomping foot of nerdism” (or was it “stomping”?). To each his own and all, but… no thanks, mate.

Thing is, even with Epic SF/Fantasy’s roving PoV, the abandonment of true omniscient makes the straight description of equilibrium problematic. You lose the omniscient PoV that sees the frame, the only PoV that can really describe equilibrium with a sufficiently wide-scale overview. Add to this the fact that Romantic plot structures preference active agents over passive observers anyway, and the problem deepens: that equilibrium is disrupted by definition if you have agents active in it. So, the idiom is pushed towards the type of prologue I’m skirting around above, I reckon, one that disguises the framing in the form of a sub-narrative. A little story is crafted that gives all five Todorovian stages from one character’s PoV, but which uses a slingshot ending to set its own resolution as the disrupted-equilibrium of the larger story to come. Non-central character X has been hunting for McGuffin Y for many years, finds it, and all hell breaks loose. End of story? No. End of prologue. Bang! Novel begins with central character Z thrown deep into the shit because of that, action in full swing. This is the sort of prologue that takes place a year, a hundred years, a thousand years or whatever before the plot of the novel. It might even take place directly beforehand but be sort of… aesthetically disconnected.

I’m not entirely averse to this, I have to admit. I like the “pre-credit sequence” aspect of a prologue that functions as a little narrative in its own right, draws the reader in and then fires them out into sudden action, Chapter One beginning in media res. The prologue of Vellum fits this pattern fairly well, I guess. I think it’s an overdone convention that’s often present in Epic SF/Fantasy less because the narrative is naturally structured with such a pre-credit sequence and more as an excuse for the writer to pump up the import with a framing device. But I do think there are stories with more complex beginnings and endings that sort of… separate themselves out from the core story structurally, work best as prologues and epilogues. Like, after the Big Climax, maybe there’s still some disrupting ripples left to create reactions that you then have to work through into a final resolution that gives a full sense of closure — but maybe that can only take place “many years later”. Or maybe the disruption of the equilibrium has been set up “many years before” in a sequence of events that fits the schema (equilibrium, disruption, recognition, reaction, restitution), a sub-narrative that has basically left the worldscape primed for a problem to erupt somewhere down the line, when the narrative trigger is pulled. If there’s a sufficient disjunct, I reckon, you can end up with a naturally prologued and/or epilogued structure to your story. You could take that sub-narrative and label it Chapter One, but structurally speaking it just… isn’t. It’s Chapter Zero. It’s a prologue.

But I think this is kind of coming at it from a different angle from Neil and Jetse. I think what I’m suggesting is that prologues shouldn’t just be establishing equilibrium — whether its in the form of infodump or scene-setting. Or at least that it’s a whole fuckload harder to get away with that these days, that it generally doesn’t work in the modern idiom(s) of commercial strange fiction.

13 Comments:

Blogger Shelly said...

Speaking as a reader, though I'm also an aspiring writer, I have yet to be bothered by a prologue. It's just a word, a name, a designation. Same as chapter names/numbers. I've read books with no chapters. I've read books with no chapters, yet each scene was numbered. Didn't matter. The words mattered.

As soon as I get past the title page, I'm in the book. I read any quotes the author includes before the story starts, and I'm just as into the book/story as I am by reading something labeled chapter 1 or labeled prologue.

In a way, quotations and prologues help cement things into my mind to pay attention to in the rest of the story. Call it chapter 1, and I might not give it extra attention. The best prologues to me are meaningful ones.

11:41 pm  
Blogger Colin said...

Hal, I don't know if you've seen "Serenity", but I think Joss Whedon managed to subvert the traditional prologue sequence in a truly creepy manner. You think it's one thing, and then it turns out to be something else...this might just be an example of "well-written" as opposed to "world-building", of course, but IMO the story-inside-a-story-inside-a-story technique worked very effectively, particularly for an audience of science fiction fans who are very used to the traditional crawl and/or world-building.

8:27 am  
Blogger Colin said...

Also, FYI, the link to your previous blog post doesn't work. And that's one I really wanted to read!

8:28 am  
Blogger neil williamson said...

