So, in shopping my latest fantasy novel, The Oldest Trick, around, I keep running into the following controversy:
How important or not important is a prologue in a fantasy novel and should you even have one?
The obvious answer is ‘depends on the book’ or ‘depends on the prologue’. Let’s make the debate a little more complicated, though, as this will be closer to my own problem. Say the prologue (or, even generically, ‘a’ prologue) is needed to provide background to the fantasy world that will assist the reader in understanding the context of the novel’s events BUT introducing the main character in the first chapter of the novel would probably make for a better hook. What do you do then? I’ve narrowed it down to a couple choices.
- Cut out the prologue and shop the novel to make the prologue unnecessary.
- Make the prologue as good a hook as the first chapter.
Of these two choices, I’ve been focusing on #2, but I fear I’m not quite doing it to my satisfaction. I’m considering different tacks, different options, and so on. I don’t really want to sit here and have what I’m doing workshopped, specifically, but I do want to think about how prologues go and how to do them well. So, let’s to it. To my mind, there are three kinds of prologues, more or less.
Type One: A Long, Long Time Ago
This prologue throws the reader into the ancient past to witness some cataclysmic event or climactic battle. If done well, it stokes the audience’s thirst for finding out how *that* ancient time connects to the contemporary story. If done poorly, it leaves the readers confused and frustrated, since they didn’t understand what happened and, before they got a chance to figure it out, they were teleported centuries or millennia into the future with no way of ever figuring it out for sure.
Examples: The Fellowship of the Ring (movie, not book), The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, Foundation by Isaac Asimov, Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling, etc.
Type Two: Something Wicked This Way Comes
The next type you usually see is when, instead of meeting the hero first, you meet the villain. You see him plotting his evil plots and doing his dirty deeds and you think to yourself ‘man, that guy is bad news!’ Of course, you are excited to see how he interacts with the hero and how. In the best case scenario, this prologue is just so stunning and shocking that you can’t help but keep reading to see how it works out. In the worst case, you are faced with a villain whom you have no investment in since you have no idea who he is or why you should care.
Examples: Most James Bond movies, Excession by Iain M Banks, Star Wars: A New Hope, A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin, and so on
Type Three: Secondary Sources
This method involves introducing the reader to some secondary source or journal entry that discusses the events of the novel from some kind of distance-it may even be a storyteller or some kind or elaborate narrative frame. These are done for the purpose of creating a kind of historical and realistic weight to the book’s world. If done well, they make the world come alive before the reader has even met anyone in the book. They also have the advantage of being rather short. If done poorly, the reader’s eyes glaze over and they simply skip it and, therefore, miss out on the information that may very well be important to their comprehension of the following plot.
Examples: Dune by Frank Herbert, The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (sort of), etc.
There, those are the biggest ones, to my mind. They come in many variations, of course, but that’s the lion’s share in broad strokes, at least. Now, it is very possible to not need a prologue at all and many very good books skip them entirely. It is, however, a convention of the genre, so one must weigh the pros and cons. I know that in all the books I read as a teenager, I expected there to be a prologue. I even treated them as a kind of special challenge, and I was excited to see how they linked up and I never, ever skipped them (and I still don’t). As I’m writing these books now, however, I’m wondering whether they’re worth it.
What to you fine folks think? Worth it or not? Do you like prologues? What makes them good to you?
So, I just got a rejection letter for a story I submitted to Analog. This, in and of itself, is unexceptional (sadly) and part and parcel of this whole ‘trying to be a successful writer’ thing. What made it interesting to me, though, was the list of things they tag onto the bottom of their form letter. Ordinarily these lists are comprised of somewhat disingenuous reminders of what makes a bad story (i.e. a list of most common reasons why they reject things) and they are typically quite uninformative for someone who knows their way around plot, character, and the genre in general. This one, though, had a peculiar one that had me scratching my head. It went like this:
—Science fiction readers are problem solvers! Stories with downbeat endings, in which the characters have no hope of solving their problems, are strongly disliked by Analog readers. In a good SF story, the characters strive to solve their problems—and even if they fail in the end, they go down fighting, not whimpering.
This, to me, basically says ‘we prefer happy endings and victory to tragedy and defeat. If the guy loses, at least make it awesome.’ Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I don’t think so.
Now, I’ve noticed the trend for science fiction stories to end on an upnote before. The one most consistent thing I’ve gleaned from reading the Writers of the Future anthology is that the vast, vast majority of scifi stories end in victory of some kind – occasionally bittersweet, but consistently upbeat in some fashion. This note on my rejection letter left me wondering ‘is this a thing?’
