Especially for Writers
2 days ago
Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper explains the fascinating history behind my favorite hair-pulling, knee-capping Internet debate. Two surprising lessons here. First, all three plural forms of octopus can be considered correct. That's right, everybody. We can stop having this argument now.
Second, and more embarrassingly, it turns out that I've been mispronouncing "octopodes" for years. Whoops.
Notice that Tolkien does not begin with a prologue recounting all the history of Middle Earth up to the point where Gandalf tells Frodo what the ring is. He begins, instead, by establishing Frodo's domestic situation and then trusting world events on him, explaining no more of the world situation than Frodo needs to know right at the beginning. We only learn of the rest of the foregoing events bit by bit as the information is revealed to Frodo.
In other words, the viewpoint character, not the narrator, is our guide into the world situation. We start with the small part of the world that he knows and understands and see only as much of the disorder of the universe as he can see. It takes many days — and many pages — before Frodo stands before the council of Elrond, the whole situation having been explained to him, and says "I will take the ring, though I do not know the way." By the time a lengthy explanation is given, we have already seen much of the disorder of the universe for ourselves — the Black Riders, the hoodlums in Bree, the barrow wights — and have met the true king, Aragorn, in his disguise as Strider. In other words, by the time we are given the full explanation of the world, we already care about the people involved in saving it.
Too many writers of Event Stories, especially epic fantasies, don't learn this lesson from Tolkien. Instead, they imagine that their poor reader won't be able to understand what's going on if they don't begin with a prologue showing "the world situation." Alas, these prologues always fail. Because we aren't yet emotionally involved with any characters, because don't yet care, the prologues are meaningless. They are also usually confusing, as a half-dozen names are thrown at us all at once. I have learned, as a book reviewer, that it's usually best to skip the prologue entirely and begin with the story — as the author should have done. I have never — not once — found that by skipping the prologue I missed some information I needed to have in order to read the story; and when I have read the prologue first, I have never — not once — found it interesting, helpful, or even understandable.