Monday, August 11, 2014

Beginning Before the Beginning (August theme)


by Tracy Barrett

A challenge facing the writer of historical fiction (like me) or science fiction or fantasy is world-building. Establishing the setting is necessary to make the reader feel immersed in a different time and/or place but it usually has to happen very early in the book, along with all the other things that most authors try to do up-front: establish the voice, the characters, the problem. This is hard for the writer and exhausting for a reader.

Different authors have different solutions. Some just plunge into the action, risking losing a reader who has no idea what’s going on. Others fall prey to the dread info dump, where places, people, and customs are described in heavy-handed detail, while too many rely on the “As you know, Bob” technique (“As you know, Bob, Prohibition started last year and underworld figures have taken over the production of alcohol”).

The solution that works for me is the prologue. I know, I know; everyone says that people don’t read prologues. But if the prologue is short and has a good hook, it can get a lot of the world-building (as well as some of the voice, the characters, and the problem) established before the actual beginning of the book without losing the reader.

Here’s the prologue to my recent novel King of Ithaka. What do you think?

Hear this: I did not hate my father for leaving us. I was, of course, only a baby when he left, but even as I grew up fatherless yet with a living father, I still did not hate him.
            My father and many other men had heeded King Agamemnon’s call to leave their farms and their kingdoms and their families to follow him to Ilios and reclaim his brother’s kidnapped wife, the lovely Helena. But over the years, as we neared manhood, the other boys’ fathers came back. They returned either in person, bearing riches from the treasuries of the fallen city, or only in the words of a messenger reporting that they had died bravely in battle.
            I alone did not know what had happened to my father. I questioned my mother, but she, weaving at her loom or preparing meals for the many guests who required the hospitality of the palace even in the king’s absence, counseled patience.
            No, I did not hate my father for leaving. Going to war is a man’s duty. But later, much later, I hated him for returning.


9 comments:

  1. I like it, especially the last sentence, because that made me wonder why he didn't want him to come back. And I like stories that include Helen of Troy; she's always been a mysterious character to me.

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    1. Phew! That's exactly what I wanted the last line to do!

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  2. I love that prologue! The last line definitely grabbed me!

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  3. I love a good prologue...Have used 'em myself. That info dump can be difficult for authors of contemporary work...I can only imagine how tough it must be for you...especially since you have so much knowledge you'd like to share with the reader.

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    1. It's so hard not to overload the book with facts that are cool but irrelevant! They do make great blog posts, however.

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  4. One thing that has surprised me is the backlash against prologues all of a sudden. I read books from the time I was old enough to read and prologues have been a part of many, many good books for me. I always read them. Sometimes they're unnecessary but sometimes they give you the backstory you need and draw you in. I think even movies have done away with the prologue approach, though. Think of movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and how it had that little scene at the beginning that offered backstory. I think The Exorcist did, too. All of that is gone now. You just jump right into the movie. I guess it's a product of our short-attention-span society!

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    1. I think you're right, Stephanie. I do try to keep the prologue as short as possible for just that reason!

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  5. Great prologue! I'm teaching a class this spring that includes looking at adaptations of The Odyssey. Your book sounds perfect for it!

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