Thursday, February 4, 2010

Prologues n' Pirates

The other day I swapped prologue drafts with Joylene Butler & we each made comments back & forth. Really cool. Hers is awesome by the way. Some writers & readers dislike them, think they're "info dumps". What do you think?

What if you want to explain how something came to be without interrupting the tone & pace of the main story with an early or midpoint narrative? For BAD LATITUDE I wanted to explain how a certain stash of gold & gemstones came to be hidden in an abandoned burial ground on Rattlesnake Island (a real place 2 miles from my home) so I went back to the 1696 shipwreck of The Reformation, used a real person (Solomon Cresson) & created a "story" mixing fact, fiction, action & a wee bit of tension. Provide the info without being dry - that was the goal anyway.

(1st paragraph - click book pic to read the whole thing from the excerpt)

24 September 1696

There was no escaping the hurricane’s fury. Disaster struck when the center mast snapped, toppling with a thunderous crash as the doomed ship listed hard to port, exposing its massive keel. The hull’s planking splintered inward from the pounding of the raging seas, flooding the cargo holds, forcing the crew and passengers to scramble from the shelter below into the teeth of the violent storm. Solomon Cresson, a stout member of the crew, was the last to climb the twisting ladder to the deck above. With the Captain of the ship missing and presumed lost, Cresson took charge. He shouted above the gale, ordering all aboard to stay with the ship for as long as there was a structure to grasp. The listing vessel was aground in the shallows, beam to sea, being smashed by fierce waves and buffeted by driving winds as the passengers clung to the fallen rigging, struggling for survival against the rushing flood, and collapsing timbers.

Now for RECKLESS ENDEAVOR my main character Jack, the descendant of the pirate Calico Jack Rackham, will be, shall we say, spending quality time with his dead anscestor. To set the tone, I wanted to put the reader on the gallows with the old scalawag in November of 1720 but also needed to provide some relevant info to be used later, without interrupting the flow of the story with a 'flashback'. Since the prologue replaces chapter one as "the first impression" the goal is to draw the reader in & make them want more. I guess there's a risk. In my opinion, the prologue needs to impact the story, can't be a cheap down payment followed by a droning bait & switch. So here's the opening paragraph of the prologue for RECKLESS.

 1720 Gallows Point – Port Royal, Jamaica

A thick rope made of hemp and flax was cinched tightly around his neck, biting into the skin while a thinner cord bound the gnarled hands painfully behind his back. Calico Jack Rackham, condemned to suffer a pirate’s death, stood weak-kneed on a wooden platform in the blistering heat facing the sea, his weight temporarily supported atop a trap door. Soon the flap would fall away and he would plummet into the open void beneath the gallows. He prayed that his neck would snap with the plunge, rather than strangle in agony while blood vessels and capillaries burst and hemorrhaged.

So what do you think about prologues? What purpose should they serve? Should they be avoided?

Just wonderin'........


Barbara Ann Wright said...

Hey there, just wandering through and thought I'd comment. Prologues have never bothered me, but I've spoken with some people who don't like them, and they always say that they get interested in the prologue character's POV only to find that we never return to that POV. But I think that's done more with the open-with-the-villain technique than what you're describing. Personally, I've never minded prologues because I don't mind head-hopping.

Anonymous said...

I actually just decided today that what what missing from my WIP was a prologue...You must have been reading my mind...

I happen to agree that they are sometimes needed to keep the story flowing. Some stories are fine with flashbacks, I used them in my novel and they felt right but a flashback doesn't always work,it makes a story uncomfortable to read.I also think the prologue can serve as bait for the rest of the story..It all depends upon the writer.

Your prologues, by the way, are really good! They do make me want to read more!

Joylene Butler said...

I'm such a chicken. I renamed my prologue: Chapter One. I was told once too often that nobody likes prologues anymore. Except maybe a few writers. If I pick up a book and see prologue, it doesn't deter me from giving the book a chance. I generally judge the book by the first para. If I can't get it, whether there's a prologue or not won't matter.

Good question.

JaxPop said...

Hi Barbara - Thanks for stopping by. I've read prologues that resembled story shortcuts - didn't like them.POV - didn't think of that angle. Hmmm... hafta kick that around.

Laura - Thanks. After all this blather, the 3rd book probably will NOT have a prologue. I'm also making my firt attempt at 1st person - so that'll probably be a disaster.