Yes, it is a Thing
I’ve spent a bit too much time this morning trying to think of science fiction titles with downbeat endings – tragedies, in other words. I generally think of scifi as a genre that lends itself to the grim and dark but, the more I thought about it, the more I started to see my error. Think for a second: how many downbeat scifi titles that end ’negatively’ can you name? Here’s my list:
- The Planet of the Apes
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers
- The Sparrow
- A Canticle For Lebowitz (sort of)
And…hmmmm…nothing much else. Even those are a stretch.
Granted, I’m definitely missing a few in that list, but if you go down the list of the darkest, most depressing scifi stories ever and you’ll still get the upbeat ending, nine times out of ten. Terminator? John Connor wins! Aliens? The Aliens are always defeated eventually. Zombie Apocapypses? 99% of the time the last band of survivors finds a cure, escapes from trouble, or what have you. Even Children of Men, one of the darkest, most dismal scifi universes ever, has the woman with the last child escape England and vanish into the mist – that, my friends, is hope.
What’s up with that?
What is Up With This
I suppose this trend isn’t unique to science fiction – most stories in any genre end happily somehow. They might be troubled victories, but the protagonist seldom loses, seldom sees his plans thwarted, seldom finds his efforts futile. I guess, on some level, we all like to think that the happy ending is out there for all of us, no matter how terrible things look. Alien brain slugs might be eating our neighbors, but we, dammit, are going to find a way to survive.
Part of this also might have something to do with science itself. Science is an inherently positive discipline in some ways, or at least it is perceived as such. We like to think of it as constantly striding forward, fixing problems, uncovering truths. Such a glorious and wonderous discipline cannot lead to tragedy! Why, that would mean we, humanity, were fundamentally wrong about something, and we can’t have that. Oh no no no! We dare not even think of such things!
Is this a Bad Thing?
I am a big believer in the power of tragedy, myself. My natural predilection is for my stories to have at least partially tragic endings. It has taken a surprising amount of effort on my part to pull myself away from that habit, and I am stuck asking myself sometimes why I’m trying so hard.
A good tragedy isn’t depressing, it’s somehow fulfilling. It’s like a meal – it sticks to your ribs, makes you think about it for months afterwards. They can hurt your heart, but it’s a good kind of hurt; it’s the kind that makes you realize you’ve grown somehow. You’ve understood something that a victorious ending might not have illuminated. You’ve grown.
Now, I’m not saying every single thing I read or write should end sadly – far from it - but I am suggesting that, if this is a stipulation of the genre, we ought to bend it a bit, if not break it outright. Not every tale of our future selves ends well; we should be courageous and willing enough to explore that.
First, you ought to read this brief piece of Joel Stein being a jackass. Heard this sentiment before? I bet you have.
Let me get one thing straight: I am not a YA author or fan, in particular. The science fiction and fantasy I write, I write for adults and, perhaps, mature teenagers. Weirdly enough, I usually don’t sympathize with the principal characters in YA fiction. I don’t recall a particular time where I was uncomfortable with myself or who I was (though I do recall plenty of people who had a problem with who I was who made things unpleasant, but I never considered that anything other than an external problem and I never adapted myself to them). I have always known, basically, where I wanted to go and more or less what I wanted to do. I had the misfortune of watching someone very, very close to me die very, very painfully throughout my entire teenage years, and this taught me a lot about what mattered. Other people’s opinions or the ridiculous insecurities of adolescence didn’t make the list.
Nevertheless, I appreciate what YA fiction can and has done, and not just for young adults. It distills very complicated, very adult problems into slick, fast-paced stories and, furthermore, gives your average teenager a voice in that problem. This is not only important for kids, but it makes a good lens for we adults to peer through from time to time. It makes us step back from ourselves, to try and remember a time when we weren’t so calcified into our lives. It makes us hope and believe in possibility in a way many of us don’t anymore. It kills cynicism in a way only the young truly can.
Furthermore, the sentiments of arrogant literati like Stein also encompass something else: the clear and emphatic disdain for that they choose not to deem ’literature’ but, instead, cast off as ‘mere genre fiction’. This is the bit that really gets me.
Look, you’re entitled to your taste. You don’t like one genre or the other, fine. But two rules:
- Just Because You Don’t Like It, Doesn’t Mean You Can Rip On It: I say this without irony: grow up. Are you actually incapable of appreciating something because it doesn’t appeal to you directly? Are you one of those immature jackholes who can’t admit a man is physically attractive because you’re afraid you might be considered gay? Is the reason you don’t and will not read YA fiction actually because you feel it adds nothing to the literary discussion, or is it, rather, because you are so pathetically insecure that the thought of another person witnessing you reading something intended for another age group give you the willies? Seriously, man, if the rest of us have to read Infinite Jest, you can man up and read some YA fiction just to see what the hype is about.
