The Problematical Prologue

by Sherwood Smith

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.

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe



The Problematical Prologue — 34 Comments

  1. Hmmmmm.

    If the villain who goes to the shore has, as a consequence of dealing with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, turned himself into a walking disaster area that slowly leaches the life of everything around him while he lives forever — that’s why they bottled him up in the first place — it could easily turn into an epice fantasy as the heroes grimly pursue him. Persecute him in his own eyes, perhaps; perhaps his imprisonment affected his memory and he doesn’t know why everyone’s dying about him, but he’s quite willing to fight back.

  2. That orthogonal* prologue is exactly the type one might start skimming, before turning to the Real Start, and then have to go back, humbled, and read carefully…

    I think the best prologues could just be short first chapters–and sometimes what could have been demarcated as a prologue has become the first section of a first chapter.

    The famous sly first line of Pride and Prejudice really comes in a chapter that feels much like a prologue. It’s in an omniscient POV that only sets the heroine apart in the conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bennett. As I’m looking at it again, the lean in toward Lizzy’s POV is very slow, and the second chapter is also short, and a bit like a prologue as far as being set up, not quite in an identical stream with the narrative that follows…

    The name “prologue” has become anathema to an extent, but they still do have their uses. I expect the fashion to turn from deriding them any day now, really…

    * I cackle at a new useful term in my arsenal!

  3. Sherwood, I want to hear more of this story you just tossed off by way of example. I don’t want you to bother writing it up as a proper story with lots of show-don’t-tell, I want you to keep going exactly as you have here, in summary mode. Do you think you could do it? Who would the cook be confiding her plans to? And what would these friends and confidants think? And would she put it to the boy directly, or gradually?

    Sometimes never mind stories, I just like hearing the story scenarios spun out.

  4. (Actually, I missed your last paragraph, have just read it now–and you’ve answered *some* of my questions, sort of. Anyway, great fun. Cover art by Trina Schart Hyman please–we will just have to go back in time to when she was still alive.)

  5. Asakiyume: We can play this game when we meet this autumn, as we meander around. My brain spins out story stuff all day, a kind of double track. It has always done this. Most of them go nowhere, but every so often one ‘lights up’ and turns into a scene.

    Bethany: Some authors want to do some thematic exploration before the story commences. You are quite right about that opening to P&P. We get a far more obvious frame in front of Frankenstein as Mary Shelley worked to give her novel a near-future, realistic gloss to increase the horror.

  6. I don’t get the strong anti-prologue feelings at all. In fact, I suspect that the aversion to prologues is a largely American phenomenon, much like the aversion to adverbs.

    I’ve never skipped prologues and I don’t know why so many other people do it. I think it has to do with having been trained early on that if there is a prologue, that prologue is the beginning of the story. Of course, if the prologue is of the very cliched “One hundred millennia before the time of our story, the light lord of goodness fought the evil lord of darkness. It was the most epic battle ever and finally the evil lord of darkness was buried in a tomb underneath the highest mountain…” kind, I may start to skim. But I would still read it, though probably not very attentively.

    The kind of prologue I like least is what I call “Hollywood nonlinear prologue”, because it’s particularly common in films and TV shows, though you find it in books as well. The story begins with an extremely exciting scene of our heroes – whom we don’t even know yet – fighting for their lives, then stops on a cliffhanger as the hero is about to be killed only to rewind to our heroes having some banter over coffee 24 hours before. That sort of thing can be done effectively, but mostly it’s just a sign that the writer did not have confidence in the actual opening of his or her story.

    I would totally read your old cook and goatboy story BTW. Though I can see one danger with doing an orthogonal prologue, namely that the POV characters in the prologue are so much more interesting than the actual protagonists. I remember a mystery prologue about a couple of elderly lesbian nurses, one of whom later found the body. I was completely charmed by the nurses and very annoyed when the POV switched to some dull detective character and the nurses were never seen again.

  7. Usually, when everybody is pretty much a gray hat, I start to wonder why I should care who wins. When they’re all more or less bad hats, I start to contemplate that it’s a real pity they can’t both lose.

    To mix it morally, it works better if you have your white hats, and maybe your gray hats, and your black hats, and you slice them into side orthogonally to their alignment. It takes a little more work, because the conflicts where two white-hats will conflict and not agree to a compromise have to be carefully constructed, but it does mix it up.

