The Prologue Problem

If you spend enough time hanging around online writing forums, or looking at articles for new writers you may come across this persistent theme. The consistent advice that if your manuscript contains a prologue, make your manuscript NOT contain a prologue.

In this post I’m going to look at why this is advice at all and how to work through it.

First of all we might have to talk about what a prologue actually is and does. The technique is almost unique to the epic fantasy genre although there is no particular reason for this (In my humble opinion) other than its become a bit of a genre expectation, much the same as fantasy series are often expected to run for multiple books (which we’ll save for another post). Prologues seem to fit with the lofty large-scale feel for fantasy but there certainly are not a requirement or restricted from other genres.

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The official definition of a prologue is a separate introductory section for a piece, but the actually use of and purpose of one is more complicated. Usually prologues are divided from the main story of a novel by either: time, character, setting and/or perspective. That is to say you might have a chapter set far before the events of the main story, or from the perspective of a non-main character or perhaps a more world building sort of POV before focusing on the MC.

A prologue can be quite helpful in terms of establishing aspects of the story that wouldn’t necessarily sit well with the main narrative, as mentioned above you might want the reader to know some worldly lore that the MC doesn’t even know OR you might want to create a sense of a broader world. GRR Martin in Game of Thrones creates this effect by using a prologue to introduce ‘The Others’ a supernatural threat that barely features in the main story, but hangs over the head of the reader as an existential threat to the world.

So why the heck are prologues frowned upon or advised to be avoided?

Well without sounding too patronizing (after all I am essentially an aspiring writer too) I think that like flashbacks, and POV changes (and surely more techniques I just can’t bring them to mind) prologues are commonly screwed up by new writers.

Because prologues by definition sit separately from the main story, they are practically asking to derail, bog-down or distract readers before the story even startsIt’s devilishly hard to craft a prologue that does all the things its supposed to while not feeling like its just dead-weight on the story. For example many aspiring writers see prologues as an opportunity to world-build, thinking (perhaps logically) that knowing the world of their story is imperative, before actually embarking on the story. Of course this conflicts with the fact that many readers will put a book down if they aren’t drawn in within a few paragraphs – or perhaps more importantly an agent/editor will put the book down possibly just from seeing the 60th prologue that day.

So I think the question to ask (other than can you just rename your first section chapter 1 or not call it a prologue) is whether a prologue is necessary? Does it actually help the story to have a section like that, especially considering that the first parts to your story are the most important for drawing readers in and establishing your tale?

 

Saggy (and absent) Middles

Oh middles. If you’re like me then the tendency is to come up to a climatic finale far to soon (insert inappropriate joke) OR to pen an good introduction only to flounder early on wondering where on earth to go.

Often however the issue is that material is there, but people feel that their work just doesn’t ‘POP’ that their middle is present more to provide word count than anything else. Both situations are common problems and both are big struggles for me so I’ve put some thoughts below.

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First of all to make sense of the situation it might be wise to dive into what the whole point of ‘middles’ are. In thinking about it I’ve come to suspect that middles are one of the key differences between short stories and novels. Short stories by their nature get to the point, whereas novels almost do the opposite – but what is the function of the extra material and how do we make it work?

(If you look at the image attached it doesn’t really help at all, they’ve just written obstacle several time!)

The key thing with a novel is to look at how the material deepens the overall premise. In Lord of the Rings, not only did we see Frodo’s journey, but Merry and Pippins, and Aragons’s too. Now you there is probably a thesis to be written in studying that but I want to focus on one idea. If you went a rewrote the story to really just focus on Frodo Baggins getting the ring to Mordor (Spoiler?) it would technically work as a story, it would have a beginning, middle and end, all the rest. So I don’t think the point of a middle of a novel is just to make more pages – but by hearing the whole story of the minor characters this gives more impact to what happens to Frodo.

I’m waffling a little, what I’m trying to say is that it seems like the point of the middle of a novel is to provide material that is going to make the final conclusion all that more intense and significant. That’s why cheesy action movies often have a hero ‘fail’ at this point, why romances go back and forth, and thrillers have red herrings.

How one achieves this is both genre and individual story dependent. It’s also helpfully important to consider one’s theme funnily enough, as the theme of the story can guide what ought to happen or what will make the story more powerful. For example if the theme of the story is “love overcomes all” then you don’t want a middle that explores nothing to do with love or ‘all’. That’s not to say a middle might look quite different to the rest of the book it just to relate somehow.

This is why I think some middles fail because they explore something vaguely interesting, perhaps bring a subplot into focus or throw some unexpected problems their hero’s way, but if it doesn’t connect with the other parts of the story it will feel out-of-place.

So what are some solutions to the problems of middles.

For one thing I think this is an area when planning is almost definitely a must. Don’t get me wrong many people pants and garden their way through a work perfectly fine, but maybe in revision or even a few notes of what is going to happen really helps. Why? Well if you agree with the thesis above, middles are in some respects trickier than beginnings and ends. Obviously people tend to focus more on the previous two sections, but in many respects you craft and change your novel around what want to be the beginning and end whereas the MIDDLE will always be a different beast, almost like something you have to get ‘right’ depending on what you select as start and end points for the story. Even if you make up the whole story as you go along there is some point where middles will become the disobedient servant to the rest of the story.

So by planning I don’t mean necessarily plotting out every detail, but more some element of brain storm – if the novel is a romance, planning just what tensions and events will be needed to really make the final conclusion ‘pop.’

Which brings up another point (gotta love writing every aspect you contend with leads to another element to be understood) what sort of material ‘deepens’ the climax as I’ve tried to claim. To bring back another point, the reason action movies often have some sort of ‘fail’ in the middle of the story is that the hero defeating the villain has that much more impact if the hero has already lost once, or in the romance the two lovers getting together only really has significance if we thought that was under threat.

So one of the ways to make a middle work is to use that time to cast doubt on the final ending. Stories are often quite predictable, in the sense we don’t really believe that the hero isn’t going to triumph or the lovers aren’t going to hook up – but good writing puts that doubt in the readers mind, or makes them question just how the ending is going to happen. Finding conflicts and events that cast doubt is a good strategy for a middle.

I’ve already mentioned that one way to do that is to have the hero fail. Another technique is to look at the antagonists and have them make a move or get close to succeeding, this is often how writers bring the story from the second act to the third by having the villain get so close to success all seems lost.

Whatever is planned it’s key to  make the story dynamic. Where I see some of my friends struggle is sometimes writing stories which are a little too much like video games – by which I mean a hero encountering tougher and tougher situations before the final boss. This works for gaming because the player experiences the tension by being involved, in a work of fiction tension is created by fooling the reader into thinking the characters are autonomous beings who might make the wrong choices in getting towards their goal.

It sounded earlier like I was dismissing subplots, but middles are a good time to consider them, just not for only the purpose of filling pages. Subplots are by their very nature there to flesh out the main story so middles are a good time to explore them. To bring back romance genre examples, the middle is often where a main character helps out a friend with their romantic problems, causing them to reflect on there own. (very broad examples I know)

So I think for me (who is still struggling with middles by the way) the key points to focus on for a middle, is asking how this deepens the final act, and how can this be done with dynamic action (rising and falling tension etc).

What are your thoughts on middles? Do yours usually sag, or are you like me and find them lacking?