Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Prologues, Info Dumps, & A Great New Book By Julie

by Jeffrey S Savage

(Before starting this blog--I wanted to make a comment about Sariah's last blog on blurbs. Say that fast. I love getting asked to do blurbs for one reason. I get to read some of the most awesome books before anyone else. On that note can I just say that Julie Bellon is an incredible writer! She sent me her novel a couple of months ago to blurb when I was thigh deep in my latest Shandra book. I have to admit that while I did read it, I kind of skimmed to get something out quick.

Well somehow the blurb I sent disappeared into the ether along with about three dozen other messages. So I reread her book over the weekend, and let me just say, "Wow!" Talk about an exciting book. I stayed up way too late reading every last page. And now I'm sitting here going, "How the heck to I do that story justice in one or two lines?" Every one of you that hasn't read it yet should be way jealous. And I highly recommend you get in line to blurb her next book.)

Last Saturday was the final class of my six week creative writing course. First of all, let me give a shout out to any of you who attended the class. I honestly think it was one of the most talented groups I’ve ever taught—even if you were all a bunch of chickens who wouldn’t read at the Harvest Moon Hurrah. (Tell me that doesn’t sound like something out of a book.)

Today, as I was pondering what to blog about, I received a great question from one of my class members. Since he hasn’t yet responded to my request to use his question in my blog, I won’t tell you who he is—cough-Jon-cough, cough—in case he is shy. I will only say that he is the student with the cool hair who kept complaining about the early start of class.

Here is his question:

“Dear Mr. Savage,

First let me just say that it was an honor to learn at your knee, er white board. You are indeed the master of all things written. My question is, how does it feel to be so much better of a writer than all the other people on your blog, and worlds better than the guy who wrote that Jimmy Fincher series of books?

Sincerely a faithful admirer.”

Of course since I am such a humble individual, I couldn’t answer that question. So I’ll defer to his second inquiry.

“Since you've given us carte blanche to ask you writing questions, I'm going to take advantage of it! (Sucker!)So, I'm writing this fantasy book with dogs as the viewpoint characters. I have a lot of info regarding how this situation came to be. Since I know that I'm not supposed to do a big info dump in the first chapter, I thought perhaps I could do a prologue that sets things up. What's your opinion on the use of a prologue as info dump? Would it be better to do as Garth Nix and leave the reader wondering and just drop bits and pieces as I go?”

Dear anonymous seeker of truth,

First let me say that I am glad you recognize my obvious talent with the quill, unlike that shill of a charlatan, Dashner. May I also say that I admire your perfect use of the term info dump, as we discussed in class.

But seriously, this is why I hate prologues nearly as much as I hate Self Addressed Stamped Envelopes. (Which has nothing to do with the fact that I was once dumped by a girl named Sase.)

Usually people add prologues to their books for one of two reasons. Either the first chapter isn’t exciting enough and they want to start with something that will catch the reader. Or the first chapter is exciting, but they want to provide a whole bunch of back story which is not exciting. Either way, this is a cop out.

How many times have you read a book where after a couple of chapters—or even less—you get bored and turn to something else? The two most important parts of any novel are the beginning and the end. The beginning hooks the reader and the ending keeps them coming back.

If you put an info dump in the first chapter, you risk the reader getting bored and putting down the book. If you info dump in a prologue, you still risk boring the reader if they do read the prologue, and of they don’t they won’t learn the important information you hoped to provide. I know, I know.

At this point everyone reading this blog is screaming, “I always read the prologues! I never skip them!” Note the exclamation points which clearly show how loud this is being screamed.

Yes you do read the prologue and the epilogue. But remember, gentle reader, you are the cream of the reading crop. You also probably read the acknowledgements—and not just to find out who the author’s agent is. You read the first chapter of the upcoming novel. You probably stay until the credits finish rolling at movies so you can find out if there is a hidden extra at the end. Not all readers are so faithful.

