I had some misgivings when I discovered that a panel I’d volunteered for had in its program description some fairly heavy weaponry:
I hate fantasy and SF prologues!
If I see that a book opens with a prologue, I put it back on the shelf.
Why do authors stick prologues in? Are they paid by the word?
Then the panel asked, why do authors insist on putting prologues in front of the story, the tone (I thought, anyway) being much like the proverbial So when did you stop beating your wife?
The quick explanation for why authors write prologues is that the author is already inside the story, and committed to everything. As we can see from the snark-fest, that doesn’t mean the new reader is.
Openings are such a juggling act for writers. She wants to get the reader hooked, not lost. She wants the reader to get up to speed on the setting and characters as expeditiously as possible, and as often or not, the most efficient method seems to be a prologue.
The problem of setting and time is tricky for us genre writers. Mainstreamers only have to say “I stepped out into 52nd street, hearing the blares of taxis and smelling exhaust,” and we can guess that we are in New York, more or less present day: life experience kindly provides a wealth of sensory detail, even if it’s only garnered from TV, books, movies. But if we’re in the city of Mu’us’hu Poarc, we don’t even know what the pavement is like. Or if there is any.
So the most efficient solution often seems to be the Prologue of the History of the World. The writer who’s just spent weeks or months inventing this awesome new world is more than ready to introduce the reader to it, laying out some of the rules of the world so that the reader will get a good sense of the setting and culture. Unfortunately, for the reader who isn’t already in love with the world, that prologue can feel like a load of homework to be memorized before there is any sign of actual story.
So the writer thinks, okay, then, what readers want is the prologue that starts off with big drama, the bigger the better.
Epics for millennia have been about conflict. What worked for Homer goes for writers now. The most common prologue besides The Quick History of the World is Vengeance Will Be Mine!, either showing us the villain’s or the hero’s side.
The villain’s side is sometimes akin to what I think of as the Power Rangers prologue. Maybe you know how Power Rangers opened. Evil Rita crashed her escape pod on a field, popped the hatch, and exclaimed, “After ten thousand years I am free! Now to conquer Earth!”
As a scene setting and establishment of villainous motivation, it was amazingly efficient, done in about ten seconds. Who doesn’t understand vengeance?
The second Big Bang Prologue is the Sacrificial Scene, which is the hero’s side of the conflict. Here we have our bad guys all gathered together in order to do a blood sacrifice in order to gain mega-power so they can get cracking on spreading evil. They might be attacking a slumbering village of the Hapless and Peaceful Tribe—or else they have a pretty girl, or a cute boy, or some innocent victim, bound to a slab table, on whom they proceed to do graphically described awful things.
Chapter one begins with the sole survivor, who is out . . . for vengeance!
The third most common Prologue that I’ve seen is the in medias res actioner. In order to avoid a slow beginning, the writer plops the reader into the middle of a titanic battle—and then, just before the hero can get his chitins aired, shifts the scene to flashback.
Snickersnack! Went the blade near Hero’s head.
Whoosh–wheem! Splorble-goosh, the Hero’s blade feinted, blocked, and then gutted the foremost orc. He held the ichor-smeared blade up. “Who’s next?”
Bad guys and Hero paused, everyone breathing hard and Hero wishing the orcs had Listerine as part of their marching gear, as Hero thought back to the day he was playing with all the other ragged kids in the village square, who had forgotten he was an orphan, until the mysterious graybeard, no, make that greybeard, though all the other spelling is American, because you know, grey is the peanut butter to fantasy’s jelly, came up. “Ho,” the greybeard said, “you are not of this area,” pointing at Hero’s hair of flame, the more astonishing amid the raven locks of the other urchins . . .
On this panel, someone cracked up the entire audience by saying, “You know, if I was a villain and I’d just popped out of stir after a couple thousand years, there’s no way I’m moving into a moldering castle full of ugly orcs and wasting my time plotting doom. I’d be on the next flight to the Caribbean, where I’d sit on the beach with a row of drinks with umbrellas in them, and catch up on my flirting.”
As a panel comment, it was a knockout. It was difficult to get serious for about fifteen minutes, as everyone came up with more ridiculous scenarios for the staple characters of epics. The original point was completely lost—that hey, not all villains have exactly the same motivation. Someone could write that story about the villain who goes happily slumming at the seaside, but safe bet that that story is not going to turn out to be an epic fantasy.
I think of those prologues above as the single-minded prologue. There are plenty of single-minded vengeance tales in whatever form that work really well, beginning with the oral tales centuries before print. In books, The Count of Monte Cristo is a remarkable thousand page tale of single-minded revenge, and its cost. The best example I can think of in film is the first in the Steven Siegal revenge tale franchise (he made a lot of them) called Under Siege. In that first fifteen minutes, we see the bad guys, both on board the ship and coming in, take over the vessel. There’s one guy left uncaptured—our cook, Steven Siegal, who (it turns out) used to be a navy SEAL. He proceeds to fight back, taking down one bad guy at a time in inventive ways, gaining allies and power until the final hand-to-hand fight with Tommy Lee Jones, who makes an awesome chief bad guy.