There wasn’t really an “angle”, I don’t think. I was generally interested in why (quite suddenly when I found myself thinking about it) I have this big anti-thing as far as prologues go. So, the question – Is a prologue ever a good idea? – has raised a number of examples in which the answer is either “yes”, or at least “definitely maybe, depending on how well it’s executed”.
I like your mini sub narrative to slingshot the main story into action – in theory. However, I’d have a problem if your non-central character X didn’t either reappear again in the main narrative, or wasn’t in some way fairly well integral to the plot. Otherwise it would feel like I was reading something that could have been back-storied. Not everythiing about your world needs to have been dramatised.
The idea of the pre-credit style prologue I have more of an issue with because books aren’t films. The best pre-credit sequences in the business have traditionally been in Bond films. You get this high tempo full on action scene set in an exotic location that usually involves a chase in which either Bond or the baddie gets away at the end. Then it gives way to the much anticipated Bond Title Sequence, which for Bond fans is as big a part of the movie as the rest. Then you get the opening of the actual story. All of which is great, but it doesn’t work in books because once you finish the exciting prologue, you turn the page and…it says chapter 1 and you read on. You can supply your own rockin’ Bond tune and exotic dancing girls if you like before you read on, but, that’d really be stretching it. [Actually come to think of it there may be other examples of authors who have learned plotting from movies rather than novels – and I don’t mean EfH!, because that was deliberate – but that’s another discussion].
Epilogues I usually have no issue with because like everyone else I don’t want a good book to end.
But generally, possibly, we agree. For the modern reader of the modern novel, a prologue has to work pretty damn hard in the service of the story to justify its inclusion. But shouldn’t that be the case for any part of a novel?

2:59 pm  
Blogger Jetse de Vries said...

"Non-central character X has been hunting for McGuffin Y for many years, finds it, and all hell breaks loose. End of story? No. End of prologue. Bang! Novel begins with central character Z thrown deep into the shit because of that, action in full swing. This is the sort of prologue that takes place a year, a hundred years, a thousand years or whatever before the plot of the novel. It might even take place directly beforehand but be sort of… aesthetically disconnected." (Hal)

Or the mini sub narrative. Isn't that basically the same as what I called 'Essential per-info dumping'?

"In this, a previous event that — like the famed ‘wings of the butterfly’ — sets off a much larger event. The much larger event is the novel, the much smaller event that initiated the storm is the prologue." (Me)

I gave Greg Egan's "Schild's Ladder" as an example, Neil used the exemple of a suicide bomber setting off the *real* story. In both cases the non-central character does not appear again in the novel.

"I like the “pre-credit sequence” aspect of a prologue that functions as a little narrative in its own right, draws the reader in and then fires them out into sudden action, Chapter One beginning in media res." (Hal)

Doesn't that come quite close to:

"3) Both an essential pre-info dump that does give something essential away *and* a superb scene-setting that doesn’t give everything away."

"it contains the seeds of everything to come while not telling the whole story"
(Me)

I suspect we're talking about different manifestations of the same thing.

I see Neil's point that this is much more appropriate in movies than in novels, but that doesn't mean it can't work in fiction. It's much harder in fiction, but when it works, it can be spectacular. See again "The Shadow of the Wind".

"But generally, possibly, we agree." (Neil)

I agree that we probably mostly agree.

"For the modern reader of the modern novel, a prologue has to work pretty damn hard in the service of the story to justify its inclusion. But shouldn’t that be the case for any part of a novel?" (Neil)

True. But why then is the prologue more hated than the other parts of a novel? Because a prologue is like a short story, meaning it should work from the get-go, while readers are willing to have more patience with the novel itself (giving leeway for the narrative to 'get into the groove')?

And yeah, a day after I posted my thoughts "Vellum" came to mind as an example (of a prologue that works)...;-)

4:45 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Shelly: There does seem to be a range of opinions on this. I think for me there's just a feeling that if you're going to explicitly set the opening apart as a prologue to grab reader's attention, there should be an — I don’t know — structural reason for not just calling it Chapter One.

Colin: I can't remember the Serenity opening, to be honest. Not because it was forgettable, but just because I have a shite memory. I'm vaguely thinking it felt like a sub-narrative / slingshot approach, no?

And cheers for the heads-up. Link should be working now. Bloody blogger keeps adding blogspot address stuff into cut-and-pasted URLs, and I keep forgetting to double-check.

Neil: I wasn't really meaning to portray your "angle" as "down with all prologues!". I was just meaning in the sense that yerself and Jetse seemed to be tending to focus on the expositionary aspect.