With that said, let me make a couple of recommendations. Feel free to use them. Or—like Stephanie with my POV blog—throw them out the window with the bathwater. 1) Never, ever info dump. First of all, examine your background information and determine if it really is necessary. Many times, what you feel is vital really isn’t that important. If it is key that the reader knows it, consider ways in which you can provide this knowledge other than an info dump. As you suggested, have the character discover the information along with the reader. Mini discoveries along the path of the story keep the reader interested while not so anxious to learn the truth that they skip to the back of the book. Provide a wise mentor character who can fill in the blanks during the story. Write a prequel chapter that fills in some of blanks. Have Fido, the loveable, but unreliable mutt, get sloshed and spill just enough important info to whet our appetites. There are a dozen other ways to slip information in without putting the reader to sleep—and pulling them out of the story.

2) Other reasons for a prologue are that you want to jump into someone else’s POV, you want to begin in a style that may not fit within the rest of the book, as mentioned above, you want to provide a prequel scene, or any number of other scenarios whereby you need to separate the first chapter from the rest of the novel. Because many people do not read prologues, there is a simple solution. Call your prologue Chapter One.

The first chapter of any novel is a free chapter. By this I mean it is a chapter in which you are free to cheat. All of the Harry Potter books are written in tight third person. If Harry doesn’t see it, we don’t see it. Except that in the beginning of several HP books, JK Rowling cheats. She shows us scenes which Harry Potter does not see. This is usually done to raise the tension by giving the reader information Harry does not possess. “Snape said what?!”

Rowling can get away with these scenes because they are the beginning of each book. They are the free cheat chapters

3) Finally, if you really must have a prologue, because you always loved prologues, and Robert Jordan uses prologues, and you think prologues are just the coolest things since Kerry Blair chasing ghosts in a cemetery, at least make them exciting. And make Chapter One exciting as well. Make the first sentence of each of these sections so dang cool everybody just has to read them. That way you know the reader is with you all the while. And if for some reason they still skip the prologue, their friends will mock them like James Dashner at a Christmas party. (Not sure what this means but I’ll take any chance to take a poke at the man.)
Hopefully that answered your question.

If not, Rob will write a marketing paper about it tomorrow, and call it his blog.

PS Please pray for me that I will be forgiven for all the bad words that I used when this delightful piece of software deleted my blog three straight times and then removed all the paragraph breaks when I finally was smart enough to copy before trying to post.


18 Comments:

At 10/16/2007 10:52 AM, Blogger James Dashner said...

I think I will forego my usual ingenious response and let the fact that you posted this blog twice speak for itself.

Great information, by the way. I think the middle of my new book has a little bit too much info dumpiness, but I tried really hard to avoid it as much as possible.

 
At 10/16/2007 11:02 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Hey, sometimes a post is just so dang good people want to read it twice.

 
At 10/16/2007 11:11 AM, Blogger Michele Holmes said...

I still say it's wrong to call a true prologue (as in a scene that occurs before the actual story you are telling takes place) chapter one. But (sigh) I know I'll never win this argument with you.

And what does it matter anyway? I'm always hooked on your books from page one, sentence one, word one. You could call it, "the end" and I'd keep reading anyway :)

 
At 10/16/2007 11:21 AM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

There's another reason for a prologue, and I've used it twice now. And no one has complained.

That is when the first part needs to take place in a different time than the rest of the book. I needed to show the scene, not just refer back to something that happened, but in each case, it happened ten or so years before the rest of the story. To have chapter one ten years before chapter two would, to me, be a little weird. But to have a prologue ten years before is more commonly accepted.

And may I congratulate you on the use of "shill" and "charlatan" in the same sentence? Very good.