- Admit that Everything’s a Genre: That literary fiction you so adore? Guess what - it’s genre fiction. It has its set of tropes, standards, acceptable styles, target audience demographics, and the rest of it. Their readers focus on style and metaphor over plot and pacing. They forgive the occasional self-indulgent tangent or purple prose passage. Writers are pushing buttons in that genre the same as in every other one, so let’s get down off your high ‘literary’ horse and admit, once and for all, that literature is something much, much broader than what you perfer to define it as. Watchmen is literature. The Giver is literature. Neuromancer is literature.
I really don’t know how many times I need to say these things before they stick. You are all aware that some of the most pivotal and powerful stories of our history started out as simple adventure tales, right? Can’t you perhaps admit that The Hunger Games may be tapping into something important? Granted, I haven’t read it (and am not especially motivated to), but it isn’t because I think it’s bad or lacking (though it very well may be). It’s because I’ve got other things ahead of it in line, simple as. I’ll get to it when I get to it, but I’m not about to hold it against anyone who’s reading it now, no matter how old they are.
Violence is ubiquitous in scifi and fantasy. The number of specfic tales that don’t include some kind of violence are few and far between. Indeed, the most attention and interest surrounding tales of the future or alternate worlds circle around the methods by which the people of that time or place fight one another. I think it’s worth asking the question why.
In the first place, we have to consider the audience. The majority of the audience in scifi and fantasy is male; men are more violent than women (if crime statistics are any indication) and have been raised in an environment where violence is romanticized. To say, however, that this is all there is to it is naive and, dare I say it, a bit sexist. Women may not commit violent crime as often, but to take up the mantra of ‘if women ran the world there would be no war’ is disingenuous towards men. I can point you towards plenty of female rulers who waged as many wars as their male counterparts (Elizabeth I, for instance, supported institutionalized piracy against the Spanish culminating in a massive naval battle; Catherine the Great didn’t conquer most of what is now modern Russia with smiles and handshakes alone). Certainly, men have been socialized for centuries to be the primary purveyors and consumers of violence, but women, I feel, have aided and abetted the process, if passively. The male/female controversy isn’t, however, my primary point here.
Albert Camus once wrote:
“The truth is that every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone. “
There is truth in this statement. The world is full of people we disagree with, often violently. We think them fools, monsters, or, most charitably, misled simpletons who ‘just don’t understand’. In our heart of hearts–our deepest, most animal self–we wish we could MAKE THEM LISTEN. Herein lies war and violence. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could bash in that jerk’s face and make him obey than take the long route round? That route involves compromise, engagement, patience, and humility. Why bother? We’re right, aren’t we? When we have cast down our enemy and toppled their proud works into the dust, we are the victor; we are admired, we are the future author of history. “Americans,” said George Patton, “hate a loser.” I don’t think Americans are necessarily alone in this.
Even more simply than this is the fact that we have desires–physical, emotional, material, etc.–and resources to supply these desires are seldom so abundant that we can have them without conflict. Wars are been fought over money, food, land, and political influence. Helen’s face launched a thousand ships; any given episode of Jerry Springer has shown us two people fighting over affection, heredity, ownership–desire, all by other names. Lao Tzu, in the Tao te Ching, advises us to practice ‘not wanting’ as a path to both spiritual and political peace and enlightenment. Simple enough, but easier said than done.
To come back to science fiction and fantasy, we must consider that the human condition is one defined by conflict. If the speculative genres exist to explore the human condition in a kind of fictional laboratory separated or made distinct from our own society, then conflict–violence–is going to be part of that discussion. I tried writing a story in college once for a writing workshop wherein the main character simply wanders off into the woods and comes to a personal epiphany with some local wood sprites. The story was fantasy in a fantastic world; my professor (one of those specfic haters) asked me ‘why not put it in the real world? Why bother with fantasy?” I rankled at the question then, but I’ve come to look at it differently now. If all I was doing in that story was exploring a young man’s understanding of his educational opportunities, then fantasy was too blunt an instrument. I was tapping in a thumb tack with a sledgehammer–no, fantasy is a bigger, heavier genre than simple literary fiction. It is for exploring those massive issues which litfic need not or does not. These large issues are things that lead us to the mighty cataclysms of our species–war, violence, murder, chaos, anarchy, deep evil, and gleaming good. If specfic errs on the side of violence, it is merely because it is doing what it should and can do better than other genres.
