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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: literary

To prologue or not to prologue? That is the question. This is our second installation discussing novel beginnings…get it? Novel beginnings. Okay, I’ll stop. The problem with the prologue is it has kind of gotten a bad rap over the years, especially with agents. They generally hate them. Why? In my opinion, it is because far too many writers don’t use prologues properly and that, in itself, has created its own problem. Because of the steady misuse of prologues, most readers skip them. Thus, the question of whether or not the prologue is even considered the beginning of your novel can become a gray area if the reader just thumbs pages until she sees Chapter One.

Most new writers butcher using the prologue. In fact, in all my years editing novels, I have come across one prologue that worked, and that was three days ago. Seriously. But he was a member of my Warrior Writer Boot Camp and has been coached by me, so I am not even sure it counts.

So without further ado…

The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues

Sin #1 If your prologue is really just a vehicle for massive information dump…

In my Warrior Writer Boot Camp, one of the first tasks each member must do is they must write detailed backgrounds of all characters. I make them get all of that precious backstory out of their system. This is a useful tactic in that first, it can help us see if a) our characters are psychologically consistent, b) can provide us with a feel for the characters’ psychological motivations, which will help later in plotting. I have a little formula: background–> motivations –>goals–>a plan–>a detailed plan, which = plot and c) can help us as writers honestly see what details are salient to the plot. This helps us better fold the key details into the plotting process so that this vital information can be blended expertly into the story real-time.

Many new writers bungle the prologue because they lack a system that allows them to discern key details or keep track of key background details. This makes for clumsy writing, namely a giant “fish head” labeled prologue. What do we do with fish heads? We cut them off and throw them away.   

Sin #2 If your prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.

This point ties into the earlier sin. Do this. Cut off the prologue. Now ask, “Has this integrally affected the story?” If it hasn’t, it’s likely a fish head masquerading as a prologue.

Sin #3 If your prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader…

If readers have a bad tendency to skip past prologues, and the only point of your prologue is to hook the reader, then you have just effectively shot yourself in the foot. You must have a great hook in a prologue, but then you need to also have a hook in Chapter One. If you can merely move the prologue to Chapter One and it not upset the flow of the story, then that is a lot of pressure off your shoulders to be “doubly” interesting.

Sin #4 If your prologue is overly long…

Prologues need to be short and sweet and to the point. Get too long and that is a warning flag that this prologue is being used to cover for sloppy writing.

Sin #5 If your prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story…

Pretty self-explanatory.

Sin #6 If your prologue is über-condensed world-building…

World-building is generally one of those things, like backstory, that can and should be folded into the narrative. Sometimes it might be necessary to do a little world-building, but think “floating words in Star Wars.” The yellow floating words that drift off into space help the reader get grounded in the larger picture before the story begins. But note the floating words are not super-detailed Tolkien world-building. They are simple and, above all, brief.

Sin #7 If your prologue is there solely to “set the mood…”

You have to set the mood in Chapter One anyway, so like the hook, why do it twice?  

The Prologue Virtues

Now that we have discussed the 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues, you might be asking yourself, “So when is it okay to use a prologue?” Glad you asked.

Virtue #1

Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.

Genre will have a lot to do with whether one uses a prologue or not. Thrillers generally employ prologues because what our hero is up against may be an old enemy. In James Rollins’s The Doomsday Key the prologue introduces the “adversary” Sigma will face in the book. Two monks come upon a village where every person has literally starved to death when there is more than an abundance of food. Many centuries pass and the very thing that laid waste to that small village is now once more a threat. But this gives the reader a feel for the fact that this is an old adversary. The prologue also paints a gripping picture of what this “adversary” can do if unleashed once more.

The prologue allows the reader to pass centuries of time without getting a brain cramp. Prologue is set in medieval times. Chapter One is in modern times. Prologue is also pivotal for understanding all that is to follow.

Virtue # 2

Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the backstory relevant to the plot.

The first Harry Potter book is a good example of a book that could have used a prologue, but didn’t (likely because Rowling knew it would likely get skipped). Therese Walsh in her blog Once Before A Time Part 2 said this:

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is told in a close 3rd person POV (Harry’s), but her first chapter is quite different, told when Harry is a baby and switching between omniscient and 3rd person POVs (Mr. Dursley’s and Dumbledore’s). Rowling may have considered setting this information aside as a prologue because of those different voices and the ten-year lag between it and the next scene, but she didn’t do it. The info contained in those first pages is critical, it helps to set the story up and makes it more easily digested for readers. And it’s 17 pages long.

This battle is vital for the reader to be able to understand the following events and thus would have been an excellent example of a good prologue. But, Rowling, despite the fact this chapter would have made a prime prologue still chose to make it Chapter One so the reader would actually read this essential piece of story information.

Food for thought for sure.

