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Monday, 21 April 2014

Seven Tips for Writing Prologues...

A prologue in a book can be an exciting introduction that sets the stage for the rest of the novel, drawing the reader in. Alternatively it can be a boring summary of what happened before. As Nancy Kress put it, a prologue gives the reader yet another opportunity to decide not to read a book.

So why write one?
There has to be a reason. Here are two obvious ones. The first is that this is the second, third or nth book in a series, and so the author wants to make a bridge into the new book, reminding a reader who perhaps read the last one some months ago that this one is just as good, if not better. The second reason is that the prologue contains material that happened some time earlier than the rest of the novel, something that has a significant impact on the events or a character in the rest of the novel. If it's not a reason like one of these, then don't write one, just go straight into the first chapter.

Seven tips for an exciting prologue
  1. Reassure the reader this book is the same style as the first
  2. Arrive late, leave early
  3. It must be as strong as the first chapter, if not stronger
  4. Tantalise, don't bore, don't info-dump
  5. Outline the stage, the stakes, the tone
  6. Make the characters bleed - let us see what they're made of
  7. Write the prologue last, and link it to the Climax
1. Reassure the reader: "Welcome back..."
When I pick up book two or three in a series, I'm hoping it has the same feel as the previous one I loved so much. Orson Scott Card's Ender series was like this for me, and if anything I liked the later books more. By contrast, the Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmonds was a completely different style of book to Hyperion; I finished it, but didn't enjoy it half as much, and didn't continue to read the other two books in the series. I felt he'd broken the contract with the reader. 

The easiest way to reassure the reader is to have a familiar character in the prologue, behaving the same as before. It's like seeing an old friend after some years - people don't usually change much, and if you got on before, you'll do so now. 

An even smarter way to reassure the reader is to make the prologue seem like a missing last chapter from the previous book. This can then become a bridge to the next one. In my first book, The Eden Paradox, there is a character, Kilaney, who is captured by the enemy. At the end of that chapter you now he is going to die. In the prologue of book two, the reader gets to see what actually happens to Kilaney. This works well if the character, like Kilaney, was a sympathetic character, one the reader would root for.

2. Arrive late, leave early
There is a temptation with a prologue to start from the beginning, in a kind of 'once upon a time' or 'a long, long time ago, in a distant galaxy...' Don't do this. It's been done to death and makes for slow reading. Start as if the reader has entered a movie five minutes late, and the action has already started. Here's an example from the first draft of the prologue to the last book in the Eden Paradox series (Eden's Endgame):


Louise wasn’t going to make it, but she wasn’t going to give up either. She struggled toward the closing hatch, and with each crawling step slammed her Q’Roth claw into the metal floor to stop her sliding backwards into oblivion. A sharp-edged metal object hurtled towards her, ricocheting off the jade corridor walls. She ducked and it narrowly missed her face, and in the freezing wind she heard first the grunt of Artus behind her as it struck him, then his scream as he tumbled into the vortex that was eating the kilometre-long battleship. Louise stood, angling her body forward at an almost impossible angle, her thigh muscles and arms fighting against the torrent of oxygen gushing from the next section where sanctuary lay, where life continued, as opposed to this side of the hatch, where in a matter of seconds there would be vacuum.


So, the reader who has read the previous three books knows who Louise is (and wishes her dead, by the way), and is now reminded that she lost her arm in a battle at the end of Eden's Revenge, and evidently it's been replaced by a Q'Roth claw. But otherwise, the reader is not sure where Louise is, or what is going on, except that Louise is fighting for her life and is about to die (at last?). The reader wants to find out, either way...

Leaving early is also important for a prologue, because as a writer you don't want closure in a prologue - an epilogue, absolutely, but at the beginning of the book you do not want the reader to put the book down. In my second book, Eden's Trial, the prologue ends literally in mid-sentence (you'll see why later). In Endgame's prologue, one of the Spiders, a race humanity shares a planet with but barely knows or understands, does something completely unexpected. Many readers have written to me asking what these Spiders are about, because they are intriguing but unfathomable. In the prologue, there is a revelation on the last page about them. But the reader will have to wait until the end of the book to see their full potential. 

3. Make it as strong as the first chapter, or even stronger
The first five pages are key in any book. There can be a temptation by the writer to ease off on the prologue, to be a little lazy with it, assuming the reader will just plough through it and then truly start the real novel with chapter one. This is all wrong. The prologue must be exciting, dramatic, interesting, engaging, as if it was the first chapter. How often do you remember the prologue in a book? Not often, right? Well, change that. If you have ever watched Lord of the Rings, the Return of the King, you will probably remember the first scene where Smeagol finds the ring and kills his friend. This is a beautiful example of a prologue, recounting an important scene that takes place five hundred years before the rest of the story, and is also resonant because in the climax, Smeagol plays a critical role.

