Tuesday, August 18, 2009

To Prologue or Not to Prologue

Migrated from The Writing Spectacle - with comments. Originally posted on July 7th, 2007.

There seems to be something of a disagreement in the writing world about the dreaded prologue. From what I've read, prologues are a no-no. (Which is why I said 'dreaded'.) I've even had people tell me to drop the prologue from Caldera. But no real reason has been offered beyond the 'prologues are bad' argument. Oddly, one agent I queried loved the prologue and thought I should write a non-fiction piece based on the prologue. Unfortunately, he didn't like the premise of the novel itself. Ack. But I digress.

That's one side of the disagreement. On the other side, many of the books I've read lately have had... :drumroll: Prologues. Hmmm. Some of those books have been bestsellers. Now, you don't hear about those authors coming out in favor of prologues. They just write them.

While I'm sure people are out there writing prologues that do little more than give backstory or drag the beginning with unnecessary information, I don't think a wholesale ban on prologues is the right way to go about addressing the issue. Any more than a wholesale ban on slang or incomplete sentences would be appropriate. Just because some people use these devices improperly doesn't make them evil.

Having said that, however, I am considering dropping my prologue. Don't get me wrong. It's sets the whole book up rather nicely. It's only two pages, and I think it helps to be in there. How much it's helping, though, remains to be seen. And whether it's hurting Caldera's chances to be published remain to be seen as well. Right now, it's a coin toss. No one who has read the book in its entirety has had a problem with the prologue - or if they did, they never voiced their opinion about it.

So, I'm leaving it in the hands of my blog readers. The prologue is below. For those of you who haven't been reading along, the underlying plot of Caldera is about a scientist with a plan to control the impending eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano.


It has happened before.

Six hundred thousand years ago, death and destruction rained from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River, from the plains of Saskatchewan to the Gulf of Mexico. Seventy-five thousand years ago the sun disappeared beneath a haze of ash, killing the majority of the human race in the ensuing global winter. Fifteen hundred years ago, the most notorious of human eras—The Dark Ages—began in a shroud of gray volcanic dust.

Early in the 19th century, the center of a tiny island in the Dutch West Indies swelled and trembled and burst. Fiery boulders fell from the sky; ash blanketed both land and ocean for hundreds of miles as it spewed into the atmosphere. More than ninety thousand people died as the sky became clogged with soot—soot so thick that the year of 1816 was to become known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’.

Later in that same century, a mountain rising from the depths of the East Indies exploded and then collapsed. The sea rose twelve feet that day, pushed up suddenly as tons of rock dropped into its murky depths. Thundering walls of water swept toward Java, Sumatra, Bali; tens of thousands drown as the ocean broke over their homes and villages.

In each instance a caldera has erupted, and in each instance the world has born the brunt of its destruction.

So far, many of these types of events occurred before the ascension of man; so far, they have all occurred in sparsely populated areas. In the scheme of human disaster, these events remain insignificant. In perspective, the death toll has been minimal. But still, the tiny native children who shivered in fear as Tambora thundered down upon them thought it more than minimal. The tribal women who screamed their last breaths as Krakatau choked the sound away considered it from a different perspective. The peasants who endured The Dark Age’s endless years of starvation and suffering certainly thought it significant.

They all must have prayed for whatever god they knew to make it stop. They must have offered sacrifices and tributes to appease the wrath that cascaded upon them. But even amidst their fruitless prayers and hopeless offerings, they must have believed in their hearts that nothing could stop nature.

In the mountains of western Wyoming, a caldera lays in a fitful sleep—churning and gurgling and smoking like some great evil dragon—and mankind dances around it as if it has been caged for their amusement. The sparkling geysers and the boiling mud are merely an interesting diversion right now, but the dragon is bound by no man’s chains and it has overslept by twenty thousand years. When it awakens, no man will think it amusing, and no man with think of it as a mere diversion.

Pompeii was a firecracker. Mount Saint Helens, a birthday candle. When Yellowstone makes up its mind to blow, the people in its path will wish they’d been at Hiroshima instead.

Will they be praying on some sprawling ranch in Montana? Will they be screaming in some sparkling penthouse in Denver? Will they be choking under a layer of ash on the bustling streets of Houston?

Perhaps nothing can be done to stop nature. Or perhaps, just maybe, something can.

It has happened before. Perhaps it doesn’t have to happen again.

If it never gets published with the rest of Caldera, at least it's here. Barring any feelings about the writing style of the above excerpt, what are your thoughts on prologues? Do you use them when they're necessary, or do you shun them entirely?

Posted by B.E. Sanderson at 7:35 AM
Labels: excerpt, Writing


Anissa said...
I love this prologue of yours. It provides such great tension to kick off the novel. But I hear you on the industry's prejudice. I haven't used a prologue myself. Haven't really felt the need, and then with all I hear about NOT doing it, I just haven't. That's not to say I wouldn't if I felt it necessary. ;)

Maybe just query with chapter one. Then, if a full is requested, include it. Good luck!

July 7, 2007 10:59 AM
Tia Nevitt said...
I like it but I would consider making it much shorter. I think the Year Without A Winter example is one that you should keep. Also, in the first paragraph, it is not clear what you are talking about. Although I knew it was a volcano because I know something about your story, it almost sounded like a meteor strike.

Just my opinion . . .

July 7, 2007 6:09 PM
ERiCA said...
I admit, I'm usually one of those anti-prologue folks. But that's because I see so many prologues that are really just the first scene of chapter one separated as a prologue for no good reason, or that show a random chunk of backstory that's really unnecessary at that point in the plot.

