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Hooked on a prologue

23 Oct

I had a lightbulb moment with His Brand Of Beautiful today, and I have two things to thank for it. Two people actually. Stephen King and my critique partner, Kathy. I’ll thank Jennifer Crusie too for this phrase I read on her blog on a topic completely unrelated to prologues. She said something like: The character isn’t in the same location, but I want her to be strong on the page.

I love that. Strong on the page.

So I have a villain in His Brand Of Beautiful who is only in teeny segments of the book, but he’s a huge part of the backstory, and I want him to be Strong On The Page.

My CP said that my villain isn’t ‘bad’ enough, that to raise strong emotions in my characters I have to give strong reasons for those emotions. Because she didn’t read my villain as nasty as I wanted him to be, she felt that my hero’s reactions were then all too far-fetched, or over the top. She didn’t think he had enough reason to hate the villain like he did (does).

So I wrote a prologue in about two hours of writing this morning. My three-year-old was blessedly, beautifully behaved during this time and played with his dinosaurs and came across for the occasional cuddle and generally, just let me get on with it while my muse was flowing.

And here’s where Stephen King comes into it for me. I’ve just finished reading The Dead Zone. King starts it with a prologue. He gives both his hero and his villain a segment in the prologue then kicks off into Chapter 1.

I re-read the prologue this morning.

His villain, Greg Stillson, is gradually climbing the political ladder throughout The Dead Zone and towards the end of the book the hero Johnny has a psychic flash that Stillson is going to become President and that as President, he’ll unleash nuclear war.

In the prologue, King shows a scene with a much younger Stillson, working as a door to door salesman. He rocks up to sell someone encylopedias and when they’re not home, the homeowner’s dog objects to a stranger on his turf. Stillson then proceeds to kick the dog to death.

Nice guy huh?

So because we’ve seen this side of Stillson early in the book, no matter what happens through the next pages we’re all convinced Stillson is an arsehole and that come what may, Johnny Hero has to find a way to prevent Stillson becoming President. It’s brilliant.

This afternoon I visited one of my favorite blogs, Nathan Bransford. He has a great piece on the pros and cons of prologues.

Here’s what he says:

The most common question I get about prologues: are prologues necessary? Personally I think the easiest litmus test is to take out the prologue and see if your book still makes sense.

(I would think given I only just put the prologue in, the answer to that is that I kind of fail this litmus test because I’m sure my book made sense yesterday… but is it better now??? Will this prologue resonate for me right through the book, like Stephen King’s does in The Dead Zone? I think that’s a yes, too.)

Bransford then says:

If you can take out a prologue and the entire plot still makes perfect sense, chances are the prologue was written to “set the mood”. But here’s the thing about mood-setting: most of the time you can set the mood when the actual story begins. Do you really need to set the mood with a separate prologue? Really? Really really?

Sometimes the answer to those four reallys is: “yes, really.” Or the prologue is to be used as a framing device around the plot or to introduce a crucial scene in the backstory that will impact the main plot. So okay, prologue time.

(There’s me. A crucial scene in the backstory that will impact the main plot. Got it in one).

Bransford again:

What makes a good one?

Short, self-contained, comprehensible.

The reader knows full well while reading a prologue that the real story is waiting. A prologue makes a reader start a book twice, because it doesn’t always involve the protagonist, and starting a book is hard because it takes mental energy to immerse oneself in a world. You’re asking more of a reader, so they’ll want to make sure it’s worth it.

You can read Nathan Bransford’s entire post on prologues here. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/03/prologues.html

For the moment at least, I’m hooked on my prologue. I wonder what my Crit Partner will say?

What about you? Are you a prologue fan?

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1 Comment

Posted by on October 23, 2012 in Writing Craft

 

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One response to “Hooked on a prologue

  1. Lily Malone

    November 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    Update!
    Well… I was hooked on my prologue, but yesterday I cut it out. It’s sitting safely in a file in my His Brand Of Beautiful folder, just in case I change my mind and want it again.
    I had to question the wisdom of starting a contemporary romance with a scene from the villain’s past. What did this do in terms of setting up the tone of my entire book? I think it made it too dark. It made it more romantic suspense than romance.
    So for now at least, the prologue is history. But my love affair with it was fun while it lasted!

     

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