Tag: structure

To Prologue Or Not To Prologue

Prologues have a bad reputation. Readers report they often skip prologues, agents and publishers dislike them because so many readers skip them, and they are, unfortunately, often bad.

… and yet they pop up everywhere. Many traditional tales begin with what amounts to a prologue: the time when the princess is blessed and/or cursed at her naming ceremony, or when the whims of the gods are revealed to the reader while being obscure to the characters. Lots of speculative fiction uses prologues, for better or for worse. And James Bond usually has a prologue scene, as Our Hero busily finishes off a previous assignment with a quip and a debonair swagger.

So what are the benefits of prologues, when are they not worth it, and why am I thinking about this at the moment?

Why Prologue?

Your prologue could just be the first chapter of your book, but very often a prologue will have qualitative differences from the rest of the narrative that militate against doing that.

You might need a prologue if:

  • the events which set up the main narrative are widely separated in time or space (eg where there are childhood events that shape the main character’s story).
  • the initiating events are driven by characters who are not the main focus of the narrative (eg the aforementioned capricious gods).
  • the promise of the book needs to be established where the opening chapters cannot provide that (eg A Game of Thrones, where the reader needs to know about the supernatural threat but the story starts a long way from the threat).
  • the reader should know what is going on for the purposes of dramatic irony.

There are real reasons to put these kinds of narrative content into a prologue, because it may be too jarring as the first chapter.

Why Not Prologue?

Is your prologue dull? Cut it.

Does your prologue consist of an info dump or gazetteer? Weave the information the reader needs to know into the main narrative when the reader needs to know it. You can always hang on to that material for the “companion” books you’ll be able to publish .

What relation to the story does the prologue have? To return to the James Bond example, there are pre-credits scenes which have exactly zero relationship to the main story such as the one where Bond disposed of Blofeld by dropping him down a chimney, but the rest of the film didn’t even reference the death of arguably his greatest nemesis*.

So, if the prologue doesn’t have any relationship to the story, why is it there?

In other words, if your reader can actually skip the prologue and still follow the rest of the story, then it’s probably not necessary.

Case Study: Prologues I Have Known

I don’t usually put in prologues. I like to get the story moving as soon as I can, demonstrate the agency of the main character, that kind of thing. But I have two books at the moment which have prologues.

One of these prologues contains a sequence which happens fifteen years or more before the main story, featuring the main character’s father. It sets up a lot of the elements of the setting and their relationship to the main character before she appears, and also presents the promise of the story. It’s telling the reader that there is wonder in the world beyond the rather dour initial setting for the MC. This is a prologue which I think has value, and which is an exciting opening to the book.

The other prologue is one I am struggling with. It’s about main character but (as with the first one) about fifteen years before the main narrative. The initial version was also in a different point of view, omniscient third person rather than first person. I’ve rewritten the prologue to use first person and I think it’s a lot more immediate, but that change has taken away the opportunity for dramatic irony – I can’t present a hidden enemy to the reader without also showing it to the main character.

So I am in a conundrum, where I have a prologue which does a lot to tell you about where the MC’s journey begins, but which also now seems too close in its content to the main narrative. Do I keep it? If not, what information do I need to transplant elsewhere?

Prologues are capricious things.

[*] this was from the late Roger Moore when all sense seemed to leave the film-makers’ heads.

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Heroes, MCs and protagonists

I was following a very interesting conversation about heroes and protagonists, anti-heroes and villains today on Facebook* started by one of my writer friends.

I am not going to recapitulate the discussion. Instead I wanted to present some thoughts on character roles and in particular on central or point of view character roles.

I’ll also be diving into roleplaying, but that will come later.

We Can Be Heroes

Does a story need a hero?

It’s pretty clear that most successful stories need a central focus – or a series of foci for a multi-POV story – whether that central character is the narrator or not. For example, the central human character of Moby Dick** is Captain Ahab but the narrator is Ishmael.

But is Captain Ahab a hero?

