Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: To Prologue or Not to Prologue?

Should you start your book with a prologue or chapter one? Declaring your opening pages to be a prologue can have its uses.

When we begin to read a book, we’re desperate for a hero. We want to find one character we can believe in, care about, and invest in, then settle in comfortably to that character’s POV as we launch into this book. But sometimes it’s not convenient to begin your book that way. Sometimes you have a good reason to begin your book away from your hero’s POV.

Maybe you want to begin with a scene featuring the eventual villain, or one of the victims of that villain. Maybe you want to begin in the past before your hero had his or her current personality.  In each of those cases, you have a problem: You’re not presenting the audience with what they want, a fully-realized hero in the story’s modern-day to start the story with. The danger is that they’ll try to bond with whatever character you’re giving them, only to find them woefully insufficient, because of course this isn’t your hero yet.

One solution is to tip off your audience that this isn’t your hero yet by declaring those opening pages to be a prologue, not chapter one. This is a way to buy yourself some time. You’re assuring your reader: Don’t be alarmed if you can’t find anybody to care about yet, the book hasn’t really begun yet, this is just to establish plot or tone or whatever. Character will have to wait.

This way, you can maybe get a few more pages out of your gatekeeper as well.You can’t put it down after five pages if you haven’t even gotten to chapter one yet! You at least have to give me that long.

So all of these are reasons that the opening pages of Harry Potter book 1 could have been identified as a prologue. We begin in the POV of Mr. Dursley, of all people, for five pages, then jump briefly to a cat, then Dumbledore, then meet our hero as a baby. It’s only in the next chapter that we’ll jump ahead ten years and the real narrative begins.

But Rowling calls her opening Chapter One. Is it possible that this hurt her with the twelve publishers that rejected her? Would they have kept reading longer if they had been reassured that Mr. Dursley wasn’t going to be the hero of the book?

Would there have been any downside to declaring it to be a prologue? Would it seem too fussy? Would kids be less likely to pick it up if it didn’t seem like it would get going right away? Or is there some fear that they would simply skip those pages?

Ultimately, the book sold, and caught on like wildfire, and now it’s the first book that many kids read on their own, so clearly it did something right. Maybe we should do away with prologues altogether? What do you think: Is this intro better off as a prologue or chapter one?


Anonymous said...

If it isn't a prologue, I don't know what is. It just so happens that Rowling cheated by intentionally mislabeling it as Chapter 1. An author can label the table of contents as Chapter 1 as well, but that doesn't make it so, because these terms have well established definitions. This series has a mountain of back-story expertly woven throughout it, and I firmly believe that she possessed the skill to cut the prologue, and more cleverly craft the 1st chapter so as to avoid the stumbling start.

Jason said...

I had been wrestling with this question in my own WIP. I decided that even though I'm labeling the opening "Chapter 1", because it features the commission of a murder, there's no real risk of my readers thinking the murderer is the hero.

Jonathan Auxier said...

I teach HARRY POTTER in my mfa classes. One of the things I continually marvel at is how *slow* the first book is to unveil its premise. Harry isn't told he's a wizard until page 50. It's close to page 100 that he actually reaches Hogwarts. Other books have similar slow starts -- it takes ages for Wendy to meet Peter in PETER PAN ... let alone arrive in the Neverland. Similarly, THE MATRIX which takes more than an hour to explain its basic premise. And don't even get me started on A NEW HOPE.

Per any standard structural talk ("Inciting Incident by page 10!" "Act I break by page 30!"), these long starts would be deadly. But they're not, because stories with big, fresh premises understand that there is real pleasure in unveiling a truly novel idea.

I consider Roald Dahl the master of this principle. Many of his best books are broken into two even halves. The first half is an extended, virtuosic explanation of a premise. The second half is a single caper related to that new idea. This is how BFG, WITCHES, and even CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY are put together, and it works beautifully.

This is all just a way for me to vent about an ongoing problem (in movies, especially), where the first act is compressed out of some insane desire to get to the good stuff (read: plot). If you have not laid down a firm foundation with your world and characters, no one will care about the plot.

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