I had my second book (Eden's Trial) reviewed by a science fiction agent/literary consultant. He said it wasn't for him, i.e. not his style of science fiction, but he did remark on the prologue, how strong it was as a scene. Here's how it starts:

   General William Kilaney awoke, disappointed to find he was still alive. He tried to raise his head, but a metal rod pressed the back of his skull, forcing his gaze to the floor. He knew this interrogator’s trick – bend the body as a prelude to breaking the spirit. He willed his arms and legs to tug against the restraints, but whatever had stunned him on the space station had his limbs locked down cold. He’d seen his crew killed, and he had no false hopes about his own fate. He listened to his captor’s footsteps. He had a hunch who it was.


            “Why am I here, Sister Esma? That is you, isn’t it?” The Alician High Priestess herself. He prayed the four transports off Earth had escaped. He’d told Micah to leave, just before they’d lost communications. If the ships hadn’t left in time, it had all been for nothing.
“If you’re after their flight plan, I never saw it. Torture me if you like, but it won’t get you anywhere.” It should be over quicker if he pushed her, if she lived up to the reputation she’d gained during the four-day assault on Earth.
            He heard a faucet, the rinsing of hands: blood, he imagined, probably his own. Steel boots clacked across the metal floor towards him. He glimpsed them underneath drug-heavy eyelids: blue flow-metal with steel stilettos. So, not above vanity. Life held so few surprises.
            Icy water drenched his head and neck. He gasped, shaking off as much as he could, squeezing it out of his eyes.
“Your battle tactics were quite unorthodox, General.”
Her voice carried all the arrogance he’d imagined from the leader of the terrorist sect who’d plagued Earth for the last decade. But he allowed himself a smile.
“Gave your Q’Roth locust friends a run for their money, did we?” While the rest of the world had been frozen by fear and panic, his forces had accounted for a quarter of a million Q’Roth dead in five separate hits. It paled in comparison to humanity being all but wiped out, but it was something.  He’d put up a fight, and – he hoped – four ships had escaped with their precious human cargo. 
            “What do you want, Esma?”
            Her cool fingertips anchored themselves on the back of his neck. Pain punched through his head as something was wrenched from the base of his skull. He blinked hard. A wave of nausea gripped him, then flattened out, dissipating. The skin on his hands and feet prickled as his muscle control returned. He flexed stiff fingers. Curiosity got the better of him. “What was that?”
            “A device to download your recent memories, in case you were lying about their flight plan.”
            They made it. He hadn’t admitted how much he’d needed to hear this sliver of good news, and let out a long breath. He hadn’t been lying about not knowing their destination. When Micah had almost told him, he’d cut him off immediately. Twelve thousand had escaped. He drew comfort from that. But he’d been in pain from cancer for years. Truth was, he couldn’t face any more.
            “You have what you want. Let’s get it over with, shall we?” He waited. She reminded him of a cat playing with a mouse.
            “The Q’Roth Supreme Commander wants you.”


The first line is strong, intriguing. He is being tortured and/or interrogated. She refuses to answer him at first, adding tension to the scene. But as the scene continues, we realize she is going to kill him.

4. Tantalise, don't info-dump, don't bore
Science fiction, and fantasy for that matter, need some explanation. How does the science (or magic) work? The trick is to resist the urge to explain too much (do you know how your iPhone works? I certainly don't) and show how the science or magic is used. But in prologues there is a huge temptation to explain what happened before, a kind of 'last time in Eden Paradox...' recount of events. Never do this, because it is boring. If a reader wants to read the previous book again let them do so, you don't have to force them to do it via the prologue. In my first version of the prologue for Eden's Endgame, inevitably I had some paragraphs where Louise was thinking about what had happened earlier (in the previous three books). It slowed everything down, and one of the writers in my writing group put a big line through each such paragraph and wrote 'info dump' in the margin. I deleted them all, and re-wrote it. 

In the Kilaney prologue (as will be seen later), we learn something about Sister Esma that we didn't know before - there is a hint of a deal she has made that may unravel our enemies. A hint, no more. In the prologue to Eden's Endgame, one of the Spiders does something extraordinary, but as already noted, the reader will have to wait to find out what they are really up to. There should be one or two tantalizing loose ends that will be tied up later. There should also be something new in the prologue, ideally - since it is a bridge between the two novels - finding out something about a character that was not known before, a secret. This deepens the reader's connection with the book and the author. We all love to find out secrets, don't we?