Yes, I had Seven Sins and only Two Virtues. So sue me :P. That should be a huge hint that there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one (that and I didn’t want this blog to be 10,000 words long). Prologues, when done properly can be amazing literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one. Make sure you ask yourself honest questions about what purpose these pages are really serving. Are they an essential component of a larger whole? Or are you using Bondo to patch together a weak plot or lazy writing?

But, don’t take my word for it. I actually scoured the Internet for some great blogs regarding prologues to help you guys become stronger in your craft:

Once Before a Time: Prologues Part 1 by Therese Walsh

Once Before a Time Part 2 by Therese Walsh

Agent Nathan Bransford offers his opinion as does literary agent Kristin Nelson

Carol Benedict’s blog Story Elements: Using a Prologue

To Prologue or Not To Prologue by Holly Jennings

If after all of this information, you decide you must have a prologue because all the coolest kids have one, then at least do it properly. Here is a great e-how article.

So if you must write a prologue, then write one that will blow a reader away.

Happy writing!

Make sure you tune into Wednesday’s blog based off my book (recommended by literary agents) We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media. The earlier you start branding the better.

Until next time…

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Writers! The sooner you begin building your platform, the BETTER! Some agencies now will not sign any writer who does not have a solid social media platform. That trend is sweeping publishing. Time to get prepared the right way.

Plan for success. If you don’t have a slick team of NY marketing people at your disposal, my book is perfect!

We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media is designed to be fun and effective. I am here to change your habits, not your personality. My method will help you grow your network in a way that will translate into sales. And the coolest part? My approach leaves time to write more books. Build a platform guaranteed to impress an agent. How do I know this? My book is recommended by agents.

You don’t have all day to market. You have best-selling books to write! So pick up a copy today.

Need a great workshop?

Best-Selling Author Candace Havens’s on-line workshop teaches everything from plotting to editing. She also brings some of the industry’s best and brightest to make you guys the best writers you can be. I will be teaching about social media the first week of October beginning 10/4.

Want to know how to create story magic?

Having trouble at critique group? Something not sitting well with your novel, but you aren’t quite sure what it is? Do you find yourself having to do more explaining than you would like when it comes to this one simple question: So what’s your book about? Want to know the secret to crafting stories a reader cannot put down? Fear not. Whether you are writing a short story, novella, screenplay, or a novel, there is one solid ingredient that can turn any plot into an un-put-down-able masterpiece.

Add this one ingredient (liberally), and you will be shocked how much your writing will improve. It can turn the mundane into magical. What is this super ingredient with such power that would make people turn off the television and send their children to bed early? What is the one pivotal component with the ability to make readers willingly and happily give up their precious sleep?

CONFLICT

Conflict Drives the Story

There. I said it. Conflict. Nothing else. Sorry. I love description and narrative and good dialogue, but they do not MAKE a story, and they do not DRIVE the story. Whether the story is character-driven or plot-driven, the fuel is the same…conflict, conflict, conflict!

Three pages describing a tree was great for a century ago. Steinbeck did it well. But today’s readers have a lot more choices when it comes to how they spend their free time. As an author, your work is competing against FaceBook, Twitter, movies, sporting events, the Internet, cable TV, carpools, etc. The modern reader has a far shorter attention span. Agents appreciate this reality, and so should you.

Let’s debunk one common myth (excuse) for breaking the “Conflict drives all stories rule.”

I love it when I hear this, “Oh, but my piece is literary fiction.”

Um…likely not.

And I do believe that a lot of new writers simply do not understand fundamental rules, and thus are lulled into believing their work is the exception. Do exceptions exist? Sure. Are they common? Not really.

One of the most common excuses I hear from new writers is that their work is literary and that is why there is no clear inciting incident or clear antagonist or even a clear goal. So let’s take a minute to clear this up.

Literary Fiction is Driven by Conflict

Most of the time when I hear a new writer announce that his piece is “literary fiction,” that is a short-hand cue for me to expect no structure, lots of similes, metaphors, self-indulgent flashbacks and no overall conflict other than a main character’s really pretentious angst. Most of the time, it smacks of self-therapy thinly guised as a story.

Sorry. Hate to break the news. Therapy is not interesting (unless you are Tony Soprano).

Am I picking on literary fiction? NO! But I do believe that a lot of authors really do not understand what it is.

Literary fiction is more serious and generally harder to pigeon-hole into a particular genre, but conflict still drives the story. In literary fiction, the story is more character-driven than plot-driven, much like movies categorized as “drama.”

This past weekend I watched Steel Magnolias. A fantastic example. There was no murder or explosion or stolen money to kick off the action. There was a wedding. A turn in life that would change all the characters forever, deeply and profoundly.

I repeat. Even literary fiction (drama) must be driven by conflict.

In literary fiction, the conflict is generally for the purpose of driving character arcs. Let’s use Steel Magnolias to elucidate. Movies make for easier examples.