Joylene - You changed it to CHAPTER ONE??? Egads. I'm with you - a book needs to get my attention early & hold it. Nothing worse than slogging through 4 or 500 pages TRYING to get to the end. Hate feeling like a read is a waste of time.

V. L. Smith said...

I keep hearing how prologues are death. But sure enough, about the time I absorb that, I find another perfectly acceptable prologue in a book. (I don't mind some head hopping either - up to a point. But that is another whole discussion.) I had a one paragraph prologue in my first novel. I chickened out and called it an "Introduction" which it really was, IMHO. It was a classic info dump, though I felt it was a necessary one. I write historical fiction that takes place in the 12th century and it's not a period many people understand. Most of my critiquers liked the intro and felt they needed the information. Those that didn't cited the "you are not supposed to do this" as grounds for their comment.

This could be a leap of faith on my part - but I would like to think that most agents/editors etc. are smart enough to understand whether a prologue works or not. Some of them obviously are, since the technique turns up again and again.

We are always struggling to understand what the industry wants. We react to every hint: i.e. "Miss Snark doesn't like prologues" so we tell each other "Don't do that!" when we really dodn't know whether that's good advice or not. My philosophy, at least at this moment, at 0530 with my first cup of coffee, is that the people who manage the publishing industry have no more idea what they want than we do. Remember, these are the same people who said Harry Potter would never sell.

A good story is a magical thing, and I don't think it can be reduced to a set of rules like some kind of high school assignment. Sure, we all need to have control of our technique; but technique alone won't save a bad story.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I just found your blog through a trail of others - I find some of the best blogs that way!

I love prologues. As a child, I loved nothing better than ripping into a good story that started out with an exciting prologue. Imagine my surprise when, during a writing course, I discovered so many people LOATHE them!

I honestly think they serve a good purpose when used the right way. I guess it's just something to be aware of.

JaxPop said...

" that the people who manage the publishing industry have no more idea what they want than we do. Remember, these are the same people who said Harry Potter would never sell."

VLS - I hear ya on that. Actually I stopped reading agent blogs. 6 stops - 6 differing opinions. Just proves how subjective it all is. Wonder what the agents / editors that snubbed JKR are doing for a living these days.

I like 12th century stuff - Did you read Pillars Of The Earth? It was much better than the sequel, which seemed a bit like a re-hash.

As far as "The Rules" - seems like a moving target to me. I've never been good at following or taking orders anyway so.... Thanks for the visit. (BTW - I'm from Pennsylvania originally - snow heading that way tonight. Blech)

EK - I agree, they have their place but need to be entertaining. IMHO there's no such thing as 'waiting to get to the good part' - I also don't like when a book starts out like gangbusters and bogs down with "filler" - Sometimes I wonder if the author had a good story but messed it up trying to make a word count. Thanks for visiting.

Carol J. Garvin said...

My second novel started with a prologue that I later cut. It provided crucial setting but didn't help the reader jump into the story. Whatever it's called, the first page should provide a hook and be integral to the plot, and I think both of yours do that. You make the time shifts clear with recorded dates so there's no confusion and, except for a flashback, I don't know how you could provide that info in any more effective way. On the whole, prologues seem to be out of favour right now, but used well I don't mind them at all.

JaxPop said...

Thanks Carol - Glad you liked my examples / prologues. You have an advantage over some blog readers having read BAD LATITUDE. With BL I wrote the prologue AFTER I started the book but was careful not to rehash much of the prologue when 'Pop' explained the story behind the old journal.

With RECKLESS, the prologue was written first because, even though it's only 1750 words, there's a ton of 'stuff' that comes into play later. I couldn't see a reasonable way to flashback smoothly to the 18th century in the middle of a story about 4 21st century teenagers surfing, sailing, diving & ghost-hunting. Kids aren't dummies, but their MG reading abilities & habits are being developed. This makes it even more important to keep a decent flow & avoid potentially confusing backstory or late in the story tie-ins or info dumps. Did I just confuse you? My head's spinnin'!

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I don't mind prologues. Usually, for me, they are a hook and tell me enough about the story to let me know if I am going to want to read it or not. I sometimes even look for that.

JaxPop said...

Lynn - Thanks for weighing in. If a prologue can work as a hook, it's a good thing - info dump, not so good. IMHO.