The Facebook conversation I mentioned was concerned primarily with the difference between heroes and antiheroes – those flawed central characters who might do the right thing despite themselves rather than out of heroic principles – and from what I know of Ahab he would fit the antiheroic mould quite well.

However, I wanted to go a different way here to talk about central characters and the meanings of different labels we use for them because it seems to me that there is a hierarchy in play here: a hierarchy of agency.

Heroes are larger than life characters who bestride the story rather than merely being in it. Indiana Jones is a hero who is known to his antagonists before the story starts. If we are talking of agency, we must mention Bond – James Bond is well known amongst his enemies*** before the story starts (at least before Connery’s Dr No, anyway). Luke Skywalker is a hero who is undertaking the well-documented Hero’s Journey from apparently humble beginnings to true heroic status.

But not every story has a hero as its central character. Sometimes the protagonist is more normal than heroic. Arthur Dent is hardly a hero – he is an aggressively normal person rather than a hero, someone written to evoke sympathy rather than admiration, but he still has agency.

Many of the stories of Lovecraft have main characters who are ordinary people marked by circumstance rather than capability for their role in the tale****. The reader has empathy with the protagonist because they can identify with them, but in many cases the story happens to them rather than because of them.

So this is the hierarchy, then:

  • heroes have the most agency because they have the drive and/or abilities to do extraordinary things
  • protagonists have agency but have limits also
  • main characters are central to the story because it is they who the story happens to, but they may be victims of the story rather than instigators.

Agency in Roleplaying

There is a mapping here to roleplaying games, and in particular the game systems.

Heroic systems such as Dungeons & Dragons consider the player characters to be heroes: extraordinary individuals with unusual abilities: a highly trained monk, a wizard with magical powers, or a chosen emissary from a barbarian god. Ordinary people in those worlds cannot throw fireballs or carve their initials into an opponent with their sword. Player characters are hard to kill.

On the other hand, game systems like Basic Roleplaying (BRP) – the basis for Runequest and Call of Cthulhu – try to model people a bit more closely. Call of Cthulhu especially is deadly for player characters, and that is not just because of the nastiness of the monsters: getting in a gunfight in CoC is not a good idea at all.

The Savage Worlds system tries to have a foot in both camps. The standard rules talk about PCs as wild cards, unusually gifted individuals with chances to retry failed tasks and more chance of completing tasks in the first place, but the Realms of Cthulhu setting tries to tone these advantages down a little with the gritty vs pulpy axis: selectively removing wild card advantages to put the PCs in more jeopardy.

They’re still quite hard to kill, though.

So, think about how much agency your characters. Where do your characters fit in the agency hierarchy?

[*] every now and then I think about dumping Facebook, but conversations like this wander along and I am reminded why it is still worth using.

[**] which I have never actually read, I’m afraid. For those howling in outrage that I have not opened this classic of American literature, I should note that grew up in Britain and so my English teachers inflicted classics of British literature upon us.

[***] which is a really bad attribute in a spy, although as noted occasionally he is an assassin rather than a spy.

[****] Randolph Carter is a notable exception.

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Questions, part 3: Scope and Urgency

This is the third in a series of posts about questions in storytelling. The first part raised the idea that questions make stories, and the second talked about the subject of the questions. This time I will write about the scope and urgency of the questions.

Micro, Peri, Tele, or Omni?

How broad are the implications of a question? A question of who stole a bag could be quickly resolved if the theft was only there to introduce a new character, whereas the central question of a mystery (who are the Purple Balaclavas?) may not be resolved until the end of the story.

I think of questions as being small, medium or large scale, although these categories are not fixed – a large scale question may turn out to be trivial, or a tiny question could have tremendous implications (“but for a pin the war was lost”, as it were).

The scale of a question as it is initially framed is relative to the scale and subject of the story. Consider the question of what happened to the professor’s car.

