Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Many fantasy novels have prologues, so it’s normal for many new writers to begin a fantasy with a prologue. Even though I’d read several novels that began with Chapter 1, it had never occurred to me that a big epic fantasy could be written without a prologue until I read Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. After that I never wrote one, and enjoyed jumping straight into the story while hopefully pulling the reader along with me. If I were to write one, though, I’d keep some tips in mind.
A prologue is not the place to describe the background, the magic system or the mythology of the story – mostly because those aren’t inherently fascinating to anyone except the author. Mythology is often retold in a“Long long ago, when the world was young and gods walked among men” way, and any characters in them are unfleshed, inaccessible and may not appear again in the story. Prologues that are mostly infodumps are worse. There may be a lot of information about the world of the story, but it shouldn’t be delivered to the reader in a mighty avalanche at the start.
I made this mistake when I first started writing fantasy, trying to condense the history of my world down into a few pages and thinking, “There, now we’ve got all that out of the way, we can settle down and enjoy the story.” But now that I plunge straight in, the reader can start enjoying the story right away, and I’ve also found that the reader doesn’t need to know every single detail to do so.
The best use for prologues in fantasy novels is to give readers a brief glimpse of events from another perspective, perhaps from a point of view that cannot be included in the novel or from a time just before the story proper begins. For instance, a prologue can deal with an event in the main character’s past which shows or hints at why the main character is now in a certain position or way of life; Ursula LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan is a good example of this. Such a prologue still needs to begin with a hook, and to have characterization and plot just as good as that of the first chapter, but if it's short and intriguing, it has the potential to be a delicious appetizer before the main course of the novel.
One last caveat : the prologue shouldn’t give away spoilers. If it features a prophecy stating that the Sword of Sunbeams will yield to the last heir of the Shiny Kingdom, and the hero happens to be that last heir, no one is going to be in the least worried when he steps up to the Sword. No matter how menacingly it glows or how much he sweats in advance, the readers will already know what happens (unless the writer subverts the prophecy and the Sword burns the hero’s hands off, which to be honest I wouldn’t mind reading).