Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Prologue as Prelude to Shooting Writing Teachers!

Recently, I finished "guest teaching" at a well-known writer extension program here in Los Angeles. The class was an advanced novel writing workshop. The teacher, who lets me come and teach from time to time, is a master writer with an amazing skill set, and I always enjoy the experience. This time, however, something happened that truly threw me for a loop.

One of the students said something to me that nearly knocked me out of my chair. I had just answered a question about whether or not another student should use a prologue in her novel. And the writer came back with the statement, "Oh, I was told not to bother using a prologue. People aren't using them anymore because nobody reads them."

I asked, "Who gave you this piece of advice?"
"Oh," came the response, "One of the people at [writing program name redacted]."
"People" meaning someone teaching through the writers program.

(I'm not mentioning the program because my beef here isn't against them; they are fine people. My beef is against the bonehead who gave this advice.)

I was speechless, or more correctly, I was keyboardless. I literally couldn't type I was so astonished at the utter badness of this advice. If it had come from some writing hack over the Internet I'd have just sloughed it off and corrected the error. But no, this came from a writing teacher at a prestigious writing program. DON'T USE A PROLOGUE; NOBODY'S READING THEM ANYMORE! Really?

I know exactly from where this sentiment evolved. The teacher, up on all the hipster authors and new YA superstars and hipster trends from hipster agents at all the hip new publishing companies saw that all these hip people were not using prologues—thus the new flavor of the month writing rule: no more prologues; the hipsters don't write them anymore.

I want to just go running, screaming down the hall when I hear this s@#t. I read almost 300 manuscripts a year. Most of them are genre (suspense, thriller, horror, mystery). Almost all of them try to use prologues, but fail only because they don't know what a prologue is or what it's supposed to do. Those who don't use them do so only because they don't know that they could, or should.

Let me be clear: this is no trend. This is no form of advice worth listening to; this is crap! A prologue is not a trend, it is a literary device used to enhance the opening of a story. The writer chooses to use one (or should do so) based on whether it will work with the story and genre, not based on some mythical statistic that readers aren't reading them anymore (and who tracked that little factoid anyway?).

Here is my prologue speech that I give writers who don't know a prologue from a steak sandwich:

The prologue in a novel is the opener, the bang, the teaser that sets the tone and context for the introduction of the hero-heroine. If you look at any well-known genre author, most of them use prologues in their stories to set up the action. In mysteries the prologue is where the first murder occurs and the reader “watches” this happen, in a suspense story the prologue is where the opponent is first introduced, sometimes along with the first crime or physical threat; in a thriller the prologue is where the first death/danger/jeopardy is introduced that sets the tone for the adventure, also often the agent of the central opponent is introduced. The prologue is where the story hits the ground running and then stops on a dime with a big question: who got killed and why, who’s responsible, what’s going on here? Then the first chapter is where the hero-heroine is introduced in a benign way, usually showing daily life, some basic exposition about their lives, work, etc. The first chapter usually gives the basic context for the hero-heroine so the reader understands why he/she is the main character and where they fit into the adventure, and then the first chapter ends with them being sucked into the story through some raising of the stakes or some incident that pulls them into a mystery that grows more dangerous and more personally threatening as things progress—okay, maybe in the second chapter."

End lecture.

If a prologue is there, readers will read it. Especially if the book is a genre book. Television shows and feature films use prologues all the time as openers for the show. Viewers don't skip the opening of a movie because it is a prologue! They watch the darn thing. It sets up the adventure. It works the same way in a book.

So, once again I make the grand plea for you to use discernment and common sense when listening to people like me, i.e., writers who teach other writers. Just as in used cars, aluminum siding sales, and stock swaps there are those who sell trends when they should be selling substance.

Stay vigilant, listen to everyone, read everything, follow no one! Repeat the mantra after me ...

Now, go be brilliant.

No comments: