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Tag Archives: Backstory

Prologue Problems

I recently had a feedback coffee date with a couple of beta readers for my Untitled Steampunk novel. For the most part, there were no great concerns and only a few small points that needed addressed. One of which was how appropriate the use of Rapture in conversation is in a novel taking place in 1878. I’m sticking to my guns on this one not because I’m certain it’s the best use of the phrase, but because the Rapture has become culturally relevant even to young adult readers and I think it will have much more impact than the lead characters joking about transcendence.

At any rate, the other big idea I walked away with was the possibility of incorporating a prologue. See, the main story line includes massive golems crafted of technology and alchemy and put to work at the Orthodox Temples. While golems only appear a couple times in the story, they are a major driving factor behind the actions the main characters take. What my beta readers brought up was how little information about these golems is actually shared with the reader. It hadn’t even occurred to me that there might be more interest in a golem backstory.

Certainly I could sprinkle bits and pieces of golem history throughout the novel without interrupting the flow, but could a prologue better serve to provide this information and completely avoid any risk of reading as last minute thoughts poked into the story line? So I walked away from our meeting with the idea that yes, indeed, a prologue will best serve me. However, being who I am, I decided to do a little Googling to see how prologues are generally received.

From Foremost Press, I found this:

“A prologue is used mainly for two reasons.

1. To outline the backstory quickly and economically, saving the author from having to resort to flashbacks or ruses such as conversations or memories to explain the background to the reader. This is commonly done in science fiction and fantasy to show why a certain quest is being undertaken or what will happen in the future. The prologue is a better option than a first chapter bogged down in detail.

2. To hook the reader and provide the story question right up front, giving them a reason to keep turning the pages to find out the answer. Quite often the prologue relates to a scene near the end of the story, and the story itself then shows what has led up to this moment. When is this justified? Perhaps when you want to introduce your characters in a more leisurely fashion, and your reader’s experience with ‘meeting’ them will be enhanced by some sort of foreshadowing of what is to come.”

And from Writing-World.com, this:

“Any workplace has a list of dos and don’ts; the prologue is no exception. Here are some:

-The prologue should always be an integral part of the novel, written in the same spirit and style. Otherwise it’s a personal preface rather than an opening chapter.

-The prologue should read like a short story in every aspect, except for its ending. Rather than resolving all conflict, the end should leave the reader intrigued. Any conflict created in the prologue, however, must be resolved somewhere along the plot.

-The prologue should start with a strong and intriguing hook as if it were the only beginning of the novel. This does not exempt Chapter One from beginning with an equally strong and intriguing hook.

-The prologue must stand out from the body of the novel in at least one fashion: the time of the events (which should be stated both in the prologue and in the first chapter), the POV character, and so on. The reader should feel a distinct switch in his mind when he begins reading Chapter One. And just as important, he should never experience the same switch again within the novel. For example, if the difference between the prologue and Chapter One is an interval of five years, you may not fast-forward time again within the novel.”

Beyond that, there were blogs like this one from Pens and Swords that really makes a person second guess any inclusion of a prologue:

“Another pitfall that writers fall into is turning the prologue into a dumping ground for backstory on the world. I did this myself with Maiden and the origin of Saestra Karanok. Instead of weaving the depth and richness of the world into the story, the writer crams it all into the beginning and promptly forgets it. Prologues set an expectation for the reader that the information revealed will have significant relevance later on in the story. Fail to do this and you let the reader down.”

So more than anything, I am now convinced that I’m going to have to pay extra attention to creating this prologue so that it isn’t just a dumping place for information I didn’t have the foresight to include the first time around. Sometimes I wonder if my compulsive need to Google isn’t as self-destructive as other people’s need to WebMD every occasional symptom and consequently blow seasonal allergies into a migrating calcified fetus.

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Posted by on May 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Boggling over Backstory

So, how important is it to include all of the tiny and potentially inconsequential details that you’ve labored over in creating your own world or your own version of our world?

This is a problem that I faced first and foremost in writing my fantasy manuscripts. Since I was creating an entirely new world, I wanted to hammer out details of the economy, the judicial system, class and caste, the ecology and environment, and of course, the history. To me, it was important to have all of this decided in case it was relevant to the story. And, admittedly, it was the more satisfying part of developing a fantasy world. This is the instance in which a writer becomes a god, capable of creating and destroying and turning the tides of evolution and development to suit his or her needs.

The problem, then, became how much of this information to include in the actual manuscript. For instance:

“Their rootstocks cultivated to limit expansion and their limbs pruned to prevent uncontrolled growth, the black-barked trees looked like nothing less than a phalanx of fastidious soldiers…”

This passage from Blood of a Godkiller shows up in the first chapter. The protagonist is, as is usual, a simple youth tossed into the larger world. He comes from a sharecropping town that handles the bulk of the apple supply for this small realm. Now, I know that the extent of climates inclusive to this realm is such that this particular area is best suited for apples. I also know that the powers that be have a habit of encouraging singular production to maintain control over the economy. As such, any attempt by the community or its landed lord to challenge the existing power structure would be met with an attack on their one and only sustainable crop. A history of ore production from nearby mountains had once provided this territory with considerable wealth, but meddling administrators worked to diffuse the monopoly by encouraging mining in another territory with similar access to ore veins.

My first inclination was to provide all of this information at the introduction to the settlement because I had assumed the reader would want to know everything they could about Wylard’s Ferry before moving on to the next new concept. After creating a relentlessly informative first chapter with absolutely no action, no plot formation, and no character development, I realized that I was writing an encyclopedia entry rather than a story. Well, no, that isn’t exactly accurate. It wasn’t until beta reader after beta reader told me the first chapter was a plodding mess of unwieldy facts that I realized my mistake. Even then, it wasn’t until much later that I was able to find it within myself to hack and slash my way through the morass to rewrite the entire chapter.

So, I went back through the original manuscript and peppered some of the information throughout. I wanted to incorporate some of the same ideas, but I needed truncated versions that could be incorporated without turning into lectures. So, in chapter five, I added to a conversation:

“We’ve kept the people poor for fear that inheritance rights among these xenophobic farmers and stonewrights might create an amassed wealth too far from Canon to be controlled,”

There I tackle the importance of why this particular territory is so poor in comparison to some of its neighbors. It actually leads into a specific instance in the sort of tactics used, including the introduction of a disease that causes women to become infertile, but that’s neither here nor there. The important this was that I was able to sneak in a bit more of what I thought to be a very important component of the backstory without resorting to endless historical accounts.

I put off the history of the territory’s once-wealthy past because it wasn’t entirely relevant to character or story development. I kept the information, however, and did include it in the next manuscript because it made much more sense there. And, as an avid reader, I don’t find it too offensive to continue learning about the world from book to book. I also waited to deal with the specifics of the ecology as it applies to the apple-farming community because the breadth of travels is larger. Where the first manuscript primarily takes place in a relatively small area, the second sends the protagonist across the realm. It just made more sense to delve into the broader ecology when it was actually relevant.

So, really, more than anything my thought is this: Developing a world from scratch is the most exciting, agonizing part of writing off- and other-world fiction. I’m still tackling with how I present the science-magic of the realm without explaining it. I’m still fretting over characteristics of places and people that I want to include, but cannot find a really good reason to do it. Ultimately, having a beta reader with superior grammatical and spelling skills (thanks, Mom!), the bulk of my edits are focused on turning historical discourse into descriptive prose.

Never mind the entirely different set of problems I discovered in maintaining some level of accuracy peppered with alternative history in writing the Steampunk manuscript…

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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