1. Thomas Kitchen
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    Thomas Kitchen Proofreader in the Making Contributor

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    I'm Welsh - and proud!

    Breaking the fourth wall in the prologue only

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Thomas Kitchen, Jun 8, 2013.

    Hi all,

    I'm currently planning a fantasy novel. The thing is, most of the backstory is important and I won't be able to fit all of it into the dialogue and so forth without it feeling like a gigantic info dump. Also, I want to get the reader "into the story", and make them feel like they are a part of it a little more.

    So I had the idea of using a prologue (if you think a "chapter one" would be better for this idea, let me know), with an old man talking to the reader around a campfire. I could set up the scene and not startle the reader when they are mentioned, but rather surprise and excite them when they are spoken of and to. I would want the man to tell us a little of the backstory and talk to the reader about the characters and so on, in a way that would not be used in the novel. I'm not quite sure how to do that quite yet, but as I say, it's a work in progress.

    Now I come to you all to ask what you think of this. I know breaking the fourth wall is not common these days, in either films or literature, but I would only be doing it for the prologue/first chapter ONLY, and nowhere else. I personally enjoy reading works which do this at least partially, but I know some people are against it. Then again, no one can really stop me! I know that most readers feel like they are part of the universe when they read a book, but I think that if the story was told to them "personally", this would add electricity and a little mystery to the novel.

    Thoughts? :)
     
  2. The Byzantine Bandit
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    The Byzantine Bandit Member

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    If you want to write it that way, I don't see anything wrong with it. Do it and see how it works! Chesterton would approve.
     
  3. ArnaudB
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    If you write the old man without precising to whom he's speaking, you can do it without directly breaking the fourth wall by simply not telling who the audience is. Or you can make one character reminisce what events led to the current situation. In a book there is always the reader (else it wouldn't be a book with no one to see it) so mentioning them isn't that much needed.
    You can also have a scene in an university or something like that after the events of the story where they speak about it (assuming it's important enough to be History).

    For myself I prefer to avoid directly addressing the reader because I feel it create a separation between them and the characters. So what I do is have a first chapter where something happens, then in the second or third scene following that I add a description of just what is going, preferably when the MC has choices to make on what to do next.

    Try multiple ways until you find one that you prefer. That said I think if you use an "old man" to present the history, then that might be best used multiple times (beginning and end for instance). Myst and Riven are videogames (which feel more like animated interactive good books in my opinion) where you have that, with a man sending you through worlds with a book.
     
  4. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    It wouldn't really be breaking the forth wall if the old man tells a story to some guys around a campfire. The reader is not nowhere near that particular campfire. The reader is reading a book. Breaking the forth wall would be if the old man addresses the reader of the book.

    The old man speaks in second person, right? So what is actually happening there is that your narrator's voice becomes directly associated with a narrator character. You uncover and directly show the narrative situation, but that is something very different from "breaking the 4th wall".
     
  5. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    It would really just be first person narration (not second person - he would not be saying, "You did this and that"). Breaking the fourth wall occurs when the entire story is in third person, but then the writer makes a comment directly to the reader outside the narration of the story.

    For me, the real question is: if the backstory is so important, why isn't it part of the story? By that I mean, instead of trying to bring the reader up to speed with pages of background (which the reader will be sorely tempted to pass up), why not start with chapter one and tell the story from the beginning. Alternatively, you can begin at a later time and flash back. OTOH, is it really vital for the reader to know all aspects of the earlier part of the story all at once? If not, you can begin in the present (whatever the present actually is for your story) and then make reference back. It doesn't have to be through dialogue. It can be through a number of devices, such as a discovered document that becomes the basis for narration.
     
  6. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Actually, when the narrator addresses the reader, he does speak in second person: "Listen here you, Mr Reader, this is a serious book, not some cheap pulp fiction!" :)

    Off topic- but not that much, actually :
    I don't see this as a valid argument really, and it comes out sooooo much on this forum. If you write for a reader who is going to skip through pages: why would you write for that kind of reader?
     
  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Shock! Horror! Prologue! OMIgodyou'llnevergetpublished...!!!

    I agree with you completely. There is prejudice against certain writing styles on this forum, like starting a book with a ...shock, horror, Prologue! ...but in fact some of us enjoy Prologues. Some of us are happy to read an opener that doesn't contain frantic action (although some Prologues do.)

    Many modern bestselling novels contain Prologues. I'm in the middle of reading one now: Lies of Locke Lamora. I've also had a few cross my path recently that had prologues which weren't labeled as such. Just a few pages before Chapter One that weren't headed at all.

    Good grief. Surely it all comes down to how the thing is written. It's just as easy to write a boring Chapter One, filled with infodumps or a boring Chapter 16, catching us up with what's going on with boring infodumps. If I had visible lips for people to read on this forum, I would say, now: Read My Lips. Prologues are not boring infodumps UNLESS they are boring infodumps!