  • this is a large scale question if the story is about the professor herself or one of her close acquaintances. It could be the trigger for the plot (the professor is on the bus and witnesses a murder) or a situational change that forces character’s together (the professor starts getting lifts from her lodger which changes their relationship).
  • it is a small scale question if the story is of world-spanning proportions but can still be crucial in advancing the story. If the professor finds herself on the London Underground during the alien invasion because she does not have her car, then she can be instrumental in repelling the invaders.

Do It Now! No, Wait…

How quickly do you answer the questions raised? Do you answer them all? (no, actually, as Anthony Lee Collins commented last time – it is a really good idea to not answer all the questions. Questions unanswered will keep the story in the reader’s head)

In my view, the urgency of an answer is proportional to the scale of the question.

An entire plot can revolve around finding the answer to a question. Here the question will often be left unanswered until the climax, but an eventual answer will be expected (and if there’s no answer? Well, readerly scorn may await).

Having a number of medium-scale questions scattered through the story and then resolved occasionally is a good way to assure the reader that you the storyteller can be trusted to answer some of the questions you are asking.

Vary the pace of answering questions to build suspense.

How To Ask

A truly fundamental question is one of survival: will the character live through an encounter? The emotional investment of the reader will depend on how central the character is and how much actual jeopardy the character appears to be in.

This question of loss or damage can be mediated into less crucial things such as money, limbs, possessions, or social standing – if a point of view character dies that is (usually) the end of their story but if a character loses face or an important item then that generates more plot elements.

There again, maiming or killing off an important character can act as a stark signal to the reader that every encounter can be deadly.

You may be familiar with the concept of “jinxing it”: remarking on how light the traffic is before finding yourself in a three mile tailback, or making an observation about not having been injured in a while before spraining your ankle*. This is of course just the perverse pattern recognition of our brains seeking cause where none exists, but it’s a great mechanism to use in stories.

And finally, we have the concept of the cliffhanger: an unresolved situation with the protagonist in more or less jeopardy. Classically, this would be at the end of an episode of a continuing story, but the same basic approach applies to the ends of books, chapters, or scenes: why should the reader keep reading?

Truly, it is the question that drives us.

The Next Question

This concept of asking questions to drive reader interest is as close as I get at this point to a theory of storytelling. It is applicable most immediately to my roleplaying scenario development, but I bear it in mind when doing outlines for stories and of course edits of a completed draft.

What questions do you want to see answered?

[*] quite unusually badly, as it happens. It’s still weak nearly five weeks later.

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Questions, part 2: Kinds of Questions

This is the second in a series of posts about questions in storytelling. Here I will talk about the subject of a question.

All Kinds of Everything

Questions in a story relate to character, plot, setting, or theme – any element of the story, in other words.

Character

Your characters are what you use to tell the story. It is through characters’ actions, motives, and suffering that we learn what it is we care about in the tale.

When the story opens, we are unlikely to know much about the characters, so there are more questions than answers, but even once the basics of a character are laid out for the reader there may be questions we can ask which pique curiosity.

  • Why is the character wearing a heavy coat on a warm summer’s day?
  • Where did the character get that walking stick with the eldritch carvings?
  • Who does the character think he is, jumping the queue like that?
  • Will the character survive the riot?

All of these questions can be used to illuminate the character, but also to engage the plot.

Plot

Your plot is the storyline that the characters follow. The characters’ actions will affect the plot, and the plot will inflict changing circumstances on the characters.

Plot questions can relate to the core plot, or to a dummy plot, or even to some subplot which has no direct relevance to the central story.

  • Is that walking stick the fabled Shipley Summer Stick, the only hope for exorcism of unquiet spirits?
  • How will the character get to the theatre in time to stop the cultists from opening the gate inside?
  • What will happen now that the crowd is roused against interlopers? (the character and his friends)

Setting

Some stories use settings which are almost no setting – a family home, a quiet street, a park: the term itself conjures the place from the readers’ expecrience – while others weave complex worlds which are themselves entirely novel. Some of these are so explicitly alien that they could be called puzzle novels in themselves (for example, Anathem by Neal Stephenson or Transition by Iain Banks), presenting a barrage of questions to the reader.

