Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Created to Compel: The Pros of Prologues

There may be as many cons as pros to prologues, and telling a story's end at its beginning can be especially risky. But choose your details well, and this doesn’t have to be the fate of your prologue or your novel.

Choose your details well, says Janet Burroway in the classic Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft, and the result is a memorable sum of parts that yields a greater whole. The key is to start with a not-to-be-skipped opening and continue consistently to the tale's end. And when you use details, says Burroway, choose details that are sensory and matter to the story.

Starting a story by telling its ending, for example, as author Sara Gruen did in Water for Elephants, instantly raises questions. In this case, questions are good because they pique the reader’s curiosity; once that happens we’re hooked. In Elephants, the sensory details in the prologue, from the lingering smell of grease to the choice of music, are also details that matter because they literally set the stage for the life of the story’s narrator, Jacob Jankowski.

On this foundation, Gruen builds a strong narrative, starting with the first words spoken in Jacob’s no nonsense voice of experience. A nonagenarian nearing the end of his life, Jacob is still a pretty sharp cookie. Pulled in by the details of how his life began, we find ourselves hoping he stays that way.

To enhance the novel’s strong tone and memoir style and ground it in reality, Gruen uses sensory details throughout; in the death of Jacob's parents in a motorcar, for example, she does a masterful job of using detail to both bury and reveal the theme of survival. She then unfolds the tale of Jacob’s early days in veterinary school at Ivy League Cornell and the loss of his family and dreams. Since these are revealed in scene rather than through narration, the reader discovers that these are the first of many tests of Jacob's backbone. We know he survives; it’s in the prologue. What we’re interested in is how. We may even learn from him.

This is the writer’s task: to ground a story in a concrete, albeit created, world. The only way to do this well is to do it with the right details right from the start. "As a writer of fiction you are at constant pains not simply to say what you mean, but to mean more than you say," Burroway notes. "… if you write in abstractions or judgments, you are writing an essay, whereas if you let us use our senses and do our own generalizing and interpreting, we will be involved as participants in a real way."

Whether you opt for a prologue for narrative pull or start your story in medias res, the only way to reach a strong and satisfying conclusion is to engage the reader from the get-go with details that engage the senses and the mind.

For more on the use of details, see Janet Burroway's classic Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft.

Coming in September is the Ridgefield Writers Conference. For information and registration, visit Ridgefield Writers Conference.

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