I’d have a problem if your non-central character X didn’t either reappear again in the main narrative, or wasn’t in some way fairly well integral to the plot. Otherwise it would feel like I was reading something that could have been back-storied.Strangely, I think this is where I'd have less of a problem, I think. Example: Say ump hundred, umpty-ump, umpteen or ump years ago, non-central character X unleashes the Dark Lord or steals the MacGuffin Device, only to be Horribly Killed immediately for their Terrible Folly, leaving aforesaid Dark Lord / MacGuffin Device loose in the world to create merry havoc. Some years later, the protagonist, going about their daily life, subsequently finds themself slamming into that havoc face-first. And the story begins. In that sort of classic Epic SF/Fantasy, assuming you’re using one or more first or third person limited PoVs, it makes sense to me to dramatise the set-up.

I mean, if non-central character X *was* going to reappear that means you can bring the backstory in quite smoothly — in flashback or reported thought — when they show up. If X was Horribly Killed though, if you don’t have their PoV to work with, that means one or other PoV character has to be told it (“Legends say that many years ago, X discovered the blah blah blah…”) or recall the telling of it (He thought of the legend of X, how they’d discovered the blah blah blah…). Or the backstory has to be introduced via some other device (It was the journal of someone called X, telling how they’d discovered the blah blah blah…!”). I’m not saying this is necessarily a problem. You can make the backstory a mystery, make its revelation a dramatic turning-point. Or do some neat parallel/nested narrative malarky with the devices you use to reveal it. Actually, I think there’s a lot of fun you can have with that approach. (You know what a sucker I am for all that fake journal malarkey.) But I do think that turning set-up into backstory-to-be-revealed can fundamentally change the nature of the story you’re telling.

Basically, if X isn’t around to reveal the backstory and that backstory is big enough, I think, it can be more advisable to dramatise it upfront rather than create a lacuna where, say, a Ponderous Old Fart appears on scene to tell the protagonist How It All Began. Just because something *could* be backstoried, doesn’t mean it *should*, I’d say. Even if the character is still around… I don’t know; Delany has a good point in ON WRITING, I reckon, when he talks about his pet peeve of the “false flashback”, where a character muses on the events of the night before, for example, just so the author can tell what happened then. If that’s when the story started, he argues, you should ask yourself if that’s not where the story should start. Again, to relate this back to EfH!, I could theoretically have kicked off with the characters arriving in Hell and had them recall how they got there, told the backstory in flashback or reported thought as they were being processed, but I think that would have played as a bunch of false flashbacks that slowed the action for no good reason. I certainly didn’t want to make it a big mystery for them to uncover, because it’s not that kind of story.

Then it gives way to the much anticipated Bond Title Sequence, which for Bond fans is as big a part of the movie as the rest. Then you get the opening of the actual story. All of which is great, but it doesn’t work in books because once you finish the exciting prologue, you turn the page and…it says chapter 1 and you read on. You can supply your own rockin’ Bond tune and exotic dancing girls if you like before you read on, but, that’d really be stretching it.What? You mean you don’t hear the theme tune from Where Eagles Dare when you turn the page from the prologue of EfH! to Act One? Damn it! Your copy must be faulty. Mine definitely has the musical greetings-card-style doohickey installed as Chris and Allison and meself agreed. It’s clearly audible! DADADA DUM! DADA DUM DUM! DADADA DUM! DADA DUM DUM! DADADA DUM! DADA DUM DUM DUM!

No?

What do you mean that’s just me?

But to be serious… for me that pre-credit sequence style of prologue is just another form of the slingshot sub-narrative. I think maybe there’s something about a type of transition between narrative structures that to me says Prologue > Chapter One rather than Chapter One > Chapter Two. Thinking about it, maybe for me prologues and epilogues sit at the same scale as Volumes (or Parts, or Acts, or whatever you want to call the units between chapters and the novel-as-a-whole, if you have them). Like a prologue (or what I’d consider a prologue as it’s “meant” to be done) has a greater sense of closure than a chapter — i.e. there’s a more significant break between that and what comes after than there are between most chapters, comparable to the sort of break that makes us see one chapter as the end of Volume One and the next as the start of Volume Two. OK, you don’t actually have the big title sequence to signal that break, but the separation out of the prologue is a signal in its own right. Simialrly with volumes, all you have is a “Volume Two” title page but that’s all you need as a signal. You don’t actually need a curtain to close, the lights to come up, and an usherette to come down the aisle selling choc-ices to tell you that this is the literary equivalent of an intermission.

