1. United
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    Writing a prologue. Tips?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by United, Nov 9, 2014.

    For my first work, I am including a prologue. It is a creation myth (obviously eons before my protagonist is even born). The only "issue" I have right now with it is that it does include very specific and detailed information and scenes. My question is: should I let it be specific, or is it generally better to have a short, concise, yet vague prologue, and then reveal the specific background information through deus ex machina or support characters?
     
  2. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Definitely do not want deus ex machina. The one thing you don't want to do with a prologue is make it an infodump. Use the prologue to set the stage for the main story, or to give the reader a little 'inside information', something they will know but the characters won't. A prologue should be an added bonus, something that gives the reader a little more understanding of the main story without being encyclopedic.
     
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  3. United
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    Ah okay. And would an 'undercover angelic being' (known or unknown to the some of the characters in the story) be considered deus ex machina? Just trying to make sure. I hear so many negative things about using deus ex machina.

    Actually, what if I had an 'undercover angel' or ' undercover god' be a supporting character (as a guide/mentor) and come save the protagonist for a few scenes. Would that still be deus ex machina?
     
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2014
  4. B93
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    B93 Active Member

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    Deus ex machina does not mean having an omniscient character narrating things the other characters don't know. It refers to having the plot resolution hinge on introducing hitherto unknown characters or forces late in the story. Do some searches and read on the subject.

    Prologues are often a bad idea, but you MAY have a situation where it is appropriate if it is from a viewpoint (perhaps omniscient) that is not used in the rest of the story (or perhaps again in an epilogue). You have to keep a prologue interesting and preferably short. If it is not distinctly different from the rest of the story, then just make it Chapter 1.
     
  5. United
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    So, as long as my story's conflict(s) aren't magically resolved by outside forces, then I'm in the clear?
    How about a 'god' helping/supporting my protagonist in solving the conflict(s). Would that be acceptable?
    It could be in the form of providing some information/equipment/etc to the protagonist. The way I see it, deus ex machina is SUDDEN divine intervention with no prior introduction of the 'god'. What if the 'god' was already a character (support character/mentor)?
     
  6. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    You are right. "Deus ex machina" means "god from the machine", which refers to the ancient Greek practice of using a crane to lift an actor (playing a god) onto the stage as if the god was floating down from the heavens. To avoid that, introduce the 'god' well before it is needed, and give it a reason to help.

    Even just introducing the 'god' in a prologue is not necessarily enough to avoid a deus ex machina. The 'god' needs to be relevant to the plot somehow. It needs an ostensible reason to be in a position to help.

    (When I say "needs", I am just referring to what is necessary to avoid a deus ex machina, not necessarily what is necessary to have a good story. You can have a good story with some deus ex machina elements, as long as they do not cheapen the reader's investment in the story by cheapening the stakes.)
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    My general advice about prologues is, "Don't." I don't mean they never add value, but most novels would be better without them. It's usually preferable to get right into the story, and if the prologue material is truly important, it can be worked in as the story progresses.

    At the very least, don't take it for given that the prologue is a good idea. Challenge its right to exist with conscientious fervor, and only allow it to delay entry into your story if it proves itself indispensable.
     
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  8. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I'm half-and-half on this one, Cogito. I actually don't mind prologues so long as they are enticing. Think it as the dessert before the main meal, the teaser for what you're getting yourself into. If a prologue gets me excited and pumped to continue, then I think it's done its job.
     
  9. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    At the very least, don't take it for a given that the prologue is a bad idea. Some people will skip it - their loss. Write it as well as you do the rest of the book and give those who don't skip it a treat.
     
  10. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that the answer depends on why the prologue is there, and whether the prologue actually needs to be there.

    Often, an author thinks that he needs to explain things so that they reader won't be confused. But often, that very confusion, and the slow process of watching characters learn the truth, is an important part of the book. Why is it important to have the creation myth? Does the protagonist already know all about the myth? If not, then why can't we be with the protagonist as he learns it, rather than standing back at a superior distance, watching him learn something that we already know?
     
  11. jannert
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    I'd like you to meet my son-in-law, Richard Whoosis. He'll be your new boss, starting tomorrow.

    You could, of course, simply say 'this is Richard Whoosis,' walk away and let the other person gradually figure things out for themselves. But if the new employee knows something about Richard's position in the firm right at the start, the new employee won't get off on the wrong foot. Nobody says no no no that's a boring infodump, I never pay attention to introductions in that situation, do they? Same thing with prologues. A good prologue gives the reader a handle on the rest of the story and sends them off in the right direction.

    I created a prologue to start my novel, but it's actually the final chapter I wrote. I discovered that people really DID need to know the inciting incident. Without it, they spent a lot of time trying to guess one character's motivation, while what I wanted them to do was watch him cope with a troubled past which he was keeping secret from all the other characters. As he was not the POV character for most of the story, I decided to reveal his secret at the beginning via a prologue. I couldn't drip-feed it in, because nobody else knew what it was. With my prologue in place, he remained a Man of Mystery to the characters in the story, but not to the reader.

    However, a prologue can become an infodump and an excuse to merely recite history, which is not good.

    If you're not sure about yours, perhaps you should dive right in and write your story without a prologue, and see if it works. If you find you're struggling after a few chapters, because something is missing that needs to be told at the start, then maybe you should go back and write a prologue to begin your story. You can stop and create a prologue at any time.