    Prologues can be exciting, intriguing, informative, lyrical, explicit, action-filled ...whatever you make them. And they ARE part of the story! They are just a part that doesn't fit into either the style, POV, or the direct chronology of the rest of the story. But taking on board what's in a well-presented Prologue is important to understanding the story. Skipping one makes as much sense as skipping Chapter One, or any other chapter you think might not please you.

    TRUST THE AUTHOR!!! If it's there, it's there for a reason.

    You are right. If somebody is stupid enough to skip a Prologue just because it's there, they are not the person you're writing for. And the notion that books with Prologues don't get published is nonsense as well. As my current reading list bears out...

    Write your story the way you want to, the way that works best for you. I'm sure it'll be fine!

    Rant over. For today...
     
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  8. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't see anything wrong with that. I think a prologue written like some kind of an ancient fairytale, myth, or a long-gone event, in other words, that can stand out as a short story under 3k words, works perfectly fine. As long as it is well-written.
     
  9. SuperVenom
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    SuperVenom Contributing Member

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    I would say it is still an info dump and having such a vast amount of info at one point so early on could end up with the reader forgetting vital information wben its needed. I would introduce it slowly like a hospital drip in various ways. ie charters in the know. signs charters doing research o or through dialogue.
     
  10. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    A prologue is not an infodump by default - can be, if writen that way - but you want to avoid infodumps all together, being in prologue, chapter 7 or the endnotes - as jannert said above ^
     
  11. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I can see this working in a fairy tale and some fantasy genres. I'm having a harder time seeing it with every kind of fantasy genre.

    It's akin to some 'once upon a time' openings that start out as a storytelling narrative then fade into the story in present tense.
     
  12. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    There are a number of writing techniques that have been used in the past that are not successful today. This does not mean that they constitute poor writing, but it does mean that if you insist on writing that way, you will reduce your chances for publication. I'm trying to remember the last time I read a novel that had a prologue, and the only one I can recall in the last 20 years is one that I happen to be reading right now, which was written in 1885. That's not to say that there haven't been any, and I readily admit that this is not in anyway a valid statistical sample. But, as I consider myself a fairly well-read person, it suggests to me a trend of some significance.

    As for Burlbird's last point, a prologue certainly is not an infodump by default. But it is an advertisement to the reader that the material presented therein is not part of the story, per se, and even if you do not wish to accept the argument that it is an invitation to the reader to pass it by, it certainly will not serve to draw the reader in, which is something we all seek to do.

    One of the weaknesses of a forum like this - perhaps THE weakness - is that when a question is asked, there is no telling (at first blush) the level of expertise of anyone who chooses to respond. As a result, I have seen a number of responses to questions that have been flat out wrong. I generally state my view once in a thread. In a few cases, where someone argues with me based on established fact, I will engage in debate. But with a question like this one, I think the best thing to do is to state my view and if someone doesn't like it, then they don't. Ultimately, it is up to the person who posed the question in the first place to decide what they will ultimately do.

    As must we all.

    And, to respond to Burlbird, when a story - short or long, main or prologue, is narrated as "I did this and then I did that", even if it is stated in the form of "Let me tell you a story. I did this and then..." then that is first person, not second person. The only thing that is in second person is the "Let me tell you a story." The rest is in first person (or third, if the focus of the story being told is someone else).
     
  13. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    "Let me tell you a story" is first person, too. Second person is "You told me a story. You said you did this and then you did that ..." In other words, the narrator is asserting that the reader is the protagonist.
     
  14. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I'm not sure I agree, Minstrel, since what is understood in my example is "You, let me tell you a story", being in the imperative mood. Usually, use of the imperative mood and the pronoun "you", "your" or "yours" to address the reader directly constitutes second person.
     
  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You may be right. I never got quite that far into grammar - I guess I should. I get it mostly right when I'm writing, but I don't know all the proper terms for moods, cases, etc.

    That's what happens to you when the last grammar lesson you took was in seventh grade ...
     
  16. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sorry, but, if you look back you'll see I've said that second person is used to address the reader or to address the "old man's listeners". While imperative is probably used (in second person) there are many other ways to address someone and use second person - the reason why it's second person, if you look back to my post, is to achieve what OP had in mind: to break the forth wall / or, what I tried to explain, to present the narrative situation and develop an intimate relation between the reader and his world.

    And Ed - about personal level of expertise - this is an internet forum, not an academic institution. Meaning, whether you are a master of science or a primary school dropout doesn't really matter (shouldn't matter at all) - the nature of the medium / the form of open discussion / makes ir irelevant. And of course, here people look for opinions, mostly, and not expertise - if you need my expert opinion (to quote Nabokov) meeet me at my office Mr Dostoyevsky ;)
     
  17. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    There was a recent thread about prologues and the responses were definitely mixed. Some people like them, some find them tolerable, and others hate them. Personally I don't like prologues because I want to get to the actual story. I want to know what's going on right now not what happened in the past. The past is not relevant in a story unless it is somehow connected to the present. Not all prologues are info dumps. You should exercise caution if you choose to write a prologue because they can easily become info dumps.

