Good Morning and welcome to Prologue Structure for Character and Plot-driven Stories! I really have this intense urge to do the “who” I am spiel since I do it all the time, so I will, even though you pretty much know who I am if you’re here. Hi! My name is Jodi and I’m a dev editor based in the Greater Seattle area (which means I live as far away from the city center as I can). I specialize in character-driven narratives of all sorts, broken things and people who’ve hit the limits of what they can do by themselves. My current home on the web is over at AWW, so if you’re interested in checking it out there’s a link over on the sidebar about my current workshops—that said, hey!!! Welcome. J
This is a really old workshop that I wrote, God knows—about seven years ago? I still have a soft spot for it, because it’s something a lot of people don’t really talk about (and I love prologues—epilogues, too. I’m a sucker for seeing everyone happy, weddings, babies, hot guys potentially getting ready to spin off book #2, and dangerous villains lurking in the shadows, you know, stuff like that).
The Pros and Cons of using a prologue
Many writers don’t like prologues and feel readers don’t like them. They might also think a prologue isn’t “needed”, which is true, because a prologue isn’t necessary. Unlike a beginning, middle or end, nobody really “needs” a prologue. It’s not part of your story skeleton. It’s more like a set of braces; an add-on to something that already works fine.
Like braces, prologues are all about personal choice. Maybe you feel your story is crooked and needs a little support, or think it doesn't look right, or maybe your gut feeling says a prologue simply needs to be there. Because a good prologue is hard to write, some people have sworn off them and encourage others to do the same. However, a prologue, regardless of where you stand on the prologue debate, is a stylistic choice. It’s not right, wrong, or lazy writing; it’s simply one of many choices you make during the creation process.
In The Elements of Style, Strunk says, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Not that I’m arguing with Strunk, but good writing sings and dances, it doesn’t plod along like an English textbook. How many times have you seen a book that totally blew away everything you knew was right and reached the top of the bestseller lists? Head-hopping, run-on sentences, goofball plot events and purple prose—you can do anything if you connect with your reader. Good writing tells a great story. Whether you have a couple of unnecessary words, want to go purple, blue or Hemingway, if it works, it works, which is why voice is the hardest thing to teach.
Voice is how you interpret craft.
However, before you start thinking I'm a prologue advocate, I don’t believe everyone should have a prologue. Prologues don’t make weak writing stronger or a weak story better. If you like and want to use a prologue it should be an informed choice and work with the story you want to tell.
What readers don’t like are prologues that don’t work.
What a prologue is and isn’t:
A prologue is not an info-dump.
If you have a romance between John and Jane, but talk about how John’s grandma Suzy owned a Victorian, made friends with Jane and left the house to her which made John upset because he wanted the house to stay in the family, then you show John getting the news, talking to a lawyer and swearing he’ll get the house back for his sweet old mum to set up for the story—that’s an info-dump.
A prologue is not unrelated information that has nothing to do with the story you’re currently writing.
If John practices kendo, or Jane once saw a ghost—maybe John is the founder of the local Veteran’s Day parade or is really a hot alien general, it should only be in your prologue if it impacts the story, comes up again, or illustrates a point. It’s cool that John is well-rounded, but keep it pertinent.
A prologue should not read like the Old Testament, the history of the world or say things like “Little did she know” or “As she was to find out.”
Unless you’re so good an unrelated sampling of beta readers and crit partners agrees your prologue is the hottest thing to hit paper since JR Rowling wrote Harry Potter, toggle back on over-the-top word choices (unless, of course, your entire story reads the same way).
A prologue should provide info that would take a huge amount of time to explain or has more impact when shown.
Remember Jane’s friend, Suzy, the old lady with the house? What’s the important part of that whole scenario? Is it John’s vow to get the house back? Or his meeting with the lawyer?
It’s actually Suzy’s death.
If Suzy didn’t die and leave the house to Jane, the story doesn’t happen. Why did Suzy leave the house to Jane? Could it be that no one in her family cared enough to talk to her? Was Jane her only friend? Did Jane love Suzy?
Showing their connection is important exposition because it is the basis for one of Jane’s primary motivations. When John shows up, wanting to buy the house back from Jane—Jane’s love for the woman she considered a second mother, and anger at Suzy’s family, will provide a major source of conflict.
Narrowing it down still further, showing Jane in the Emergency Room, crying at Suzy’s bedside, holding on to Suzy’s hand provides an emotional hook. There is nothing stronger than the death of a loved one (although this doesn’t mean the death of someone the protagonist loves is the only thing that goes in a prologue, lol).
A prologue should be connected to the story you’re telling.
Not “a” story, or the story of your character’s lives at some earlier or later time, but this story.
If Jane’s mom once took her to a Christmas pageant and Jane fell in love with Santa Claus, which is why Jane collects Santa figurines, Jane's santa-holic behavior has nothing to do with her making a stand in Suzy’s house (see that paragraph about unrelated information).
But if Jane’s mother used to beat her and forgot Jane at school the day of the Christmas pageant, and Suzy was the mean old librarian who found Jane hiding in the stacks, got her something to eat and turned Jane’s life around—showing that makes a good prologue.
A prologue, above all—should be an emotional hook that pulls your reader into chapter one.
If you don’t “feel” it, your reader won’t either. The story of Suzy’s death, or the beginning of Jane and Suzy’s friendship might feel over the top, but there’s a vast difference between a dry recitation of story events and a visceral experience done up close and personal. If you’re throwing a prologue in there, make it count.