5. Outline the stage, the stakes, the tone
The prologue should set the scene, giving a broad outline of the stage upon which the rest of the book will be played. Again, here's the continuation of the prologue in Eden's Trial, where through the dialogue between Kilaney and Sister Esma, we find out what the rest of the book will be about:


“The Q’Roth Supreme Commander wants you.”

            Kilaney wished he’d gone down with his men; he’d damned well tried to. “For torture or a light snack?”
            She snorted. “You should have worked it out by now, General. They do not eat human flesh – they feed on bio-psychic energy. It is a critical part of their maturation process. But to answer your question, neither. She wishes to recruit you.” Esma sounded bemused.
            He laughed; life held a few surprises after all. “Let me get this straight: I just nuked five of her ships and she wants to offer me a job?”
            “She said you showed potential. The Q’Roth are consummate soldiers, like you, General. They respect your tactical ability.”
            The disdain in her voice didn’t go amiss. He knew now, between the Q’Roth aliens and the genetically-altered Alicians, who his worst enemy was.
“Well, Esma, I’m Stage Four. The cancer’s all that’s holding this sad bag of bones together. Can’t blow my nose without a transfusion. I have a couple of weeks, max. Anyhow, not sure it would look good on my resume.” He wanted this over. He’d done his part.
            “They can cure your cancer, extend your lifetime by decades.”
            She said it matter-of-fact, and he realised she wasn’t lying. They could cure cancer. He felt as if she’d kicked him in the stomach. The disease had eaten away at him for four years, robbing him of everything he once was. Being offered a cure now was the worst torture he could imagine. He clamped his lips.
Her voice became earnest. “You have seen the Q’Roth in action, but that is nothing compared to what they can do. All you have witnessed are freshly hatched warriors – newborns, primal rage instilled into their genes. But now they have fed, they will mature into the most potent armed force you could envisage. They are the foot-soldiers of the galaxy, General, respected by hundreds of races.”
            And feared by most of them, he supposed. But despite himself he had been impressed. He’d seen them tear down a whole planet in a matter of days: shock troops, destroying infrastructure in the first wave, dismantling communications, reacting so damned fast to every counter-measure; all of this immediately after being hatched. He jammed his lips tighter and thought of his wife, taken by cancer four years earlier, of the thousands of soldiers who’d served under him over the years, all killed in the last days’ carnage. All except Blake.
            “General,” she continued, pacing in front of him, “A war is coming. Not like the one you have just fought and lost, barely a campaign in Q’Roth terms. The Commander assures me it poses a threat to hundreds of races, maybe even the galaxy itself. She is interested in the creative tactics you demonstrated. She feels they could be developed. You are a soldier, General, and –”
            He had to stop this. “The answer’s ‘no’, Esma. That’s final. Now, I’ve shown you respect, you show me some.”  


The key new information here is that 'a war is coming', and not the one between the Alicians and humans, but a full-fledged galactic war, one that begins in the second book, Eden's Trial, and only ends in the fourth book, Eden's Endgame. This prologue actually sets the stage and the stakes for the entire series, though in an underplayed way, and Kilaney dismisses it, at least for now, as he is more concerned for the refugees who have escaped. 

This is an important writer's device - Kilaney and Sister Esma are not merely 'ciphers' or talking heads for the author to tell the reader what is going on and what is going to happen. They are their own characters and stay true to themselves: Sister Esma is trying to recruit Kilaney though she guesses he will say no, and Kilaney is exhausted from war and ready to die. The reader has to glean the key information from what little they say and do not say. This makes the characters seem real, and not purely there for our benefit.

At the end of the prologue in Eden's Revenge, Sister Esma is arriving near to the planet Esperia where humanity resides, protected under a quarantine shield set to come down in a few days time. She has a single intent, to destroy mankind once and for all. The last paragraph sets the scene and the stakes for the entire book. The 'hook' is that no one on the planet knows she is there, as they have had eighteen years of peaceful existence. In the first third of the book we do not hear from Sister Esma again, and on Esperia different factions debate about what to do when quarantine ends. As a reader, we too almost forget that she is there, waiting, in a fully armed Crucible ship capable of tearing down an entire planet. Here, the prologue also acts as a counter-point, giving the reader secret knowledge that none of the central characters have.