  8. Cora: That was the problem with so many eigheenth and nineteenth century novels–the hero and heroine had to be perfect, especially morally perfect, so (I suspect) readers tended to read for the story *around* the hero and heroine, because you knew they would never set a food wrong, and they would get their wedding bells and rightful inheritance back at the end. The interest was in the more colorful side characters.

    So if the prologue was from the cook’s POV, if the goat boy is to maintain a modern reader’s interest, he needs a problem that isn’t about how he suspects he was Meant for Great Things, but why is it that every other kid in the village could read really fast, but the letters just dance on the page for him? Is he as stupid as the village scribe says he is?

    Or some such.

  9. I am a skipper of prologues. Mainly because so many are of the Star Wars sort: “The Empire is in trouble. Now that the Death Star has been destroyed by the Rebel Alliance…”
    We excuse it in the movies because other forces carry us forward: the thundering John Williams score, promising drama and excitement ahead, the rep of the entire SW franchise, and the posters and trailers depicting expensive ILM battles and keen aliens.
    Can the author promise and keep the promise? There is frequently doubt about this. My idea is that I can skip the prologue and if the entire work is addictive enough, I can go back and read it. That’s how I read the front matter to LOTR.

  10. The problem is that most writers these days don’t comprehend what a prologue’s function is, and how that function fits with the novel they have written.

    They think that putting a bunch of pseudo-high rhetoric into italics they’ve written a prologue that intriques the reader and sets up the tone in the reader’s head.

    The high concept prologue, that should or would make the introduction to action info dump unnecessary, however, is seldom given to us, other than the cliches of motivation that you mentioned. Another way of looking at this in another genre is the western: the set-up for motivation of the protagonist’s violence is that he was a peaceful fellow and then the ravening Union army came along, killed and raped his wife, killed his son, burned his farm and left him for dead. And now he’s a gunfighter fighting his way coldly and more effectively through the world than anyone else while searching for the Union officer who led the troops that raped and killed his wife, killed his son, burned his farm and left him for dead. If you count all those westerns with that protagonist’s backstory, that’s more men than ever fought in the Civil War, whether Yankees or Rebs.

    Which is why I run away these days almost all the time from a fantasy prologue. Not to mention the novels that come with three OR even four prologues — yes, I have seen those. Didn’t read ’em though.

    Love, C.

  11. There are a lot of prologues that don’t follow the ‘show don’t tell’ guideline, and even ones that do, they can still be a hindrance to the start of the story.
    I remember when I started reading Garth Nix’s Sabriel, i made a muddle of finding page one and skipped the prologue. It was a book i had put down before, uninterested, and when i started it for the second time, and it began with the heroine bringing a pet rabbit back to life, good dialogue, an interesting setting, and a strong moral conflict, i was surprised. How could I have put this down? But then i realized that i had skipped the prologue. I found it and realized that if I had started with the prologue i would have put it down immediately. It was dramatic, but i wasn’t interested in the characters, I have little patience for babies with destiny, and there wasn’t anything to hang onto. If I hadn’t accidentally skipped the prologue, i would have missed an awesome book.

    If I had any advice, I’d say stick the prologue in right at the beginning of chapter 3. If the reader makes it through it, you’ve done your job at getting the characters and the setting off the ground. At the beginning a prologue is like giving the reader a cliff to scale without even a rope to help them along.

  12. I thought George R. R. Martin did a brilliant prologue to “A Game of Thrones.” It gives a bunch of throwaway characters, none of whom are seen again, but enough description and action to set the scene for what’s to come later, and the overarching threat to hats of all colors, be they white, black or gray. They’re carrying swords, they’re riding horses, it’s bloody cold, titles are important, and oh yes, don’t desert your post.

  13. It depends on the prologue. I give it a few paragraphs, but if it turns out to be the excerpt of an Old Chronicle detailing how the Evil Wizard stole the Famous Sword … (you can continue that by yourself, I think 🙂 ), contains the word Prophecy or the Habits of Hobbits (sorry Mr. Tolkien, I love your books, but I never made it through th prologue of LOTR), then I’ll stop reading it and go on to chapter 1. But if the prologue tells a story, I’m fine with it. GRR Martin does a great job in Game of Thrones fe., when he sets up that scary supernatural stuff beyond the Wall in the prologue and then the majority of the characters during the rest of the book isn’t aware of anything going wrong, or doesn’t care; it sets a nice bit of tension for the reader.

    Though personally I never felt my NiPs needed a prologue.

  14. There are many cats in Mu’us’hu Poarc, and the streets are paved with MSG.

    Or at least that’s what popped into my head.