Jetse: I think we are talking about the same thing, to all intents and purposes. The “butterfly wing” analogy does fit very much with my take on it. I guess I just don’t like the static expositional/descriptive vibe implied by terms like “infodump” and “scene-setting”. Even if it’s focused on a non-central character — hell, even if the writer can pull off some neat narrative trick of telling a crucial event from an omniscient PoV and not dealing with character-level perspectives at all — I think I’m still looking for a distinct sense of *narrative*. I’m inclined to stress the *event* aspect over any informative function. If you can have prologues that provide essential info, prologues that provide non-essential info, prologues that do one but not the other, and prologues that kinda sorta do both, that flexibility makes the infodumping seem less of a core function to me. Like the main purpose of showing the butterfly flapping its wings is not to *explain* to the reader how it all kicked off any more than the main purpose of the core story is just to *explain* how this or that character died in the resultant storm. It’s to articulate the event as a drama.

Another example (not addressing Jetse in particular now but just as a general point): Imagine you want to tell the story of a soldier who fought in the Spanish Civil War and World War II. That story falls naturally into two volumes, each set in one of the wars. But you realise that part of this story is the death of your protagonist’s father in the Somme. His father’s watch is a motif, you see. Sent back from the front, inherited by the protagonist, it’s his lucky charm. (Yes, I know this is hokey.) Point is, that death isn’t a mystery you want to keep shrouded and reveal later. You know that the opening scene is your protagonist’s father looking at the watch, putting it away, then going Over The Top to his death. It’s a really short scene and then you cut forward twenty years to the son with the same watch, his personal story told against the epic backdrop of his two wars. That first scene is not exposition. It’s not that you want/need to “explain” where the watch came from up-front. Rather that initial scene binds the watch to his father’s death, creates an irony in the fact that the protagonist views it as a charm. This is something you want throughout the novel. Maybe you even want to play on that link to create a pervasive sense of foreboding. You do *not* want to have your protagonist belabouredly reflecting on how he inherited the watch from his father after his horrible death in the Somme. Actually, you want to make a point of him associating it with his father’s life rather than his death. You want to play his faith off against the horror he’s denying.

Ultimately, that one really small event — the father’s death — is not a detail to be exposited; it’s a part of the story as a whole. I mean, maybe the end of Volume Two has the soldier dying in WW2. Maybe there’s an epilogue where the protagonist’s own son inherits the watch. So maybe that’s the deliberate architecture of the story: the two volumes of the soldier’s experiences in two different wars, bookended by a prologue and an epilogue that mirror each other, told from the PoV and his father and his son repsectively. Why? These show the watch-inheritance from different angles, neither of which are actually the crucial — but significantly left unrepresented — perspective of the soldier as a young man, receiving the watch himself, the reality of grief. It’s all about cycles of war, inherited follies and ideals, our blindness to the realities, you see, so the story skirts around that formative event (which is really the initial disruption, in a way,) achieves one big resolution of the soldier’s personal story with his death, but then offers another, larger-scale resolution as it closes the loop, brings events full-circle and flips the perspective so that we see (only now) the effects of war on the bereaved.

To me, that’s a story you just couldn’t tell without the prologue. The structure is so much a part of the approach that it would be a competely different novel without it. And it’s all to do with the dynamics of the narrative rather than getting specific details across to the reader, building worldscape, or any such thing.

9:48 pm  
Blogger Shelly said...

I think structurally, using a prologue to call attention to something is valid. Michael Marshall Smith has used it effectively as have many mystery/suspense writers, with the prologue set a bit in the past (anywhere from a day to years ago), setting up the "mystery" or an incident that will have relevance later, and that's in the reader's mind while reading the rest of the story.

I often find myself wondering when that prologue scene will be explained or become relevant and it heightens my interest in reading. If well done, it's a tremendous hook. Put the same info in a chapter 1, or as a flashback or explanation later and it loses impact, IMO. Not that it has to be a prologue. But a prologue, for me, is a valid choice structurally.

9:53 pm  
Blogger Colin said...

Okay, Serenity's a movie, not a book, obviously; I think it would be difficult to pull off the same trick in prose (for those of us with writing skills somewhat more limited than yours, Hal :) ).

