Literary Kerfuffle

So, I unwittingly started a kerfuffle when I posted my response to a literary discussion concerning the “rules” for prologues.

And, since I didn’t toe the expected line, someone presented me with a bit of a finger-wagging scold.

Scold away, I say!

Here’s what the fuss was about:

A gentleman posted a topic for discussion, and in his post he stated, “(S)ome people have made comments about prologues in novels that surprised me. It seems that different people have different views on them and their purpose. Not all novels need a prologue. But for those that have them, to my mind, a prologue is a teaser.”

Then he presented a list of what a prologue should or should not be, and ended with the question, “Agree/disagree?”

Some folks agreed with the list of rules, some took exception to a point or two, and one gentleman gave this response:

A good subject to raise in view of the various opinions expressed elsewhere…True, prologues are often short, but I don’t think the length matters too much so long as the piece is well-written…Prologues seem to fit into some works more than others. Have a look at Ken Follett’s “The small boys came early for the hanging etc” in his prologue to The Pillars of the Earth. If you don’t read it you miss a heck of a lot; it both teases and foreshadows and, in my view anyway, is necessary.

Follett’s sequel World Without End doesn’t have a prologue. I found it interesting to compare his techniques.

Logical, with some backup material to support his remarks.

Then I waded in.

I’m leery of rules. And I’m especially leery of rules that are based on a particular writer’s (or group of writers) preferences.

Although there are some painfully bad prologues in this world, there are many that exhibit fine examples of condensed storytelling.

A prologue isn’t always necessary, true, but if it’s there, it needs to carry storytelling weight. It can reveal history, it can tease future events, it can be a scene that doesn’t fit neatly into the main body of the text, but it must, must, must add to the story.

Arbitrary rules go out the window if they exist at the expense of story.

Someone disagreed:

(R)ules…develop in response to trends & needs, & to avoid chaos. They help prevent newcomers from reinventing the wheel.

The list that started this thread is open for debate – thus the purpose of this thread, so they may or may not represent generally accepted rules.

The “rule” I live by is “you gotta know the rules to break them” (& to know if/when/how/why to break them).

Before breaking them or deeming them arbitrary, it deserves our attention to know if they really are rules, & why they exist.

Before passing judgment on whether rules ought be broken, I think we’re just establishing what basic rules exist in the fiction world re: prologues. Whether to follow them is another matter.

Okay.

I’m all for knowing the rules. After all, they exist for a reason. My objection in this case is notion that prologues have rules.

There are writers who abhor them and writers who love them; writers with poor prologue execution, and writers whose prologues are poetry or exquisite short stories. Prologues are short, long, back story, future action, teasers, packed with information, and so on. Prologues are as different as the writers who write them.

My response:

Who or what is the arbiter of the prologue rules? Is there one? Why must a prologue (or an epilogue, for that matter) be subject to rules, outside of helping to tell the story?

Just as in other areas of life, there are bandwagon issues in literary circles: “never use an adverb” or “never use flashbacks”, and so on.

These “rules” are often preferences, not grammatical or mechanical necessities, or storytelling must-haves.

And though I can advocate for knowing the rules in order to break them well, I still argue that the prologue issue (should a story ever have a prologue, or what must a prologue include?) is not itself a rule, but a preference.

The written word is limited in its ability to convey tone of voice. That is evident in the response below, because the author has read into my words something that didn’t exist when I typed them:

So the opinions here are negated, unnecessary & this is a silly discussion?

…Just because no one’s yet (to my knowledge) written a book about the prologue & laid down rules doesn’t mean some unspoken rules exist…I’d further guess a lot of publishing houses have very definite, articulated rules re: prologues, written for all editors to heed (& break when appropriate).

Preference or not, it’s good to know what the literary preference is, figure out why, & know when to or not to heed it.

By answering here, I’m trying to return to the subject & take the confrontational tone out. Please follow suit.

Well, that’s a head-scratcher. I was never off topic. Never said anyone’s opinion was negated or unnecessary, never said the discussion was silly. Confrontational tone? I can see how my questions might have seemed that way. I objected to imposing rules where none exist.

Nor, in my opinion, should such rules exist. There may be a basic story structure we all employ — beginning, middle, end, with an arc of rising action, climax, and falling action — but we all use that structure to serve our stories, not twist our stories to serve that structure.

Some tales are told inside out. Some are told backward. Some rely heavily on dialogue, some on action. Some are introspective, some spend very little time in the main character’s thoughts. Some have epilogues or prologues. Some use lines of poetry as chapter titles. Some only number their chapters. Whatever works. Whatever serves the story should be used.

I hate seeing young or rookie authors being hemmed in by storytelling “rules” that are imprisoning and arbitrary. One editor said she hates the word atop, and will strike it from every manuscript in which it appears. At a conference several years ago, the keynote speaker (a woman) said that women should not write battle scenes, because women are too soft to write with real grit. One writer likes to keep his descriptions to one sentence, and another likes to invite the reader into the scene by including an entire paragraph.

Different approaches, but certainly none of them following a rule authors can point to in a grammar book or a storytelling guide.

Preferences, not rules.

And I still love a well-written prologue.

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