The prologue should set the tone for the rest of the book, otherwise the reader may feel cheated in some way, e.g. if it starts off pleasant and even humorous, and then later turns into a horror story. The tone doesn't have to stay the same between subsequent books in a series, though the style should. My second and third books are both 'heavier' than the first, with more death (because there is a war going on), and some of the later scenes are brutal (though not gratuitously violent). The prologue in Eden's Trial warns the reader of this shift in tone, in the way in which Kilaney is killed. It is a 'strong scene', but I wanted it there because there is more to come in later chapters - the entire series is about mankind's survival in an inhospitable galaxy (and we do survive, by the way). Whilst there are plenty of light scenes in all four books, and even a leavening of humor, the reader is warned of 'strong scenes ahead.'    

6. Make the characters bleed, let us see what they are made of
If you see a bar of gold, there is only one way to really test if it is gold, because it could have an outer covering of gold and a combination of alloys inside that make the bar weigh the same as a solid gold bar. You have to cut it open or, even better, melt it down. So it is with characters. To really know someone, you have to see them and how they react under pressure. The easiest way to make my point is to let you see there end of the prologue with Kilaney, where we get to see how he reacts under intense pressure. We also get insight into Sister Esma, too.


  He had to stop this. “The answer’s ‘no’, Esma. That’s final. Now, I’ve shown you respect, you show me some.”  

