Tag: technique

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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Show, Don’t Tell

The old saw “show, don’t tell” is often on my mind, but never more so than when I am reviewing one of my manuscripts.

Sometimes it intrudes into my life.

Fact

Yesterday I was very tired – fighting off a cold, truth to tell, or something of that kind. I was in the kind of weird half-awake state where nothing really seems like a better idea than pouring tea down my neck and consuming media of some kind.

Anyway, I was pretty vague. Despite that, I had a meeting that I was presenting – it was  a training session for a project I’ve been working on. It had been difficult to set up so where normally I might have rescheduled for a more propitious time, in this case I had to go through with it.

I had planned on warning the folks I was presenting to that I was not very with it, but instead I demonstrated it by not being able to find the video cable for the presentation screen when it was right in front of me.

Show, don’t tell.

Fiction

You hear this a lot. I use it myself in commentary on others’ work – “that’s a bit tell-y*” I might note.

But is it always true?

The answer to that is a very personal thing depending on style and circumstances, but  consisting of elements affecting story, pacing, and characterisation.

Showing can have much more emotional impact and do a lot to illuminate a character, location, or setting.

But telling is faster, and can bring action action forward, relating the story much more quickly – telling can be about skipping to the good bits, to paraphrase one of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing.

Fantasy

Reading an early draft I find examples of excess in both directions.

For telling, I will have a flashback or summary for something which should be a harrowing interaction that will increase sympathy for the protagonist.

For showing, I have so many bits of gestural and transitional filler: nodding, sitting, walking through doors. So much blocking.

This is what red pen is for.

[*] as opposed to “telly” which is British for “television”.

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Tense Decisions

Has it already happened? Is it happening now?

There’s an old cricketing joke about choosing who bats first: the captain who wins the toss of the coin should examine the state of the pitch, look at the prevailing weather conditions, review the batting order of both sides, and then put the other side in to bat.

The choice of which tense to tell a story with used to be a bit like that: there were various dramatic and narrative reasons to use present or past tenses to tell the story, but it usually came down to using the past tense.

But choosing a tense because it is the default is no choice at all – what do you get from past and present tenses in your storytelling?

Past tense (I did, you did, we all did) tells a story that has already happened. Since everything occurs in the past, it implies that the narrator has survived the experience.

This sometimes militates against using past tense in first person narrative, because it removes the possibility of danger for the speaker. That’s not to say that past tense stories aren’t still exciting, but it can introduce a degree of detachment which may be unwelcome. There are techniques you can use to work around this – write the story as a diary, where the diary ends before the climax, for example – but those are not easy techniques to use well. I have a vivid memory from when I was about eight of using first person past tense and having the narrator die. It felt like an awful cheat to have him finish the story from the afterlife.

Present tense (I do, you do, he doesn’t) tells a story that is happening now. It makes the story more immediate, but also narrows the focus of the narrative: first person present tense is involving and exciting, but amplifies the issues I discussed before of events occurring away from the narrator.

However, if you are using second person as your POV, you may find that the present tense almost feels like the default – I’m thinking here again of the text adventure game style of writing: you pick up axe; you open the door; you are beaten around the face and neck by an angry lumberjack; and so on.

Past tense is the default for many kinds of writing – reporting really needs to be in the past tense, as does much other factual writing. Present tense can sneak in to odd places like design documentation – for example, describing how a software system behaves – but that is very much the exception.

Whichever tense you use for the main narrative, it can be helpful to switch to the other one for flashbacks – such a change clearly signals to the reader that it is not part of the main narrative. Arguably this works more transparently if the main narrative is in present tense while the flashback is in past tense, but switching to present tense for a past experience introduces some of the feeling of a vivid memory.

The one rule that comes out of all of this is that which tense your story is written in is less important than that it is used consistently: pick one for a scene, and stick with it.

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The Point of Point of View, part 2

Last week I talked about first and second person points of view. Today I want to talk about third person, and about switching POV.

Third Person In All Its Varieties

Third person point of view is when you refer to characters in the third person, either by name or pronouns (he/she/it). This is by far the most common POV in fiction – it’s pretty close to the default choice, in fact.

However, you may need to think about what particular variety of third person you use:

  • third person limited – reporting events in the third person, but from the perspective of a particular character. This may include a window into the character’s head, so you learn their thoughts and emotions.
  • third person objective – reporting just the facts of a narrative without insight into any character’s internal state.
  • third person omniscient – the narrative is given from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator who may have their own voice, and who has insight into the internal state of all characters.

The omniscient perspective is I think the hardest one to pull off, because it can be so confusing for the reader – who is thinking that thought? This is a variation on difficulties with attributing dialogue without overuse of dialogue tags, except that there is no standard convention for conveying that a thought is being written (he thought/she thought is a lot more intrusive than he said/she said).

That’s not to say that it is not an attractive or potentially effective option: Dune would not have been the book it was without the omniscient insight into the characters’ motives. Of course, this constant use of character thoughts to convey critical plot development was one of the reasons that Dune was considered unfilmable for so long.

The obvious advantage of the omniscient POV is that you can tell a story succinctly because there’s no mucking about with hinting at a character’s mental state with expressions and tones of voice. However, another problem here is that the storytelling becomes too much about telling and not enough about story. There can also be issues in choosing which characters to look inside the heads of.

The objective POV is the usual perspective for journalistic or factual writing, but it has a place in fiction too – if you want your narrative to be conveyed by subtle shades of character interaction without telling the reader explicitly what the motives or effect are, then this is for you.