  • Why is there a blue police box on this New York street?
  • Why are the character’s parents not at home?
  • Where do the pineapples come from?
  • How do the floating islands stay in the air?

Theme

Thematic elements are of variable importance. If all you want to do is to tell an adventure story about pirates then a theme may not matter at all, but if you wanted to explore themes of defiance, independence, and the inevitable cruelty of the individualist then a story about pirates battling with English naval vessels and privateers could be a good vehicle.

  • How are the events connected together?
  • Why does this character always make the same mistake?
  • Will the character find enough self-knowledge to overcome his selfishness?
  • Can the inevitable doom of the pirates be averted?

So Many Questions

This has been a very quick canter around the kinds of uncertainties that we can raise to engage our reader’s curiosity, but it is worth making one more observation about questions and audience: the kinds of questions you ask must be consistent with the target readership.

For example, thematic questions of existential dread and nihilistic horror would not necessarily be suitable in a children’s book (although some might disagree), while questions about hair colouring and nail polish choice may be a little lightweight for a post-technological science fiction setting.

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Questions and Cliffhangers

Storytellers are manipulators: we make the audience care about the characters, giving them reasons to identify with these imaginary people, then we hurt them*. Maybe not physically or even financially, but emotionally for sure.

For this is how story is made.

But when we are writing our tales of gut-wrenching woe, how do we keep the reader reading?

Conflict is often mentioned, but more basic than that are questions. We raise questions and then we answer them, but not necessarily immediately and not evenly.

“It is the question that drives us.”

– Morpheus, “The Matrix”

The questions raised can be of many different kinds, scopes and urgencies, and the questions themselves may be raised in varying ways. All of these elements can be mixed and combined to produce different textures and levels of tension.

Tension is what we are looking to induce: not knowing is one thing, but wanting to find out is what makes the reader read.

Putting these questions at the end of a chapter, or even a book, is one way to draw the reader forward into reading just one more page.

The Story

I am concerned with this at the moment because I am writing the season closer for A New Dawn. The player characters have learned of their abilities, that they are not alone, and they have thwarted a robbery. Writing the linkages between those sessions has been pretty simple: the first session ended with the bank wall across the road bursting outwards, for example – it was obvious what the question was there: it was obvious how to do the cliffhanger.

Crafting a satisfying closer this time is going to be interesting.

[*] normally I would disambiguate this pronoun, but here? The ambiguity is appropriate.

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Acting Out

The first time I went to a writing class was when I attended a story structure workshop given by Jessica Morrell. It was basically about the three act structure.

This story form is well known in writing circles although it was new to me then – it’s basically the format of TV shows and many films.

  1. act one sets up the story, including the inciting incident
  2. act two includes plot twists and ratchets up the tension
  3. act three includes the climax and the resolution

In between each act, you will find some kind of gating event which means the protagonist can never go back to how things were. The acts may not be the same length – indeed, act two is often as long as the other two combined.

This structure fits television especially well because the acts can easily be slotted in between ad breaks (and it lends itself to cliffhangers just before a break to make sure the eyeballs come back) but it’s a useful basic structure for novels also, particularly when you’re still learning pacing.

I long resisted fitting my stories into a traditional structure, but I also want my stories to be compelling. The three act structure is a well worn format for making a story with increasing tension over the course of the narrative, but most critically it helps the writer to introduce changes which cannot be reversed – and irreversible change forces the story forward.

In outlining Song, I laid the new story out in its act structure. I did this initially for planning purposes (because planning out the outlining for 62 individual scenes was unwieldy) but it helps to give me a layout where I can say that a gating event happens just before a chapter break, which will help pull the the reader on to the next chapter.

Are there any story structures you like to use? Is everything you write three act, or do you eschew formal structure?

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