Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Writing Event Story Prologues That Really Work

I'd like to talk about prologues. In the new release The Wise Man's Fear Patrick Rothfuss joins the small but august group of writers of Event Stories where a prologue adds rather than detracts from the novel. And that got me thinking about what these few writers did to break the 'no prologues in Event Stories' rule.

But first, let's review the rule itself and see what not to do. In his book, How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card talks about the Event Story, one of four story types. In the Event Story, something is wrong in the universe, the world is out of order. A golden age has been disrupted and the world is dangerous place. The story starts at the point when the character whose actions are most crucial to establishing the new order takes up the struggle. The story ends when order is restored.

Fantasy and Science Fiction frequently uses the Event Story structure. Card acknowledges that nowhere is this better accomplished than Tolkien's Lord of the Rings epic fantasy. But note something interesting here.
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.


For the longest time, I couldn't think of a single instance where I'd read a prologue that I thought added anything to an Event Story. But I've started to accumulate a small but glowing list of instances where I have seen prologues used to good effect. George R. R. Martin used prologue masterfully in A Game of Thrones. GRRM doesn't introduce everything there is to know about his world of Westeros, he starts with one targeted glimpse of something very wrong with his world. It whets the appetite and sets the tone for the work.

Steven Brust gave us a nifty morsel before his book Jhegaala. Brust tells what is essentially a short-short story which relates an anecdote about Vlad Taltos visiting his grandfather, asking questions concerning the mother he knew little about, and learning the difference between Guilds and Covens along the way. This time, the hook isn't so much something wrong with the world as providing one single piece of a puzzle, an important piece which, once the rest of the novel has been written, would be played last and cause everything else to fit into place. Think of it as setting the stage for later resonance much like they do in the movies. Again, the scene was very intimate, very personal.

However, it is the last example that most interested me. When starting The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss, I was amused to learn that Rothfuss had given us a prologue, and it was limited to a single page. He wrote what is essentially a tightly-compressed flash fiction scene comprised of six little paragraphs. He introduces a tiny mystery in the first paragraph, and resolves it in the last sentence of the sixth paragraph. Thinking about what Rothfuss did right, it occurred to me what it is about all the other prologues do wrong. I don't want infodump, I don't want the writer to try to impress me with a summation of their complicated and lovingly detailed back history. Rothfuss establishes a little setting, a bit of character, and a dash of tone, and that's it. He masterfully keeps the focus tight and employs the prologue as a teaser to draw us into the bulk of the story in chapter one.

Here are the elements of a good prologue as I see them:
1. They start small, not grand.
2. They make us care about what's gone wrong in the world, or something about a single character.
3. They act as a teaser that pulls us strongly into the beginning of the novel proper.

Do you have a favorite example of a Event Story prologue that works?
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