Monday, October 05, 2009

On Prologues (and Backstory)

Among the issues that seem to cause writers angst is the question of prologues. At one time or another, agents like Kristin Nelson, Nathan Bransford and the inimitable Miss Snark have all advised against including a prologue in your novel. And they all said the same thing: "We're not opposed to prologues. It's just that we've rarely seen one done well."

Why is that? Bear with me, and I'll explain.

Years ago, I was a volunteer for Dallas' Suicide & Crisis Center. We were taught to intervene using a specific model of crisis intervention. One step of that model was to make an early determination as to whether the caller was in crisis or not. This was because crisis intervention does not work unless the caller is actually in crisis.

We were taught to look for the precipitating event (PE)--something that happened in the six weeks prior to the alleged crisis. PEs don't have to be big events although they often are: "My wife left me." "My mother died." "My youngest son left for college."

Sometimes the PE can be a small thing . . . the straw that broke the camel's back. "My husband left his boxers on the bathroom floor for me to pick up . . . for the hundredth time. I called a divorce attorney."

The important thing is that callers in crisis can generally point to the exact moment when things went haywire.

Why six weeks? Because, in crisis, our bodies produce a "fight or flight" reaction, pumping adrenaline so that we can either fight or run like hell. And our bodies cannot sustain that "fight or flight" mode indefinitely. After about six weeks, we begin to adapt, and the situation becomes more of a chronic one. The crisis resolves itself. We may be operating at a lower functioning level than previously, but we adapt to the circumstances.

So let's get back to that prologue. IF your prologue includes a precipitating event in the RECENT past that is the catalyst for your novel, you may be able to pull off a prologue.

However, the precipitating event MUST be the springboard that puts your novel into action.

And in most novels with prologues, this is not the case. The prologue is often about an event that occurred many years before. It is backstory, the story that happened before the real action begins.

Backstory is important, but it is static. It sits there without moving. And that's the problem. It's not part of the story. It is what helped to inspire motivation and goals and helped to create a character's personality, but it isn't going anywhere. It is usually presented in narrative form.

Narrative form. TELLING.

Do you see why most prologues don't work? They include backstory, too much narrative and "telling" instead of "showing."

Do you want a test of whether your prologue is necessary? Try taking it out of the novel altogether. Does your novel hold together? Is is possible to dribble that backstory into your manuscript one line at a time?

If you can remove the prologue and the story still works, you have your answer.

5 comments:

Nathan Bransford said...

Just to clarify, I haven't actually advised against prologues. I just suggest that authors to really make sure they're necessary.

I do agree, though, that if the prologue can be taken out and the novel reads the same there might be a problem.

Glynis said...

You helped me out of a 'query in my mind moment', should I write a prologue?
I don't feel it is necessary to my novel but wondered if I had to have one.
No is the result after reading your post, thanks.

Stephen Parrish said...

Excellent.

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Livia said...

That 6 weeks factoid is really interesting! I once wrote an analysis of a prologue that I thought was really well done. I'd love to here your thoughts on that,and how that fits with what you say here.