Friday, September 19, 2008
Q & A 153
What do you think about prologues? Some writers (those who hate "infodump," like Crusie) abhor them; I think they are useful, especially if they describe something that happened in the past that starts off the action in the main story (the theft of a treasure, a vow of revenge, the placing of a curse, etc.) When do they work, and when are they A Bad Idea?
I believe you'll find that, to a person, those who abhor prologues were forced at some time in their lives to memorize the following:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Something something something cours yronne,
I had to lerne that craap in English 3
The first twelve lines at least, and as you see,
It stayed with me, at least to somme extente,
Although I never did know what it meant.
Those who don't hate prologues probably didn't recognize that as the opening of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, which many of us studied in our foreign language classes.
The prologue was introduced by the Greeks in order to help audiences understand the background for their plays. At the opening of a Greek play, a god would be lowered onto the stage and would give a two-hour discourse on cavemen and dinosaurs and a giant obelisk that appeared from nowhere, which were, at the time of the Greek civilization, the only things that could be considered background to anything. Usually the theater was empty by the time the actual play started.
Romeo and Juliet has a well-known prologue. It doesn't help your literary reputation to put down Shakespeare for opening with an info-dump, so most critics will allow that a prologue can work out well on occasion.
If your novel spans six generations of the evil Carstairs family, you don't need a prologue in which some unknown woman (Mildred Carstairs) has sex with Satan. You can simply make that the first chapter. But if the entire novel takes place during a one-month period in 2008, except for one crucial event involving Anabel and the Count in 1811, it might be a bit of a jolt to your readers to discover that Anabel and the Count and the other romantic characters they've come to love and hate in chapter 1 died two centuries ago, and they must start anew with corporate raider Robert Johnston. By labeling the Anabel/Count chapter "prologue," the author reveals that this is an unrelated short story, and the reader skips it.
Interestingly, when an author tells what happened between Anabel and the Count through some ploy like discovering Anabel's dusty diary, rather than showing what happened in a prologue, it tends to be the same people who gripe about prologues who also gripe that an author should show, not tell.
When does a prologue work? Let's say two hundred years ago the Count stole a treasure from Robert Lloyd, who swore revenge and put a curse on the Count's family. Would you rather learn this in dialogue:
Ellen: Why are you such a loser, Robert?
Johnston: Two hundred years ago my ancestor stole a treasure from Robert Lloyd, who swore revenge and put a curse on my family.
. . . or would you rather have witnessed the theft and curse-putting, which seemed unrelated at first, but which you have gradually realized, as Johnston fell into the depths of despair, was profoundly significant?
A prologue fails when the reader gets to the end of the book and thinks, Good book. But what the hell was that prologue? It had nothing to do with anything. It must have been from another book and the printer screwed up.
Future writing exercise: Corporate raider Robert Johnston seems cursed. Write a prologue to explain his run of bad luck.
Posted by Evil Editor at 9:59 AM