  15. I am probably a bit of a prologue-skipper, except that I can’t honestly tell you I’ve recently read a book with a prologue. The reason is that I generally find too much exposition in prologues…at least those I’ve read.

    If a prologue is succint, I would read it, but meandering around is not something that draws me into a book.

    I can understand a writer’s desire to set-up their book and the reasons for prologues. Great worlds, expansive worlds, are not always easy to introduce to the reader. I run into that in my own writing. Sometimes–not always–it can be wrestled into submission. Other times, I guess that’s why folks use prologues.

  16. I don’t hate prologues as a species, but I dislike enough instances of prologues to understand why people are wary.

    I usually like a good framing prologue just fine — one which establishes why and to whom the story is being told. (Though I hated the framing device for the movie Ever After, which is the visual equivalent. The movie would have been better without.) I quite liked the prologue for Sarah Monette’s Melusine, which said a lot about that world and its wizards as a whole, but also gave us a character’s voice and attitude that was maintained through the books. And was short.

    I dislike History book/Encyclopedia Galactica prologues, and 20-page ramblings about hobbits (I didn’t mind reading that the severalth time in, when I knew what was coming, but I know I skipped it as a kid). But those can usually be passed over without hurting a book. Most prologues which involve actual character, action, and dialogue, even if the scene is historical, or a cliffhanger, can’t be completely passed by. Those are the ones which cause a book to live or die, much more than the kind you can shrug past. (And from above, the one from Sabriel is fabulous.)

    I note that both Robert Jordan and G.R.R.Martin started their highly successful series’ with prologues; one of the big historical event with the bad guys, one with a scene that has nothing to do with the book to follow or the characters. I didn’t think either of these an especially wise choice — Martin’s could have worked better had we seen more of the threat from the wall creep in sooner, but to me, the reappearance of that thread came so late that it wasted all the initially created tension of following oblivious characters trying to resolve more immediate problems — but the fact that they sold as they did suggest the allergy to prologues isn’t insurmountable.

    I disliked both Scott Lynch’s prologues in his first two books, but the first one, switching between two points of time in Locke Lamora’s early life, at least had the advantage of being unusual for a prologue. It took me two tries to get into the book, which I partly blame on the prologue, but get in I did, and what we learn in the opening is useful.

    The second book, though, started with the classic cliffhanger sort, where we stop at a tense point, and it just wasn’t for me.

    What I thought was an effective prologue, albeit not one for the beginning of a series, was the “Other Minister” sequence in one of the later Harry potter books. (She calls it chapter one, but reading it, it serves the real purpose of a prologue. It provided a quick summary of the major events to date, but it did so by also showing a different angle on those events, that of the muggle government and their reactions. Actually, of the later books, I would consider that one of Rowling’s stronger decisions as far as how to tell the story.

    The streets of Mu’us’hu Poarc won’t be paved with fish for long… that, or it will rapidly become a ghost town. Then again, they worship Camae’emb’ae’art, the god of smelly things.

  17. Lenora Rose: Oh yes, about Rowling’s choice to start the book from a different slant. Nifty!

    Camae’emb’ae’art, the god imprisoned for a thousand years, and escaped to cheese off heroes!

  18. As a framing device it works well, if a framing device is useful. Many novels with such a device would be better off without it.

    Then, I am a little sour on prologues partly because of the worst critique I ever got in years of workshopping stories: someone who said that I should change my short story to a novel and spent the rest of the critique telling me how utterly impossible everything was for a novel. One thing he recommended was a potted prologue from the omniscient POV telling about the history of the kingdom, with some wars, famines, and natural disasters

  19. Interestingly enough, I absolutely loved the Encyclopaedia Galactica entries in the Foundation series. But then, they are pretty short.

  20. Pingback: Okay, so the whole Internet hasn’t shut down after all | Cora Buhlert

  21. Reading through the comments, I think the one thing I’ve figured out about prologues is that different prologues work for different people and they’re always going to. For instance, I liked Garth Nix’s prologues, thought Robert Jordan’s were good at the start but got worse (too long) as he went along, and I liked George R R Martin’s but was disappointed when that storyline didn’t continue and instead we got something I cared less about. But in that comment I’m both agreeing and disagreeing with two comments other people have made (at least).

    The one thing that seems to be key is that readers want the writer to trust their own story and trust the reader to understand it. Whatever prologue the writer thinks will go best with the story, use it or don’t as long as it’s not being written as an excuse.

    Also, I agree with Asakiyume. I read through your example and was like, but what happens next? How does the goat boy win?

