Thursday, 15 December 2011

Using Prologues: A Case Study With Brandon Sanderson

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard the advice ‘don’t use a prologue unless you really need one’. If you write fantasy, you have probably broken this rule at least once (most likely before you ever heard it) and may have been tempted to break it since you did learn it. If you’re a reader of fantasy you have almost certainly ploughed your way through many prologues of varying calibre.  

There are many reasons for not using prologues. The key one for me is they are nearly always an infodump of backstory. That’s two sins right there:
  • Infodump – a massive dump of information that makes the reader’s eyes water and their brain desperately desire to be elsewhere; and
  • Backstory – which should always be trickled to the reader in the exact amount they need as they need it. Kind of like Goldilocks – not too much and not too little, not too early and not too late, just right!
First off, why tell your reader all the backstory in a lump at the beginning when you can keep them guessing? Secrets can drive plot, create suspense and keep the reader turning pages. I am guilty of this one in my manuscript The Fires of Madness. Did I mention it needs a complete rewrite? Yep. Total. Bulldoze it flat and build it up from scratch type rewrite. And there won’t be a prologue. Why would I reveal the reason for my character’s self-inflicted emotional torment and borderline insanity when I can get so much mileage out of teasing the reader with it? I mean, really, when you look at it that way, it’s a no-brainer, right?

So we all know that prologues are almost always a big no-no. But what about the other question? The one that you don’t see answered as much?

When should you use a prologue?

I don’t claim to be an expert on this, but I can point you to one person I believe has done it right. 

Brandon Sanderson in The Way of Kings.

I have nothing but respect for Brandon Sanderson. My favourite editor told me I should read some Dickens because my weakness is at the sentence structure level. When this was pointed out to me, I was reading The Way of Kings. Thinking about what she’d said, I noticed that Sanderson’s writing is very economical and effective. In fact, I have done so much writing and critiquing these days, it’s hard for me not to mentally rewrite the book I am reading. 

But I couldn’t rewrite The Way of Kings. Not for love or money. I suppose there is a reason he was hand-picked and personally invited to complete The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan’s lamentable premature death. 

I asked my favourite editor and she said yes, Sanderson’s writing is technically near perfect. Of course, there is more to writing than technical perfection, but I'm not going to complain about technical perfection in addition to compelling stories - would you?

The Way of Kings is interesting because it breaks the prologue rule. 


I kid you not, this book has a prologue, but before the prologue, you read a prelude. 

I know what you’re thinking. In this day and age, when prologues are frowned upon, why would you write a prologue and a prelude? And how would you get it published? Well, the answer to the latter could be because publishing houses do have favourite sons and daughters who get to break the rules, and while a certain amount of this is going on here (The Way of Kings is so long it’s been broken into two parts) I don’t believe that is the reason the prelude and prologue slipped through.

No, I believe they are there for good reasons. So what are those good reasons?

The prologue and the prelude contain information the reader needs to know. This information cannot be dribbled to the reader throughout the book because the viewpoint characters don’t know it.

The prelude is ancient history. So ancient it has been lost in the mists of time. If I didn’t have this information, I believe a decent amount of the rest of the book would be confusing to me in the context of the bigger picture. Some of the foreshadowing I have identified would be meaningless. Also, one of the main characters has visions of the past. I only know they are true visions of the past because I know some of the past. Everyone in the book believes he is mad. I think it’s important the reader believes he isn't mad, otherwise the visions would have no meaning. And believe me, even with the prelude, my faith did waver at one point and I began to wonder if the poor guy really was mad. Without that prelude, I’d be almost convinced of it.

The prologue deals with more recent events – who was behind the assassination of the Alethi king. The Alethi know a little bit, but they don’t know the full details. The POV character of this prologue also gets his own POV scenes later in the book, but not many. Arguably these details could be dribbled in there, but since he only has two or three scenes, I personally believe those scenes would be getting into the realm of information overload if you tried. The reader just wouldn't grasp all the important information. 

The full details of the situation are important because it lets the reader know there is more going on than the war with the Parshendi, the Parshendi are not the unrefined brutes the Alethi think they are, and there is some kind of villain out there who is carefully orchestrating events for his own advantage and things are so much worse than the protagonists think it is. 

The villain is revealed at the end of book one – but of course you can’t build suspense and tension for a big reveal unless the reader knows there is something to be revealed. The prologue is the first step in building this tension and suspense, and of course the tension increases after the reveal because the identity of the villain is someone the protagonists trust – and they still don’t know he’s working against them. 

So the two key reasons for a prologue?
  • It contains information the reader needs to know; and
  •  There is no other real way to give it to the reader because, for example, the primary viewpoint characters don’t have this information.
The prelude/prologue were written in limited third person, which for me made it more engaging than using omniscient. That said, even though there is a good reason for including both the prologue and the prelude in The Way of Kings, I must warn you, they did still make it hard for me to get into this book. Inevitably, they will slow the introduction down, and I found myself wondering ‘when am I going to get to the real protagonist?’. So even if you need a prologue, be cautious in its use. 

And unless you are Brandon Sanderson, I really don’t recommend you opt for the prelude/prologue double whammy. 

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Raine Thomas said...