    I don't agree that a reader skipping a prologue signifies that they are not worthy of being written for. The reader is not at fault if the author is not up to par. People are inclined to skip prologues because by their nature they typically don't pertain to the story in the here and now. Labeling something as such is essentially an invitation to skip it to those who don't care about the past. Most (not all) of the prologues I have read have been a lot of useless information. As a writer you have to make the distinction between what the reader needs to know and what you, as the writer, need to know.

    Whether or not you write the prologue is up to you. These are just things to consider if you choose to do so. I have read prologues that contributed to the story. So end of the day make sure it has it's place and is needed and it will be fine.
     
  18. ChaosReigns
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    ChaosReigns Be Still and Know Contributor

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    Its up to you, write it, and put it in, if it reads alright and works with the story, keep it, if not, then figure out some way of putting the necessary information into the story
     
  19. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    I must admit that I do like some examples where the fourth wall is broken. If it's done well, or if it's Spike Milligan doing it in 'Puckoon' because he's freakin' Spike Milligan. I've seen Douglas Adams breaking the fourth wall, I think it was in 'So Long And Thanks For All The Fish'. I found that very poorly done and think less of the book because of it.
     
  20. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I don't want to bang on and on about this, so I'll vanish from this thread after I've said this. But 'skipping' a Prologue means you haven't read it. And how will you know if the author is 'up to par' unless you do?

    I'm sure there are bad/boring Prologues out there. However, I've also read bad/boring Chapter Ones as well—bad enough that I didn't bother with Chapter Two, and dumped the book.

    So, should I skip every Chapter One I come across, just in case I won't like it? Should we tell beginning writers not to even bother writing Chapter Ones, because some of them are awful?
     
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  21. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    In some topics, yes. But when someone posts a question about best practices in terms of getting published, I must disagree. Such questions should be answered on the basis of experience, not what feels good. In such cases, all opinions are NOT created equal.
     
  22. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's very interesting Ed, because I'd say that at least 20% of all books I read, including current bestsellers, start with a well-written prologue. For some currently popular writers, such as Tess Gerritsen, every single novel has a prologue.
    I love good prologues, not as infodumps at all, but as suspense builders. I suppose you could argue it can be Chapter 1 instead, but I personally like to start my novels with a good short story. It is not wrong or outdated, it's just my style/preference, call it what you will.

    Personally, I think it's wrong trying to 'align' our writing with whatever the current trend might be. It creates tall poppy syndrome. Vastly more important is to perfect our craft, so we can write our stories well, in any way we want, with no limitation, we'll still have a good end-product.


    You say that and yet, there is not a single commercially successful author here on the forum, that I am aware of. So who should we listen to, those who haven't yet tried to publish, those who are working on it or those who spent 30 years trying to get published and still haven't succeeded? I think unless someone here is a professional agent or publisher or at any point had a successful paying writing career, such as maia, all the rest of us are just making more or less educated guesses and we shouldn't try to dismiss anyone's opinion.
     
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  23. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    unfortunately, this means that you haven't actually grasped the whole idea of internet discussion boards yet. The only way for you to show your expertise on this, or any other question, aside from your actual post/ reply, is to provide a copy of your personal documents and thus leave the safe anonymity that your nickname, avatar and hidden ip address provide. Any claims you make concerning your own, real-life education, professional and personal achievement and other data is taken for granted, but remains unverifiable - as it should be. Thus, your opinion stands by itself, cannot be supported by any extra-forumal personal claims, nor can it be outweighted by my diploma or Jezzabel's good looks (or both). So, when you claim that you opinion is somehow more professional / has more weight than another member's opinion - what you get in response is a rant like this. ;)

    Point is: you or me or John can make any claim we want : you need to give examples, provide links, sound REALLY smart if you want to show more than just an opinion. Being authoritative and bossy is not going to do this for you.
     
  24. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have to disagree, I think it can be outweighed by your diploma and my good looks as well as my diploma and your good looks. And Ed's too. If we only worked together we could conquer the world (not just this forum)!
    ( ... off to work on a superhero novel) :D
     
  25. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Absolutely. Couldn't agree more. But I'm not talking about current trends, I'm talking about what may increase or decrease a writer's chances of being published.


    I have said many times that there are only a few people on the forum whose opinions on writing and publishing matters I respect, and I often advise newcomers to choose carefully whom they decide to follow. As someone who has spent many years (not so many as 30) trying to get published, I think that, yes, I do have experience that new writers who wish to publish might find valuable. But at the end of the day, each of us decides our own course, and each of us must live with those decisions.
     

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