Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It's About Time

A few days ago, I posted a note from a friend of mine about openings which included mention that she's not a fan of prologues. Several of you commented on this, and this was a hot topic in our recent structure workshop, so I thought I would elaborate a little on why prologues can be problems.

Stories unfold in time. This might seem like a Duh statement -- of course, stories unfold in time -- but given the state of so many unpublished manuscripts, this is perhaps not as obvious as we might hope. We see evidence over and over again of authors who don't contemplate the time factor, much less control it in a way that makes sense for the story.

Aristotle (I mention this name, and a collective groan arises from the structure workshoppers) said that stories must be unified in three ways: time, place, and action. What this means has been the subject of some scholarly debate in the millenia since the Poetics first came into being. For example, initially the unity of time seemed to encompass only histories, stories in which true historical events occurred in the same set time span, whether or not those events were causally linked. Later scholars read Aristotle's notes about unity of time in conjunction with his statements about causation and beginnings, middles, and ends, and concluded that the unity of time extended beyond the boundaries of historical narration into fiction.

At its most extreme, during the Renaissance the principal of the unity of time was held to require all story events to take place over the course of a single day. Even then, most storytellers violated the single-day rule. Nevertheless, the underlying principal was recognized as valid: stories unfold in time, and compressing that time can enhance the story.

So, if you imagine your story as a timeline, much like those we used to see in our high school history textbooks, you can plot the story events along the timeline: Day one, Franz Ferdinand is assassinated and Austria declares war on Serbia; Day Three: Russian declares war on Serbia; etc.

Now, here's the problem with prologues. In most prologues, there's generally a big time gap between the event in the prologue and the event in chapter one. It would be as if Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in 1914, but nobody declared war over it until 1922. The timeline gaps, the causation starts to fade, and the connection between the beginning and the middle of the story becomes less obvious.

This doesn't mean that all prologues are evil and must be destroyed for the good of all humanity. What it does mean is that any time you feel the urge to write a prologue, you must test whether it would be better to eliminate that gap in time. Or in place. Or in action. Sometimes just moving the events forward in time and calling them chapter one is the solution. Sometimes cutting the prologue and treating those events as back story is the solution. And sometimes, the prologue really is the best way to go -- but honestly, there are far fewer legitimate prologues than sagging timelines in most slush piles.



Jessica Silva said...

"stories unfold in time, and compressing that time can enhance the story."

THIS is a great point, and something I've realized through writing. The first book I tried to write happened over a 6 month time span...and the pacing was slow and distorted. I had to jump between weeks in order to actually write the action. In my second book, I compressed it to just over two months and skipped only a few days here and there where the things that would've happened would've already happened in the book. Some times people have ORDINARY days, and so it makes sense to have them, but not WRITE about them.

I think the prologue creating distance between the beginning of the story and the beginning of the BOOK is a great point. I see it in my own writing. I keep saying I know this prologue doesn't do anything. It's back story, although it's good to know for a reader... but it happens ten years before the BOOK begins. That's probably why it doesn't seem to work.

Thanks for your insight, as always!

Jami Gold said...

I have a prologue, and I actually tried just rolling it in to chapter one, as suggested here and many other places. However, I had 2 editors tell me that "No, really, yours is a real prologue. Leave it that way." (Which was what I thought, but I was trying to get away from the "no one like prologues" issue.)

My entire story is in the POV of the heroine - except the prologue. The prologue ends right as chapter one begins, like the passing of a baton - so no time delay factor. It sets up the tension for chapter one where the reader knows more than the MC. And it becomes very important to the end of the book in a bookend type way.

It just bothers me that so many bad prologues have given them such a bad name that I have to go through all that justification. :)

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Anonymous said...

This really hits the nail on the head for me. I've dutifully avoided the prologue and concentrated on my story and hero/heroine. It wasn't hard, despite the fact that I write fantasy - where prologues are quite popular.

Then the story expanded to take in an entirely new character, a character that neatly tied in with the web of the plot.

Recently, I had my first 2 chapters critiqued by an editor who has worked in publishing houses in my genre. I submitted the first chapter with my hero's story and the second with the new character. She advised me to make the second chapter my prologue! When I protested (mildly, she's an editor after all and who am I to argue?), she suggested I make the second chapter my first and call it chapter one. If it is ever picked up for publication then I can discuss the prologue issue with the editor.

Now, my problem? I'm not starting with my hero, and if my hero's story wasn't strong enough to start with, then I am of the opinion I need to start his story again - and get my chapter one back to my hero.

The dilemma of where exactly to start the story is a skill I've yet to master :( But I refuse to give up.