Joss Whedon had a difficult task - since the movie was a sequel to the series, he had to inform new viewers (not that there were many, I think, although I was one) what the basic setup was. He could have used a crawl. But, in typical Whedon fashion, he did this :

1. Voice-over on scenes on terraforming, showing "good" Alliance worlds and the "evil" Outback planets.

2. That voice-over turns out to be a class of Alliance students - including the major character River Tam - watching this on a screen. The teacher has been narrating. She asks a question, River gives an unsuitable answer, and the teacher sticks a spike into River's forehead --

3. -- and we transition seamlessly to seeing River unconscious in a medical chair of some sort with a virtual reality probe sticking into her forehead. During this scene, her brother, Simon, rescues her; at the end of this scene, they're in a shaft travelling upwards on a platform dropped by Serenity (the ship) --

4. -- which scene suddenly rewinds and we are now in the same room, later, where the creepy Alliance Operative is watching the whole thing on playback.

At the end of *that* scene (fade to black), we're into the title sequence, and the movie starts - we already know the premise here - the Operative is out to catch River, and Serenity have her, and her brother.

I thought it was very efficient, and also quite ingenious. The recursive dream-inside-a-dream etc. leaves you wondering what's going to happen next : and is that not the proximate purpose of narrative?

11:12 am  
OpenID neilwilliamson said...

Jetse: True. But why then is the prologue more hated than the other parts of a novel? Because a prologue is like a short story, meaning it should work from the get-go, while readers are willing to have more patience with the novel itself (giving leeway for the narrative to 'get into the groove')?

I think the prologue gets a hard time because it’s the first thing you come up against in the story and if it’s expository, dull and overlong it presents a real barrier to the reader’s enjoyment of the rest of the book. Once they’re involved in the story, readers tend to be more forgiving.


Hal: Yeah, I think what we’re converging on is that lazy, expository prologues just to set scene and atmosphere don’t cut it, but that there are good structural reasons for having a prologue or epilogue. I like your example of the soldier’s watch (actually, no, as a story it makes me want to boke up – unless Christopher Walken was telling it). I was still ambivalent that the prologue was necessary (TBH the fact that he has his father’s watch at all kinda implies that the old boy ain’t around any more), but then I realise that in a way the character that this is about, is the watch itself, so it’s fine for me to have a prologue and epilogue on that story.

Actually, yeah, I realise I contradicted myself, having first suggested the suicide bomber idea then complained about character X not reappearing in the story. If you went for the suicide bomber opening, the only valid reason for me for dramatising it in a prologue is to get across the political and personal viewpoint of the perpetrator. This would perhaps be useful if the book was going to be about the reality of dealing with such acts while appreciating the viewpoints of both sides. Otherwise, start with the explosion and get on with it.
In the example of X is Horribly Killed many years ago while stealing the blah blah blah, I’m still iffy. If X plays no real part in the story, the state of play when the story begins is *it exists, because the Evil W has it and is causing havoc with it*. It doesn’t matter who unconvered it or what happened to him. I dunno, I guess you could make it interesting enough (and I’m finding it hard in talking about this to not get caught up in the individual examples), weave it into the tapestry of the thing, but in terms of the story (which is a quest to find and destroy the blah blah blah) does it matter?

Shelly: I’m more convinced by your example of the mysterious event which will be explained later. Nice one.

11:50 am  
OpenID neilwilliamson said...

Colin - that is a great opening, but for me it doesn't equate to a literary prologue. In a book that'd be right in to the story as far as I'm concerned.

11:55 am  
Blogger Shelly said...

Neil: Thanks. The best example I can think of offhand is from Michael Marshall Smith's Only Forward. He didn't label it a Prologue. It's titled: The Beginning. It's part of Part 1, is almost 3 paperback pages long, and is followed by chapter 1. It reads a bit like a fairy tale. The first sentence is: Once there was a boy in a house.

I had that scene in mind as I read the book, wondering about its relevance and by the time the explanation of that mysterious little scene comes, I could see how the event had informed the main character and it was all tied up very nicely. BTW, for anyone who hasn't read his books, I highly recommend them. He writes SF under that name and suspense under the name Michael Marshall.

3:34 pm  
Blogger Colin said...

Neil : As far as I can remember, there is a nine month gap between the "prologue" sequence, and the events after main titles are nine months in the future. That, to me, makes it a prologue. But, yeah, it's a movie, not a book, so it's a bit difficult to be categorical.

8:21 pm  
Blogger Colin said...

Bad editing in last comment, sorry. Forgot to delete the second "ninth-month" subclause...

8:23 pm  

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