In your case, it's different. At the very least, it explains what "Caldera" means and why the explosion would be so deadly. Seems important to me!

July 26, 2007 2:23 PM
Andrew said...
I like prologs. They are the underlying menace that keeps you reading through the character development.
Here's the first line of my prolog: Two of the most massive super-galaxies in the history of the Universe collided.
And from that one line I've written an entire novel. It's about the only place in your novel where you can explain without resorting to awkward "know-it-all" character soliloquies.
On top of that, I have a "quote" that even comes before my prolog, providing addition perspective on what you're about to read.
Unless someone dies in the first paragraph of the book, it's hard to generate that kind of tension without a prolog.

September 18, 2007 11:22 PM

Caldera Excerpt

Migrated from The Writing Spectacle. Originally posted January 7th, 2007.

As an example of how memories can be woven into your fiction, below is an excerpt--based loosely on my own experience--from my second novel, "Caldera". The movie mentioned below really does exist somewhere in the dark recesses of some elementary school vault.

Growing up in the countryside with neither siblings nor neighbors, Myke had spent many solitary days outdoors, running through the fields and woods that surrounded her home. Free to discover the world without gaining a fear of it, hers had been a dreamlike existence. She made friends with the squirrels, and the birds, and the rabbits; she grew to love every rock and shrub and tree. Looking back, she knew it was that sincere childlike wonder about nature that had made her such an easy target.

She’d heard whisperings about man’s destruction of nature throughout grade school. They came in seemingly harmless storybooks, and on various children’s television programs, and in snippets of the news that she would catch as she played in the living room each evening. Still, as she looked back over her life, she’d come to the realization that her real indoctrination came in earnest during her third grade year.

Many times since, Myke recalled that incident and realized that in any other country if she had been exposed to information of that nature in that form, it would have been denounced as propaganda. That it came to her in an American public classroom in the form of a short film made it education. Looking back, she could only think of it as repulsive.

The movie had seemed innocuous enough, clicking along on its rickety projector as all such films did. It could have easily been about Nanook of the North, or about the Grand Canyon for all the notice her classmates took of it. For them, movies were just another form of recess; for her, they were another means of gaining knowledge. She loved them all, but movies about the outdoors were her favorites. Though she never could have known it, it had been her downfall. Sadly, at eight years old, she had been ripe for the picking.

By that age, she’d already been subjected to many such films about the beauty of untouched nature. This one seemed to be no different. At first the film showed a great sweeping primeval forest with a gentle meadow in the forefront; a babbling stream and marsh grasses filled with birds, alongside. She could remember leaning forward onto her elbows in rapt attention at the splendor of it all. When suddenly the camera panned in closer to show men standing in the field, she had felt a rush of disappointment. Men had no place there, in her mind, and she had resented their intrusion.

The men seemed to be making plans of some sort. They were wearing hardhats and pointing from blueprints they were holding to the landscape around them. The voice-over had reflected Myke’s own thoughts as it spoke of the men and her own indignation had been apparent in the script. When the scene shifted to show bulldozers pulling down trees and plowing through the meadows, she had only nodded her head.

At barely eight, she’d already understood that it was a bad thing for man to use nature to suit his own purposes and that man was bad because of it. The next scene, though, had sealed the lid on her perception of mankind as wanton destructor. The scene showed men starting a fire to burn off the marsh grass, and in a very graphic display, that had made little Myke feel lightheaded and that haunted her adult self still, the camera showed nests full of baby birds being burned alive.

On that day, Myke learned to hate mankind.

------------(End Excerpt)--------------

May the makers of that movie rot in hell for what they did to hundreds, if not thousands, of impressionable 8 year olds.

Spectacle Excerpt

Migrated from The Writing Spectacle. Originally posted December 14th, 2006.

This excerpt from my first novel dovetails nicely into what I have been blogging, so I thought I would share it. Enjoy.


“From what I understand, many of you have been waiting for a long time and what you have been waiting for has not been forthcoming. No, I am not simply referring to the comet. What you have been waiting for, and waiting much longer than I’m sure even you realize, is to be told the truth.”

“You have heard what you might call one man’s version of the truth, but what you have never been told is that the truth has no versions. There is only the truth; all else is falsehood.”

“You have been told truth is relative; that truth is dependant on who you are and on what you perceive, but the men who taught you that had reason to keep the truth from you, to keep you from recognizing the truth when you saw it. Those men thought they could bend the truth to suit their purposes and to fit the occasion. What they didn’t tell you and what they never wanted you to find out is the truth once bent is no longer the truth. Truth is not elastic and it is not flexible. It simply is what it is.”

“Throughout your lives and the lives of those before you, you trusted that someone somewhere would tell you the truth. This is perhaps your only mistake, but it was the worst mistake you could have ever made. You made the mistake of giving up your ability to recognize the truth and by doing so gave that responsibility into the hands of someone else, someone you thought knew better than you and would therefore be honest enough to tell you what was true. You made the mistake of thinking those people would have enough respect for the truth, and enough respect for you, to give you the glimpse of reality you no longer wished to discover for yourselves.”

“The instant you ask someone else what he thinks, not as an exchange of ideas but as a way to avoid having to judge for yourself, you have given up your responsibility to recognize the truth. Do it enough times and you give up your ability to know the truth. Once you lose your ability to know the truth, any charlatan has you in their grasp. You only have to look around at the world right now to see the results of that.”