Of course, spaceships exploding and armies of goblins also sell books. Mustn’t forget that, either.
Science Fiction and Fantasy novels and stories aren’t for everybody. This isn’t a radical statement, I’m sure, but its significance or whole meaning is often obscured behind a fair amount of sneering and looking down one’s nose at the genre(s). If somebody comes to me and wants to read ‘good’ science fiction, I want to refer them to either William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Frank Herbert’s Dune (after stressing to them that there really isn’t much point to reading past the first one). The thing is, though, I don’t always do that. I ask them some questions, first, usually revolving around their inherent purpose in delving into scifi. “How complex do you want the story to be?” I’ll ask, or, “How good are you at figuring out exposition via context clues rather than text dumps?”
If I get blinks and stares to these questions, or guarded statements like ’I don’t like crazy science stuff’ or ‘I don’t want to read something I need a degree to understand’, I back off from recommending my true favorites. I give them something pallatable and easy, like Russel’s The Sparrow or Childhood’s End by Clarke. This is not to say that these aren’t fine books (they are quite wonderful, each of them), but they aren’t the kind of sci-fi that really blows my mind. They aren’t the kind of thing that, once I start reading it, I can’t stop. They don’t suck me in. Neuromancer does, every time I read it. The very first line sets me going: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Gibson, in the first twenty pages of his novel, drowns you in the dismal streets and seedy bars of Chiba City as you watch Case stay one step ahead of Wage’s joeboys while strung out on drugs. The detail of the place is immersive, wonderful, powerful. You do not, however, know exactly what’s going on. This isn’t your world, and Gibson isn’t holding your hand as you dive into it. You’re running behind Case, glancing at the scenery as you try to keep up. Gradually, though, you build a vocabulary. At some point, when somebody says ‘the Sprawl’, you know what they mean. When Case ‘punches the Hosaka’, you feel the ridges of the buttons under your fingers. You’re part of the world now. You know its rules, its conventions, its dark alleys. You’re as much a resident as Case is, perhaps more. That is, as much as anything else, the reason I read sci-fi and fantasy.
This, though, isn’t for everyone. When I was in grad school, I can’t tell you the number of times somebody gave me a distasteful look when I said I read and wrote scifi. It was as though I had belched at a volume that would rattle fillings and refused to apologize. I had a professor in a writing workshop who forbade the submission of works of science fiction or fantasy and, when I would bring up scifi novels in the course of class discussion, she would literally sneer at me and then pretend I hadn’t spoken. I kept bringing them up anyway, though, when discussion permitted. She gave me a B+ for the course (which is horrendously low in grad school, FYI).
Once, in another class and as part of our homework, we had to bring in a chapter of a novel we loved and distribute it to the class. I brought in the first chapter of Neuromancer. When we came back the next class to discuss it, three or four people hadn’t read it and, therefore, didn’t contribute to the discussion. Their reasoning? “I don’t read scifi” or “I didn’t get it” or “It was boring.” As though the plodding, overwrought prose of their favorite litfic novelist was a blast for me. As though reading the first chapter of The Great Gatsby for the millionth time was somehow enlightening to me. As though the latest Jodi Picoult speaks to me because, you know, she writes mainstream fiction and, obviously, I should love it because that’s what books are. I was pissed at those individuals. It was a slap in my face, because there is no way one can read Neuromancer and say it’s poorly written. It isn’t – it’s brilliant.
The reason it doesn’t speak to those people, though, is that it asks the reader to do something other books don’t. It asks your forebearance. It commands you to be disoriented for the first ten or fifteen pages as you get your bearings. “This is an alien world,” it says, “so bear with it while you settle in.” That settling-in process is one of the things I love about the genre I call ‘home’. It can be done poorly, yes, but when it’s done well, there’s nothing quite like it. I mean, I admire Steinbeck and Hemingway as much as the next guy, and I’ll give my grudging appreciation to Toni Morrison and Jose Saramago (actually, no – I can’t stand his style. It’s like needles in my eyes), but they don’t take me anywhere new. I don’t get to hear the helium-giggle of Lonny Zone’s whores in the Chastubo while Ratz slides my Kirin across the bar with his Russian military surplus prosthetic arm. All I get is another scene from plain old planet Earth with plain old people doing the same plain old thing. Well done? Sure. Magical? Rarely.
Give me the Bene Gesserit administering the gom jabbar. Throw me into a book with a glossary twenty pages long. Don’t tell me another sad tale about some guy learning to find his way in a tough modern world. Give me Case, punching his Hosaka while coming down hard off a Beta high and watching his slick Chinese slow-virus get ever closer to the gleaming security ice of the Villa Straylight.