Plot-driven v. character-driven?
Before we get started, I’d like to spend a little time exploring the difference between character and plot-driven stories because it makes a difference in what you’re trying to do, and how to do it. Not that either way is wrong. Simply that each way needs to be approached differently.
Plot-driven stories are not necessarily bad, and character-driven stories are not necessarily good. Like anything else, what sells comes and goes in cycles. Sometimes one style does better, sometimes the other does.
When you call a story plot or character-driven, you’re simply describing a construction style. In a plot-driven story, events are the driving force. A good example of this would be when Joan’s sister is kidnapped in Romancing the Stone and Joan has to deliver the package her brother-in-law mailed to her before he died, or the murder of Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle in A New Hope, and Luke’s decision to leave Tatooine.
Joan wouldn’t decide to leave for Cartagena, and Luke wouldn’t make the decision to leave Tatooine by themselves, but since plot events—the kidnapping and murders—happened, the characters have no choice except to react.
Characters are subordinate to the plot, and are moved by the needs of the plot. Joan needs to get to Cartagena to save her sister, and Luke needs to help Leia and redeem his aunt and uncle’s deaths. It’s fast-paced and high concept. If it were a book, it’d be called a page turner, because each page flips in a logical chain.
The reader needs to know what happens next. Does Luke save the Princess? Does Joan trade El Corazon for her sister? Joan doesn’t spend a lot of time showing her internals, which doesn’t mean she doesn’t have internals. It’s just that the story focus is on externals.
Good examples of plot driven movies would be
The DaVinci Code
And Die Hard
Plot driven stories can be described in a quick elevator pitch.
A good plot-driven story, like Die Hard, can also have many character-driven elements, because the best plot-driven stories grow out of character in the same way a good character-driven story has an integrated plot.
Character-driven stories are a little more difficult to describe because they’re driven by character and sometimes characters do things that don’t make sense or come out of nowhere unless you think about their actions as part of a greater whole. In the Indiana Jones movies, Indy rushes around, fighting bad guys and avoiding snakes. It’s a great adventure. In Witness, another Harrison Ford movie, he also fights bad guys. The difference is that it’s a character-driven movie, so when you remember it, you don’t remember the chases or shootings, you remember Book waking up in Rachel’s bed, freaking out over his gun and changing over the course of the movie.
While plot-driven stories can contain a character arc, in a character-driven story the transformational arc is very pronounced. John Book isn’t the same man at the end of Witness, while Indy is the same at both the beginning and end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Character-driven stories run on emotion.
A good example of character-driven movies would be:
A character-driven story is more complex emotionally, but might also contain less plot because people are the plot drivers and plot flows out of them (you know—sucking up more word count), instead of being imposed on them.
A good rule of thumb is that if you think of the story as a whole, a story is plot-driven if the largest percentage of word count has to do with what is going on, versus following someone like Rick in Casablanca as he angsts over Ilsa, or Judy Hopps in Zootopia as she tries to live her dream.
When is a prologue chapter one?
A prologue is your first chapter if you can take away the label calling it a prologue; re-label it chapter one and the story flows on without skipping a beat.
There needs to be some kind of focused disconnect between the prologue and the first chapter (which we'll talk about next time), although that disconnect can’t be totally random. The prologue and first chapter must make sense together, even if the prologue is simply a bookend device (creates a resonance with the epilogue).
When prologues work, they work well. When they’re done badly, it’s usually because the writer wants to explain things he or she doesn’t think the reader will catch without having it diagrammed ahead of time or simply has an interesting scene that is way too cool to leave out of the story.
Maybe the prologue explains the war in Heaven, the fall of Lucifer, and ends with the formation of Hell. Then the first page opens on some guy walking down the street looking for a cup of coffee. Five pages later we find out the guy’s name is Starr, he lives in Boston, and someone is killing prostitutes. It doesn’t connect. It might, if the author wanted to set Lucifer up as Starr. But simply focusing on events in the prologue doesn’t make the story a connected whole. “You” might know where the story is going, but you need to give your reader some clues.
Who is this Starr guy? Is he Lucifer? The prologue talks about Lucifer, but chapter one is some guy walking down the street looking for coffee.
If the story is really about an angel who got caught up in the war, decided to hang out with humans, and now he’s a detective/cop/whatever and the plot involves human trafficking—the author probably figured the prologue made sense since it’s what caused Starr to become a cop. He Fell.
Starr’s Fall is backstory but until you also think about the prologue as a focal piece for your story it’s hard to tell if it’s the right thing to show. Besides being a hook, a prologue should be the right hook. Characters, like people, have lives that run in a continuum. Stuff happens before the story and keeps happening afterwards.
The creation of Hell isn’t part of Starr’s story. It’s interesting and was probably fun to write, but Hell is part of Lucifer’s story and even if they were friends and fought together, Lucifer and his issues have nothing to do with Starr and his coffee.
Which means in addition to being the “right” hook, a prologue needs to stay on target.
Next up: Making it work
I have comment moderation on, so don't be surprised if your comments don't show up right away. I get a lot of spammers, so I want to check it out before posting it (plus it makes sure I see it). If you have a prologue and want to talk about it, be aware that I'll probably talk about it on the blog :). Thanks for dropping by!