    In general, prologues work well if they are scenes set apart from the rest of the story in some way.

    Maybe they contain characters we won't meet again, or won't meet again in their same form. Or the prologue contains an incident that happened a long time before the beginning of the main story, but provides framework for the story's theme. Maybe it takes place in a location that won't be revisited during the story, but again, the information is crucial. A prologue may not actually be part of the story's arc, but it's certainly part of the story. If that makes sense.

    I'd say stick to writing scenes, rather than a history, and you will avoid any dreaded info-dump. If an incident during a war is important to the rest of the story, let us watch this incident happen through the eyes of one of the combatants or generals. This may take place hundreds of years before the main story, which takes place when the combatants and generals are living only in history books, but your prologue won't read like history if you make it come alive with a POV character.

    Prologue signals to a reader that this chapter will be different from all the others in some way.

    If the reader is prejudiced or stupid, they think ...hey I can just skip this bit. And they will end up floundering around later, wondering what the story is based on. If they are openminded and smart, they realise that a prologue is essential to understanding the story—indeed it is part of the story—and skipping it is not an option. The fact that it's called a prologue prepares the reader for the fact that it won't lead chronologically to Chapter One, the way Chapter One leads to Chapter two, etc. That's all, really. It's telling the reader that this section is different from the main story in some way. Different. Not inessential. Its not a Preface or an Introduction, which CAN either be skipped or read later. A Prologue is part of the story and must be read. It's up to the author to make it exciting and interesting to read. It should propel the reader eagerly into Chapter One and the main story arc.
     
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2014
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  12. Devlin Blake
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    Prologues need to be mini-stories, capable of standing on their own. Therefore, you need to plan them as carefully as you would a short story. If it can't stand on it's own, it's not a prologue, it's your first chapter. Also, a prologue should only be as long or shorter, as half your other sections.
    (So in a novel of 60,000 words, a prologue should take up no more than 7,500 words with the rest of your sections having 15,000 words.)
     
  13. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Curious as to where you found this.
     
  14. Lemon flavoured
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    Lemon flavoured Active Member

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    The prologue for the story I'm writing consists of an assassination that takes place around half way through the remainder of the story. It's essentially a short story from the point of view of the assassin. Exactly who the target was and the reasons for the assassination will be explained from a different point of view much later in the story.
     
  15. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I gave up trying to write the beginning first, wrote something I was happy with midway through the book, took it to a critique group and after their feedback, chucked half of it.

    Write the story, write the prologue, be ready to completely change it after you see how it comes out.

    Personally, I'd write the story first like @jannert suggests and decide if the prologue is needed after the story is written. You may find as you go that you really can do without a lot of backstory. Sometimes that seems like a daunting challenge, how can I tell this story without explaining everything? But as you begin to write it, you find that it isn't so daunting after all.

    In my case, the backstory was part of the story, not just the background to the current story. So I've written two parallel stories, occurring in different time frames and the story shifts back and forth between the time frames until a point in the book where the earlier story catches up with the current story.
     
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  16. jannert
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    Never underestimate the power of a good beta reader, either. If something is missing or needs to be explained in detail, either as a prologue or in some other way, they'll tell you. You know your backstory yourself, but you won't be sure if other people need to know it too, until you ask them!
     
  17. Some_Bloke
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    Some_Bloke Active Member

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    I gave up on writing prologues (for the most part) and to explain things use exposition every now and then, but if you're going to do one make it "short and sweet". If you find that you can't fit all the details in, have characters deliver brief exposition throughout the story.
     
  18. A_Jones
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    I find that prologues are not something I am overly interested in anymore. I once liked to read books that were straight forward. A prologue that explains what happened before, and then the structured exhibition of events.
    Now I want to experience the book little by little the events of the now mixed in the the events of the then.

    Long story short... there really isn't much you need to put in a prologue that you cant slowly reveal in the novel. Just my opinion of course.
     
  19. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    That also depends on the story. For some, it would be a continual "Well, you know, Bob..." and that gets very old very fast.
     
  20. ChickenFreak
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    But all the same, using a prologue to explain a lot of stuff that can't be explained in the book suggests that the prologue has a lot of pretty boring stuff. I think that "it explains stuff" is the most dangerous reason to have a prologue.

    I think I mentioned in another prologue thread that Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede has a prologue, a quite long one, but it's interesting and engaging enough that it could quite easily be the first chapter. The only reason that it isn't is because the action is separated from the first chapter by several years. It shows the end of the main character's secular life--her winding down that life, her saying goodbye to her friends, the final pleasures, the last smoke--before she enters a nunnery. Then the first chapter opens with her having been in the nunnery for some years.

    That works, but I think it works because the action in the prologue is worthwhile all on its own, not just because it provides background for the rest. And because the reader investment in the prologue isn't wasted--you get to know and care about the main character in the prologue, and then she's the main character in the first chapter and on through the book. Some prologues present an interesting character, get us invested in them, and then we have the jolt of having to try to get interested in someone new in the first chapter.

    Prologues are risky. If they're just there to provide information, they're even more risky.
     
  21. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    If a prologue is written as well, with as much thought and craftsmanship, as the rest of the story, there's no problem. If the prologue is badly written, chances are the rest of the book won't be worth investing in.
     

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