Great post, Ciara! I've wrestled with this decision quite a bit in my own writing. I do include prologues, but they fall into your "exception" scenarios. Your point is well-taken that they should be used carefully.

Lissa Bilyk said...

I've got a prelude and prologue in the novel I queried. It worked quite well - in fact, the novel fell apart without both of them, and while neither of them were infodumps, one was a teaser and the other essential backstory that could not be woven or flashbacked (the events of the first person narrator's tumultuous birth) -  but you're right: only respected, experienced moneymakers can risk breaking the rule for traditional publishers.
That's why I've trunked the novel and am now working on a different one that is more in line with all the hoops agents and publishers ask us newbies to jump through.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

When I started out, I always wrote a prologue. I just thought that was what you did. I didn't need one for the last manuscript so I didn't write one.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

It's always hard doing something that is 'frowned upon' in a debut novel, even if there are good reasons for it.

Angela Quarles said...

Great post! I hadn't come across one that so clearly defined the reason to have one and you just helped me scrap mine permanently. I'd already deleted it, because it wasn't working, but even yesterday I was still wondering if it was because I was not doing it right. Thank you!

sevwinters said...

I'm not sure that I entirely agree. I also tend to use the prologue to set the premise for the book and for marketing purposes. I agree that it's a lousy place to dump back story, but  for example, with my book "Wolf's Rise" which comes out next week, the prologue (which is shown here:http://sevshomepage.blogspot.com/2011/11/prologue-to-wolfs-rise.html) is used to tell the reader that this is going to be a chase book... so put on your running shoes! The first five pages of a book are the most important ones for a reader deciding whether or not to buy your book. I believe prologues are important on that level. 

Ciara Ballintyne said...

There may be other valid reasons to include a prologue than the ones I have identified. Without seeing Chapter 1 of your book I can't comment on the prologue. Is it the same characters in the prologue as Chapter 1? If so, it begs the question, what makes it a prologue instead of Chapter 1? Sometimes prologues are mislabelled. If it's NOT the same characters, you risk losing your readers because they don't know who they are supposed to identify with. But as I said, without the rest of the book I can't really comment. There may be good, workable reasons for including your prologue.

That said, the first five pages are important - and that's WHY prologues are NOT usually a good idea. Prologues are often too far in the past or focus on characters other than the protagonist. If you capture the reader's interest, you then lose it when you switch back to the present or viwpoint character. You want the first 5 pages to be HERE and NOW. I don't think a prologue exists to tell the reader what the book is about. The blurb should do that. I should certainly hope your blurb indicates it is a chase book before your reader ever gets to the prologue.

Also, this post is really in the context of the high fantasy genre, where prologues are typically historical in nature (as the prelude in The Way of Kings certainly is) and your novel clearly is not, so to that extent my guidance may not even be appropriate for your genre.

However, I don't think I've ever read a non-fantasy book that had a prologue. Genre trends are certainly worth researching. I'm not sure what genre your book is, only that it's not high fantasy.

The most basic point of this post, though, is a writer should always make sure there is a good reason for including a prologue before they include one.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Glad to be of assistance! I've scrapped all my prologues because not a single one of them served any decent purpose.

sevwinters said...

Nope. the same characters are not in chapter one of my book, but chapter one is less without the prologue. lol... 

sevwinters said...

oh... and my genre is a bit of a crossover..... I'm dealing with werewolves, but in a military experiment escaping the lab sort of way. So far as I recall at the moment, the same characters are NEVER in the next chapter. I am running separate, yet related story lines between interconnected characters that are all put in motion by the information we learn in the prologue. 

sevwinters said...

but yes.... unless someone has a GOOD reason for a prologue, I tend to agree. 

Dan Rice said...

I'm always uncomfortable with blanket rules like "no prologues ever".  Even people that quote that rule then go on to talk about an example of where it worked for them. 

Peter Ahlstrom said...

There are actually THREE prologues in the book. Chapter one is more or less yet another prologue. The prelude is the series prologue, the prologue is the book prologue, and chapter one is basically the character prologue for Kaladin.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I agree, I think the rule for prologues is the same for every other word in a manuscript -  if it serves no purpose, it has to go. It's not that there is a rule 'Don't use a prologue' it's just that the general rule seems to be broken a lot for prologues and therefore prologues often get special attention in discussion - because they are serial offenders. I also read prologues, preludes and the like so I was a bit shocked when I met readers who said they skip things, - prologues, paragraphs, pages, chapters... Heresy!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

It is a very difficult book to find the true beginning of, which is probably why even though I enjoyed it immensely I didn't find myself driven to read it in one sitting. I would describe it as compelling - in a mesmerising kind of fashion - but not gripping in the same way I find The Wheel of Time (including those WoT books written by Brandon Sanderson!).

Amberr Meadows said...

Note to self: no preludes and prologues unless I am a badass fantasy writer. Okay...got it!

Constance Wallace said...

Well I've used prologues.  Perhaps I've done a "No-No" but it was needed.  :)

Ciara Ballintyne said...

And WAY more badass than me ;-)

Ciara Ballintyne said...

If it was genuinely needed then it's not a no-no. The point is to always double-check a prologue IS needed and not to toss it in like a standard recipe ingredient. Really, this isn't any different to anything else in a novel. What purpose does this serve? None? Scrap it. Or if it's valid, keep it.

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