 
At 10/16/2007 11:52 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

In my upcoming novel there is a scene that takes place a few months before the main story begins, so I put it in a prologue. Putting in a prologue spares you from having to make an awkward transition. The reader understands that the prologue takes place earlier and you don't have to start the next chapter with, "Three months later . . . "

Prologues can work very well, as long as, like Jeff said, they are exciting and hook the reader, not used as repositories for infodumps. They can help create tension and set the tone for the story by vividly depicting past events that will later become relevant to the current tale.

 
At 10/16/2007 11:57 AM, Blogger Jon said...

Yes, it is always a privilege and an honor to learn from a true master of the written word. If only I could find such a person. ;)

Re: losing your blog - hey, use Notepad. Copy 'n' Paste!

Robert Jordan. I started out not reading his prologues. "It was not THE beginning, but it was A beginning..." but then he started including story parts that I cared about and then they stretched into 100 pages and then the next logical step: Coming Soon: Wheel of Time Book 12a: the Prologue! So long, it needed its own binding!

And why do you hate SASEs? Is it because you generally have only one size of envelope at home and thus have a hard time inserting one into the other?

 
At 10/16/2007 12:44 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

All good reasons to write a prologue. But again, why not just call it chapter one and put a date at the top of each chapter? I assume that's what your are doing with the prologue and chapter one anyway.

Why would you even need a transition? I know this is a somewhat sensative subject, so I won't beat it to death. I just believe you can do everything you could do with a prologue in a chapter 1, without any of the drawbacks.

Jon, you would know why I hate SASEs if you'd come to week 5 of my class--slacker. Suffice it to say that when I asked a girl to the prom, I didn't give her a pre-stamped rejection form. They found it easy enough to say no without my help.

On my queries I always said, "Here is my contact information if you would like to request chapters. There is no need to respond if you are not interested."

Saves time. Saves money. Saves the annoyance of someone using my own stamp to send me a preprinted sheet rejecting me. Some people like to collect rejections. Not me. I throw them away.

 
At 10/16/2007 1:08 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

Great information Jeff. And, before I go off, can you tell me where you teach your classes and when your next class will be taught? I would very much enjoy attending and learning more from your inventive little brain. Did I say little? I meant vast.

Anyway. Agreed. No dumping allowed. Your insights will help lots of us avoid boring chapters and boring prologues and justifying the dump becasue we put so much sweat and tears into the reserach and there are some really well-written pros and we simply can't part with it so we don't unless someone like you puts out a sign, nay a billboard with neon lights, that says "This is not a landfill".

In fact couldn't you analyze all your information dumping and use the elements throughout numerous chapters? And couldn't you also use the information dumping elemnts that are related to backstory and bring those out naturally through the course of the novel? And that said, couldn't you also take the elements that are related to character development (but not necessarily backstory) and use those as descriptive elements for developing your characters in the "here and now" of the story? Then wouldn't all of us neo-writers pretty much feel like our work on that prologue info dump wasn't really a waste since all of it, including many of the brilliantly-wrought phrases that we refuse to throw away (in part because we are absolutely certain they are the most brilliantly wrought pros since Shakespear made so much ado about nothing, but mostly because we sweat bullets to come up with them) find their way back into our manuscripts at some point? This last coment, by the way, is just a shot in the arm for all those of us who have a prologue written and are on the verge of depression because Jeff has pretty much laid out a plan to dump our information dump and leave us like homeless wafes searching for a grave to lay down our dead prolouges next to Kerry Blair's headstone.

Disclaimer (Jeff, don't get verballey abusive with me on this next comment):

I do agree with Michele Holmes that in rare cases (let me underline rare), when the story takes place in a short time interval, say a day or a week or a month, but one critical portion of the story takes place in another time, couldn't a prologue be used for that out-of-chronological-sequence chapter, in essence telling the reader: "Hey this is part of the story, but it is so out of place and time when related to the reast of the story we are calling it a prologue"?

For example take the story of a ghost (Kerry, please don't tell me that this is a rotten example. I am not a ghost writer...he,he) who actually lived hundreds of years before and the ghost's "mortal" story is a major part of the here and now story. Maybe its a split novel form. And say said ghost is a murderer who killed someone forty years ago before passing on and the murder has major implications in the here and now and the murder investigation has been re-opened after all this time. Something like the story line of the movie frequency comes to mind.

Or say the story is about an ancient artifact or treasure that had its beginnings long before the story began and the artifact has the power to bestow the right of kingship and also has magical powers in and of itself and the manner in which those powers were bestowed effects every character who comes in contact with it. Something akin to the ring in Lord of the Rings comes to mind with all its attendant Mordor volcanic imagery.

Or say if your main character has the power to time travel, but the novel occurs in the present but the time travel powers have large impact on the here and now story.

In these aforementioned cases (and maybe a few more that never bothered to cross my mind on the spur of the moment)couldn't we agree that a prologue would be exciting rather than boring and not act as an information dumper, but rather as a first chapter which took place so far outside the tight time line of the novel that it just makes sense to call the out-of-chronological-sequence scene a prologue?

A novel that takes place in a twenty three day period where each chapter represents one day. Doesn't that format just scream out to make that first chronologically out of synch chapter a prolouge?

Just maybe a little?

Now tell me when you teach your next class...

 
At 10/16/2007 1:28 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

David,

First off just let me say that the only way I would ever consider having you in any of my classes if you were teaching the lesson. You are one of my favorite authors, and it has caused me no end of grief not to have another of your true masterpieces to read. You have a wonderful ability to do exactly what you are describing--take valuable information and weave it flawlessly into the story.

Michele and I have agreed to disagree on the prologue issue. You are right that such a scenario cries out for a prologue type of scene. The question though is: Do you need to call it a prologue? No one skips chapter 1, so why not just call your prologue chapter 1?

My national supernatural thriller did just that. It started with a scene that takes place thirty years earlier. I called it chapter 1, and everyone seemed okay with that.

 
At 10/16/2007 1:35 PM, Blogger Worldbuilder Robin said...

Just for the sake of arguement, I'd like to point out that Tolkein didn't use a Prologue to introduce the One Ring as suggested in the previous post. Similarly, any information about the ghost's murder or the power of the ancient artifact could be given throughout the story instead of being explained (or even hinted at) with a prologue. Instead of doing the info dump, you could just hint at what's going on until the main character (and the reader) screams "What is going ON, here?!?" and then connect the dots. Then the info dump is exciting and tied to what has already happened.

Having said all that, my novel has a prologue, which is separated from the rest of the story by about ten days, because it serves to introduce the main character. I've decided to make this a prologue for several reasons. One, I wrote it as a short story before I started writing the novel, and it's my first introduction to the main character, too. Second, it's separated chronologically from the rest of the story. Third, the novel isn't really about just him, and adding another chapter about just him would detract from that. Fourth, it's way shorter than even my rough drafts of the chapters.

In the end, I think it's more a style choice than a hard and fast rule. But, as with all other style choices, it only works if it's done right. Prologues can work if they're done right.

 
At 10/16/2007 1:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, I am beyond thrilled that you liked my book and had such high praise for it. Coming from someone as talented as you, that means a lot to me. Thank you so much for taking the time you did for me.

Julie Bellon

 
At 10/16/2007 2:23 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

Agreed. No more prologues. They have become cliche (and to think I published a book with a prologue. Woo is me).

Isn't the word prologue actually a time-related word? I think it was initally used to good effect as a tool to give notice to the reader that this is the opening scene but its set apart from the rest of the "opening scenes" becuase of its time-line location in the story. Sadly, the over use of prologues has turned them into a cliche--so overused that their initial effect has been watered down if not outright lost to the point that (and I quote master Jeff here) no one reads them anymore.

I am officially jumpin on the NO PRLOGUES wagon with driver Jeff whipping mules Dashner & Wells while telling Kerry Blair, Sariah Wilson and Stephanie Black to "hold on to your prologues, laddies."

 
At 10/16/2007 3:13 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

And then, of course, there is always Wikpedia:

In the Elizabethan drama the prologue was very far from being universally employed. In the plays of William Shakespeare, for instance, it is an artifice which the poet very rarely introduced, although we find it in Henry V and Romeo and Juliet. Sometimes the Elizabethan prologue was a highly elaborated poem; in 1603 a harbinger recited a sonnet on the stage, to prepare the audience for Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness. Often the prologue was a piece of blank verse, so obscure and complicated that it is difficult to know how its hearers contrived to follow it; such are the prologues of George Chapman.

Among Elizabethan prologues the most ingenious and interesting are those of Ben Jonson, who varied the form on every occasion. For instance, in The Poetaster (1602), Envy comes in as Prologue, and speaks a long copy of heroics, only to be turned off the stage by an armed figure, who states that he is the real prologue, and proceeds to spout more verses. Jonson's introductions were often recited by the stage-keeper, or manager. Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher seem to have almost wholly dispensed with prologues, and the form was far from being universal, until the Restoration, when it became de rigueur.

The prologues of the last thirty years of the 17th century were always written in rhymed verse, and were generally spoken by a principal actor or actress in the ensuing piece. They were often, in the hands of competent poets, highly finished essays on social or literary topics. For instance, the famous prologue to Dryden's Aurengzebe (1675) is really a brief treatise on fashions in versification. Throughout the 18th century the prologue continued to flourish, but went out of vogue in the early part of the 19th.

 
At 10/16/2007 3:18 PM, Blogger James Dashner said...

Personally, I love prologues. I really, really love them. Especially in the way they are used in fantasy, ala Robert Jordan. This is why my Jimmy Fincher books had prologues.

But I just had too many people tell me that their kid skipped the prologue. This was inexplicable to me. Why would you do this? It seems like the dumbest thing in the world. But then, most kids are dumb.

So, painfully and regretfully, my new book does not have a prologue. Woe is me. Well, it does, but it's called Chapter One despite being a prologue in every sense of the word.

By the way, I was joking when I said most kids are dumb.

 
At 10/16/2007 3:47 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

James,

I prefer the ancient "Woo is me" which also doubles as a great pick up line (all romance authors take note).

 
At 10/16/2007 4:33 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Of course then there is the, "Who is me," which was the Shakespearian predecessor to "Who's on First."

James, much as I hate to agree with you on anything, I also love prologues too. Especially if they are really gripping and act as kind of a teaser for the rest of the book. I ALWAYS read them. But the problem is just what you said. Too many people don’t. So if the information in your prologue is critical to the story, you risk not having the reader know what they need to.

 
At 10/16/2007 4:59 PM, Anonymous Jennie Hansen said...

Jeff my new book, Topaz, has a prologue for the simple reason it is part of a series and I don't like series where each new volume spends the first couple of chapters telling the reader what has already happened in the series. Each volume of my Bracelet series could be a stand alone book--the first tells how the jewels were connected, then each succeeding volume tells the story of one of the gems in the bracelet. The prologue merely tells how the jewel got to the point where that volume begins and the characteristics that legend assigns to it. Some readers are disappointed when that kind of information is omitted even if it has little real connection to the story. If readers want to skip my prologue and get right to the story, that's okay with me.
I don't care one way or the other about prologues, if they serve a legitimate purpose, write one, if not, why bother? Usually they're as useless as epilogues and in most cases it is best to start where the story starts and end when the story is finished. That said, I read them if they're there (if I paid fifteen or twenty dollars for a book, I want my money's worth). The only prologues I really hate are the ones that take two or three pages that appear almost word for word from an exciting part near the end of the book, stick them at the front as a teaser and call it a prologue.

 
At 10/16/2007 5:08 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Okay, Jennie. You win the prize (not sure what the prize is but you win it.) That is a reason for a prologue that I don't think should be put in a chapter 1.

 

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