Third person limited is almost like first person in that you are following a particular character. You can carry the camera near to or far from the character which can help in conveying dramatic irony (where the audience knows something the character does not), but frequent insights into the character’s thoughts really need the narrative to be close to the character. If the narrative maintains a very close relationship with the character, then you can hit similar issues with first person of not being able to convey all the points of the story you need because they happen somewhere else.

Switching Point of View

It may be that your story is best told from multiple points of view. This is typical when there are multiple MCs – where more than one character has a major story arc.

An oft-quoted – even canonical – example is George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (televised as Game of Thrones after the first book), but William Gibson’s Sprawl novels (Neuromancer and its sequels) have a similar structure: each character gets a chapter, and the POV shift is strictly on chapter boundaries. The chapters themselves are generally third person limited, where you get insights into the focus character’s mind as you go.

But there is no requirement that all the chapters follow the same POV style. Two of Iain Banks’ novels which play with this are Complicity andFeersum Endjinn.

In Complicity, the POV alternates between third person and second person, part of the conceit being that it is conceivable that the different chapters are actually being written about the same character.

Feersum Endjinn is a more conventionally structured story, in that it is clear that the chapters are about different characters. However, the narrative switches between third person limited for most of the characters, and first person Glaswegian dialect for one of them, a man called Bascule. Personally, I found myself dreading the Bascule chapters because I had so much trouble following them.

In any case, whatever the merits or demerits of the specific POVs used in Banks’ books, the transition between POVs is clear: the perspective changes on a chapter break. Such a strong boundary between POVs is not just a matter of convention. As I discussed in talking about the omniscient POV, a poorly indicated perspective shift can really break the reader out of a story.

Something that can be particularly jarring is if a story has been told consistently in a particular POV and then jumps to another character mid-scene without any signal. It’s a very easy thing to do as a writer, but it’s really hard to read.

The questions I ask myself when thinking about point of view are:

  1. is this one person’s story? If so, consider using a first person POV unless a lot of things happen away from the character
  2. does the story have a small number of primary characters? If so, consider multiple third person limited narratives.
  3. does the story have epic scale? If so, consider whether the internal states of the characters are important or not to the story

The point of these questions is to make the story as immediate as possible.

Personal Demons

I have a novel written from a first person POV – this is the one which I mentioned before as having a lot of meetings in it. In trying to rewrite it, I decided to try mixing third person limited and first person POVs, interleaving the first person elements in the present but using third person the MC’s past, and the stories of other characters.

Golly gee whillikers, but it was a mess after that.

There’s stuff in there I like, but it is a story best told from first person and I need to simply make the MC more active so that most of the story I need to tell happens to him.

What are your stories of POVs that worked or otherwise?

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The Point of Point of View, part 1

How do you choose the point of view for your stories?

Point of view is one of those decisions about a story which sometimes isn’t a decision at all – the idea comes to you as a voice telling their story and you have to use first person to capture that, for example.

But point of view (or POV) is a feature of the story, like tense, which you have to stick with throughout the writing or the book will be very hard to read. There are books I’ve encountered where a single unexpected POV change jumps me out of the story, forcing me to stop to figure out what just happened, and where I never pick the book up again. So, when you pick your POV, be consistent with it.

There are three basic POV choices:

  1. first person – “I did this”
  2. second person – “you did that”
  3. third person – “he did the other thing”

Each of these has variations, advantages and disadvantages. In this post I am going to look at first and second person.

First person

This is where the story is told from the perspective of a particular character within the story. It’s great for quickly gaining sympathy from the reader for a character, and also for expressing a story in a particular voice.

The biggest problem with first person, and also one of its greatest opportunities, is information hiding: because we are seeing the story told from one character’s POV, things that the character does not know about cannot be relayed to the reader.

This manifests in my writing as meetings: the MC gets pulled in to discussions with other characters nominally to keep the MC up to date, but practically to present information to the reader. This amounts to info dump by dialogue, also known as the handy idiot technique, which can at times be unavoidable but if it’s happening a lot and the reader actually does need to know this stuff in order to understand the story, then I would that is a tell-tale sign that your POV may not fit the story.

Another issue is in presenting what the character already knows, such as physical appearance or features of the the world which are normal to the character but extraordinary compared to our world. Unless the narrator is aware of the audience, explanations of the mechanics of the world often seem out of place.

The opportunity with information hiding is that you have available the concept of the unreliable narrator: the person telling the story has something to hide, or has an unusual perspective, which makes the narrative more interesting. However, it is dangerous to use information hiding to spring surprises on the reader – deus ex machina turns of plot are not satisfying however they are presented.

Another issue with first person is that it gives the narrator plot immunity, especially when combined with past tense: if someone is telling the story in the past tense from a personal perspective, you would expect that they have survived the events told. The exception here is if the story is presented as a memoir – the diary of the doomed explorer, for example – but even there the narrator needs to make it to the end of the book.

Second person

Of all of the points of view available to the writer, second person is the one which most needs a definite decision to use.

I haven’t encountered second person much in novels. As I mentioned when discussing Charles Stross’ work, his novels Halting State and Rule 34 are written in second person because they are meant to recall the style of text adventure games (Zork, Collossal Cave, Snowball – the Infocom and Level 9 games, basically). Those were written in second person because you were being told what was going on around you in the game, and then you gave commands which the computer would apply to the game’s state.

The basic disadvantage of this POV is that it is unfamiliar and jarring. When I started reading both of Stross’s novels in this style, it took me a few pages to get used to it.

However, if you have a particular stylistic point to make, second person can be effective, especially when combined with present tense to invoke a sense of immediacy.

Next time, I will look at third person and switching point of view.

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