  22. Dancewithwaves: very true about the different appeal of stories. As I read through these comments, sometimes I agreed, but other times I shook my head, amazed at how differently we can react to things.

    Re the goat boy, it would be fun to speculate about that!

  23. We don’t get something really different in case of Martin. The man Ned executes in Game of Thrones is the one that fled from those zombie ghosts in the prologue.

    Heh, the prologue of Eye of the World was the best part of the entire book. 😉 But that’s probably me, I could not really warm up to the books and HATED the whole boring, emo teeange Aes Sedai Cabale. Gave up after a few books (don’t even remember where).

  24. Just to clarify, I’m not saying Sabriel had a bad prologue. It had a really wonderfully written prologue, but I appreciated it a lot more after I knew who the characters were and why the world was interesting.

    For someone who tends to write fantasy, I have really low patience for ‘fantasy-type’ stuff. I find prologues very off putting, as well as intrinsically heroic but slightly stupid missing princes, and if something starts off with a generic inn in a generic fantasy type setting, I’m done. A prologue, or an index of characters, or really any ‘history of the world’ type stuff will shut me down with a bang. Unless it’s ‘the world rode through the night on the back of the giant turtle A’Tuin…’ then we might be getting somewhere.

    Actually, considering J.K Rowling, what was impressive about the first book as well was how the first chapter, which was basically a prologue, managed to do all the prologuey things, set up the world, the recent history, name the important characters, etc, in scenes: funny, engaging, interesting scenes.

    Considering it, she could have chosen to open with the attack on the Potter’s cottage, there could have been storm and rain and horror, snakes and sniveling lackeys. But she didn’t. The drama came after we cared, and she made us care by showing us characters who were personally invested.
    The way she did it worked for me. That’s all.

  25. Cara: you are quite right about Rowling’s first book. It really does draw the reader in beautifully–enough sly humor for an adult, and enough wonder and immediate emotion for the nine year old.

  26. Hmmm… I’m unsure. I usually dislike those history-telling prologues – they seem too easy. I may be used to a higher lever of readership, but that was what I actually liked about GRRM’s prologue. It only told us of a general threat. All of what we learned about the world itself came from seeing the way stuff happened. We weren’t told: ‘the world is a medieval one divided to these parts, this guy is king after deposing the other guy, and stuff is about to happen’. It was left for us to discover. I even liked the threat not appearing in the book – because that was the essence of the book, that ‘Winter is Coming’, not that it’s here.
    Yeah, I may have gone off on a tangent there. What I’m trying to say is that a good prologue (for me) fits the idea of the book. In D&D type books, it’s the meeting of strangers/friends in a tavern – not planning to go on adventure, but adventure finding them. In epic good vs. evil books, we learn about the conflict. It changes for the type of story we’re telling.
    As for stories themselves – I prefer the kinds that are somewhat ambiguous, but still defined enough. For example, in any book where a war is going on, it is far too easy to fall into good vs. evil. But usually, war is hell for everyone, and they’re all fallen angels. Not enough books show us this – that while ‘The world depends on us to win in order to save it!’, until that happens, everybody’s going to suffer, and the peasants usually don’t care if the invading army fights for good – they’re still suffering.
    I can’t help but feel that I’ve gone off topic completely here, but maybe not?

  27. There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be in the writer’s mind; it doesn’t have to be in the reader’s mind.

    And _in medias res_ is a great place to start the story. (David Weber’s single best book may be _Path of the Fury_, which starts with the heroine avenging her family. Much important motivation and backstory shows up later in the book. A while back, Weber republished the book as _In Fury Born_, which has all those backstory incidents told in proper order and then segues naturally into _Path_. I thought it didn’t work nearly as well, because you don’t _need_ all the preceding stuff for the exciting story of revenge that follows.)

    The proper place to put the histories of your world is in the appendixes.

    Mostly. Some writers can pull off prologues very well.

  28. Perhaps prologues belong in the category of much-overused and difficult to pull off techniques in fiction.

    My attention was caught by the spelling “Poarc”. Ms. Smith, are you one of the minority of English-speakers for whom “fork” and “pork” don’t rhyme? Most of them were brought up in Scotland, Ireland, the American South, or the Caribbean.

    Those folks use the “fork” vowel in “for, or, war, fortune, normal” and many other words, and the “pork” vowel in “fore, more, boar, uproar”. So the misspelling “poark” would be in some sense more natural for this group than the standard spelling “pork”, which looks like it fits in with the “fork” group but doesn’t.