            The boots disappeared from view. Involuntarily, he tensed. A section of the metal floor beneath him receded to reveal a window. The sight unpeeling before him snatched his breath away. Earth hung below, a dull orange ball speckled with boiling clouds and glowing embers where the nukes had gouged his planet’s flesh. Even the oceans had taken on a sickened pallor.
            His muscles fought against the restraints. He was furious to have even listened to her poison. Eden, he reminded himself. This had all been about Eden, and where there’s the promise of paradise, there’s always a snake.
“One day they’ll find you, Esma; Blake, Micah and the others. And when they do, they’ll kill you like a rabid dog.”
She walked in front of him, so that her boots appeared to be standing on top of Earth. Her tone sharpened. “A task force is already hunting them down and will destroy them. But even if they do escape, General, humanity will perish.” She bent forward, her cheek level with his. “Do you know why?”
He preferred it this way, niceties and bullshit expended.
She whispered. “If humanity escapes – a very small if – they will undo themselves.” She stood up, grinding her heel against the glass, as if she was stubbing out his native North America. “It is only a matter of time before your valiant refugees do something wrong, and are cut down like the weeds they are. Galactic Society values intelligence above all else, General. I do not mean the odd genius here and there, but coherent intelligence at the species level. Now, does that description fit humanity’s resumé?”
He bristled. “If we’d known there was sentient life out there – especially a society – it could have changed everything.”
She tapped her toes on the glass. “I told them you would say ‘no’.”
He was about to respond when he noticed something. It was as if the world was changing colour, morphing into grey sepia. “What’s happening, Esma?”
“The Q’Roth have finished. They do not believe in leaving loose ends. It is one of the galactic rules. After an incursion, the planet’s atmosphere is removed. It is for the best, especially following nuclear detonations on this scale.”
His eyes widened as whirlpools of smoke, like massive hurricanes, mushroomed around the globe. Glittering nuclear sparks snuffed out one by one, deprived of oxygen. The last whorls of atmosphere lost cohesion and flashed into space in a series of bursts that pricked his retinas. When the blotches in his vision faded, he saw Earth as no one ever had, as no one ever should. The oceans had boiled off into space, leaving smooth basins bordered by stark continental ridges. The planet was barren, dark, moon-like. Earth was… he didn’t even want to think the word.
“Earth must lay fallow for ten thousand years. No race will be allowed into this system during that period. Which is why humanity never encountered anyone from Grid Society – Mars was also culled, not that long ago by Galactic standards. The ban on entering the sector was lifted only a thousand years ago, and the Q’Roth were first to stake a claim on Earth.”
He heard a click, and the metal rod behind his head eased back. He raised his chin despite the stiffness in his neck, and stared at his captor. She was tall and long-necked, wearing a simple grey robe with the hood down. Her skin was pale, framed by jet black hair pulled back into a tightly braided ponytail. Broad, menacing eyes stabbed down at him over a hooked nose.
She spoke slowly. “You should thank me, General. You should actually thank all Alicians.”
The conviction in her voice almost made him retch. He tried to gather enough saliva for the only fitting response he could think of, but his mouth was dry. He watched her strut in front of him. What he wouldn’t give right now for a grenade.   
“The Q’Roth first visited Earth a millennium ago on a scouting mission. Their intent was to return and harvest all of humanity, after their long hibernation period. But they needed an ally to fine-tune the attack nearer their waking period. They found my ancestor, Alessia, and the Alician order was born. The Q’Roth re-engineered a few of us, and then left. We have patiently awaited their return, and now we will have a new home, taking our place amongst Grid Society. We are humanity’s evolution, General.”
He took one last look at Earth, then faced her, speaking on behalf of his dead world. “You’re an abomination, Esma, and Alicians are humanity’s bastards. What’s to stop the Q’Roth feeding on you and your sect, now you’ve helped them?”
She looked away. “We have an agreement, a contract, you might say.”
He scrutinised her – there was something she didn’t want to admit, a secret too important to confess even to a dying man. He shrugged. “Watch out for the small print, Esma. In my experience, deals with the devil go south sooner rather than later.”
A bell chimed somewhere deep in the ship, and she glanced at her wristcom.
“Your time is up, General. As you do not wish to come with us, I am going to send you home.” She touched a panel and a glistening shroud ballooned around him. The glass beneath his feet slid away. His feet didn’t fall, supported by some kind of force-field. But a savage, biting cold gripped his soles, coiling around his ankles, drilling into his bones. He cried out with pain.
“It will actually feel warmer outside, believe it or not. Right now the field in contact with your feet is conducting your body heat to the outer hull, which is in darkness, fractionally above absolute zero.”
A steady hiss forewarned him of the dizziness he began to feel. His thighs and arms struggled against the restraints, trying to lift his feet. Her voice sounded fuzzy.
“You see, General, even if humanity escapes, the only way they can hope to survive is to evolve beyond what they are. And the sad truth is that humanity would choose to die as they are, rather than evolve.”
His eyes fogged as their water vapour evaporated. He closed his mouth. She touched another panel and his leg and arm straps released. He fell forward, the skin of his palms and outstretched fingers welding to the freezing layer separating him from hard vacuum.
His body wracked with shivering, knocking his teeth together. When he spoke, it sounded like he was underwater. He shouted to compensate. “They’ll… survive.” His arms were numb. Through slitted eyes he watched his hands turn a sickly wax colour. His breath ran out, his throat asteroid-dry. He hunted the last oxygen molecules inside his shroud. Her voice was distant, fading.
“I can see why the Commander was interested in you. Goodbye, General. Oh, and a word of advice: do not hold your breath.”
Out of the corner of a frosting eye, he saw her hand, as if in slow motion, move to activate another control. He had no doubt what it would do. The force-field cracked apart beneath him like an eggshell.          
           As he tumbled into space, he knew he had only a few remaining seconds of consciousness. As the residual air in his lungs expanded to bursting, he let out a space-silent yell of rage. He squeezed his eyes shut to protect them as long as he could, suppressing needle-like jabs as nitrogen flashed out of his bloodstream into his joints, competing with the grinding ache from his bloating limbs. The naked glare of the sun slammed into him, searing his face like a whip with each turn of his somersault. None of it mattered anymore. His body convulsed, venting blood at every orifice. He choked off the idea that she might be right about humanity. Instead, he willed his last thought out into the void: Prove her wrong, Blake. You and Micah can do this. Wherever you are, for God’s sake, prove –

   

7. Write the prologue last, and link it to the climax
The last line of the prologue above, Kilaney's last (unspoken) thought, becomes the central thesis of the book. Will humanity rise above its dirty politics and darker tendencies and prove Sister Esma wrong? The book is called Eden's Trial for this reason, and near the end of the book humanity is literally put on trial to see if it merits survival or should be obliterated as a galactic weed. In the third and fourth books, the prologue sets up the imminent attack on Esperia which is the climax of Eden's Revenge, and the role of the Spiders in the final battle that decides the galactic war in Eden's Endgame. 

Linking the prologue to the climax gives the reader a sense of resonance, and a sense of closure, as if the prologue asked a question, and the climax answered it. This gives the reader a senses of satisfaction: the author delivered on their promise. But it is best if the climax contains some surprises. This makes the reader want to go back again to the prologue, if not the previous book, in fact why not just read the entire series again from start to finish? That was how I felt the day I finished Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert's Dune series, Arthur C Clarke's Rama series, and Asimov's Foundation series.  



The Eden Paradox series:
The Eden Paradox
Eden's Trial
Eden's Revenge
Eden's Endgame - autumn 2014...










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