In the very beginning Jackson (the groom) gives the audience the pivotal decision that will affect all six of the women featured in the movie—Shelby’s decision to have a child despite having Type 1 Diabetes. This is the inciting incident that causes everything to change.

I will go over three of the arcs for the sake of brevity.

Truvy (Friend of Shelby and her Mother M’Lynn)

Beginning—Truvy is estranged from the men in her life (husband and son). No matter how she tries to connect, she only seems to drift farther away from them, a reality that causes her great pain.

Ending—Shelby’s death due to kidney failure gives a sobering wake-up call to Truvy’s husband and son. They are convicted of how they have taken Truvy for granted and the emotional chasm closes.

Shelby (Daughter)

Beginning—Young, carefree, and in many ways very selfish. She is more concerned with the color of her nail polish than the risk she plans to take by getting pregnant against medical advice. Although bubbly and likable, it is clear that not only does she fail to value her mother, but she resents her mother’s efforts to look out for her well-being.

Ending—As Shelby’s arc closes, we see she is more sobered by life’s events and comes to value her mother’s sacrifices (now a mother, herself).

M’Lynn (Mother)

M’Lynn is a very static character who serves to drive the arcs of the others.

Beginning—Her only daughter is getting married. M’Lynn is keeping everything running and is there to fix the broken things (fragile champagne glasses). We see her fussing over the flowers and tending the details as she prepares for a joyous event.

Ending—Her only daughter has died. M’Lynn is keeping everything running, tending the details, fixing the broken things (a grieving husband and two sons who are emotionally crippled by loss [earlier symbolized and foreshadowed by broken champagne glasses]). She is once more fussing over flowers, only now the flowers will adorn a coffin and a grave site. She is the rock of the family, which we will see crack in a highly emotional scene after her daughter is lowered into the ground.

As is clear to see, there is plenty of conflict to drive the story.

For All Stories…

Conflict is the fuel that drives the arcs—character arc, scene arc, and ultimately the plot arc.

If you do not have conflict, you do not have a story. You may have a beautiful scene with lots of pretty metaphors and symbolism, but if there is not an overall problem to be solved, then what you have is dead weight.

In novels (and movies) there is always one large problem to be solved. Each scene is a step toward your protagonist’s problem being resolved. Each scene must have a smaller problem that HAS to be resolved before the hero can continue.

Since we have discussed literary fiction, let’s now look at a plot-driven story.

Plot-Driven Fiction is Driven by Conflict

The movie Labyrinth is a wonderful example. It begins with a kidnapping.

Our protagonist Sarah’s goal is to rescue her baby brother from the Goblin King. In order to do this, she must make it to the center of the labyrinth in thirteen hours. Yet, along the way, she must overcome a series of challenges that lead her ever closer to her outer goal—finding the way into the labyrinth, escaping the oubliette, running from the chopping blades of the Cleaners, escaping the Bog of Eternal Stench, and on and on. Each scene peels back a layer of Sarah’s character and serves to drive her emotional arc (inner goal) as it simultaneously drives the plot arc.

Through events (things happening—not internal dialogue or flashbacks or Sarah talking out loud or conveniently writing in a journal), Sarah is made painfully aware of the ugly aspects of her character. She MUST CHANGE if she hopes to save her brother.

The Sarah of the beginning is doomed to failure. In fact, when pitted against her adversary in the beginning, Sarah fails horribly. Because of her childishness and self-centeredness she pays a horrible price—she loses her brother.

Fortunately for our heroine, the Goblin King underestimates Sarah and he generously offers her a chance at redemption (the catalyst). Judging her by who she is in that initial scene, the King fully expects her to give up. Yet, what the King fails to understand is that the very labyrinth he believes will break Sarah, will be his undoing.

Each challenge within the labyrinth serves a two-fold purpose—1) Get Sarah closer to the center. Literal forward progression. 2. Fire away Sarah’s character impurities and forge a heroine who can triumph at the end when pitted against the Goblin King. Symbolic/emotional forward progression.

Conflict continually places Sarah in danger. Will she learn the lesson required to continue the journey? Conflict reminds us that something large is at stake and the clock is ticking. Conflict makes us care.

Whatever story you choose to write, think of it as a machine…like a car. Description, narrative, dialogue, characters all represent your vehicle’s moving parts. Without conflict (fuel) the parts fail to serve their purpose. What good is a strong chassis, a padded steering wheel, and the best Perelli tires if the car has no gas?

I challenge you to inspect each and every scene and ask three questions:

  1. What purpose does this scene serve?
  2. Does this scene propel figurative and literal forward momentum…toward the one large end goal?
  3. If I remove this scene, will it fundamentally change my story? If not…KILL it.

Add good doses of conflict, and I guarantee that readers will lose sleep reading your book or staying up to finish your movie.

Good luck and happy writing.

Until next time…

Want to learn how to become a master at conflict? As always I recommend learning from one of the best. Bob Mayer’s workshops www.bobmayer.org.

Also, I highly recommend Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.