Siegal’s guy is provided with a lissome young lady (the only female in the film) for the requisite sex appeal, and they kiss at the end, but there’s about one minute of actual courtship before she becomes his wingman on demolition duty. And it works.
So can the single-minded, or straight line, vengeance stories, as signaled by the prologues above. Readers know what they’re getting, and can settle back and watch the hero prevail . . . the way we wish we could on the job, against the daily commute, against the ills of the world.
However, if one has been reading a long time, these prologues begin to blur in their sameness, which is what leads to that snarkiness above. Me, I am always ready to sink into another vengeance tale. But these days, after decades of reading, what draws me in is a prologue that runs orthogonal to the straight line.
One of the ways a prologue can run orthogonal is through the voice, like Steven Brust’s Paarfi. This is a narrative voice that occasionally steps right on stage to address the reader. Paarfi has the perfect excuse. He’s an archivist. Paarfi can stop the action five strokes into a battle, freeze everyone, and then launch into a long, funny version of the orphan boy getting his Sword of Destiny. It’s not just the humor (though humor is going to hook me just about every time) it’s the way he tells the story. Though I know generally where the story is going, I can’t predict how Paarfi is going to tell it, and so I’m hooked.
The second type of orthogonal prologue is the one that gives me character motivations that weave in and out of the storyline.
The Princess Bride professes to be an epic that tells only the Good Parts. That’s a facile way of saying that Goldman expertly mixes a distinctive, humorous voice with orthogonal bits running through scenes that in other hands would have been presented straightforwardly according to tradition, and thus predictable not only in outcome, but almost on the sentence level.
Late in this panel, it was time for questions. When I mentioned prologues that ran orthogonal, I was asked to give an example of what I meant. At first I turned the question outward to the audience. People mentioned their favorite books, many of which were new and gritty fantasies in which there aren’t the traditional white hats and bad hats. In some, everybody is pretty much a gray hat. In others, they’re all more or less bad hats. After that flurry, the questioner came back to, “Are you saying that good versus evil is boring? Cliche? We’re past it? Because I don’t think that at all. I hate evil winning. That’s not what I come to fantasy for.”
My response was that I like good winning, too. But maybe the motivations for good characters and evil characters could be more examined, if not more mixed.
“What do you mean?”
So I put together an example that went something like this. We have a story set after the Dark Lord conquered the kingdom, but the prologue wouldn’t begin with the Dark Lord slaughtering millions of minions, or with the slaughter of the village, except for the king’s son, left on a hill to be discovered by a wandering goatherd and raised until he found a sword on the old battlefield, picked it up, and ran off to the capital to restore himself to his rightful throne.
It would begin with the POV of an old cook, maybe, who’d lived her entire life in the capital to become head pastry chef, watching with a sour eye as the king’s court, which should have been governing, wasted time and resources on partying hearty. In disgust, the cook retired to the most remote village she could find . . . a year ahead of the Dark Lord marching on the capital.
So times are lean because the new king’s taxes are extra heavy. After all, he has to support his Army of Darkness somehow, plus reward all his supporters, who promptly turn around and loot their new lands, to which they haven’t a shred of loyalty. Because so many of the village men went to the Minion Slaughter, the village work is not always getting done by those left behind, and as taxes comes first, there isn’t much provender to offer, which makes for not much custom at the inn.
Because she hasn’t much to do once the year’s beer is kegged, the cook watches the action every day in the village square. She can’t help but notice that red-haired boy who was found on a hilltop by the old goatherd, and raised to tend goats. The boy is starting to get brawny, and he gets teased a lot for being different, but he’s so good-natured he laughs it off.
But then the day comes when the village blacksmith, the brawniest man in the village, and the meanest when he’s drunk, trips over the gossipy weaver girl’s dog, and begins to beat the poor beast. The goat boy, strong from carrying baby goats, and delivering huge pails of milk, and fast from chasing the frisky kids all over the hills, loses his temper and lays into the blacksmith . . . and lays him out.
When his temper cools he’s so filled with remorse for doing far worse damage to the man than the man did to the dog, that while the man is recovering at the healer’s, the boy quietly organizes his village pals to do the ironmongery chores, and the cook, watching, thinks, now that boy would make a good leader. Hey, maybe even a good king. Better than the Dark Lord, certainly. And I know how to put him there. Only who would do such a terrible thing to such a good-hearted boy?
I would begin reading that prologue knowing from the cover art and the blurb that the Dark Lord will fall and the goat boy will win. I like my fictional order, in this sorry world of disorder. But this prologue—or maybe not this one, something more deft—suggests to me that everyone has conflicts running orthogonal to the main tale, from the orphan boy who doesn’t fit because the Flame and Raven cultures are eroding along where they meet, evolving into something not quite either, to the ironmonger who had been tossed out of the guard for drinking, and finds meaningful work at last as the goat boy’s lieutenant, to the weaver girl who turns out to be such an excellent spy that she has trouble trusting anyone’s words, to the cook, whose conflict is both ethical and moral as she sets about organizing meals for the goat boy’s growing Army of Flame. I’d want to read it because everyone does try to find their way toward doing what’s right, even if “right” isn’t always easy to define. Even if the story borders the Kingdom of Cliche.