A to Z Challenge 2013

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Thursday Thoughts - Prologues, POV, and Pronouncements

Today is a day for thought. First off, Johanna over at Once Upon A Novelist got me thinking about prologues. For the uninitiated (or just those of you who like clarification), prologues are a prequel of sorts. They can also be referred to as backstory, and they are used to provide a little background for the reader. Every writer has their own opinion on this, and I've read quite a few angry rants against the practice. On the surface, I can see their point and I do agree that prologues can be a bad thing. For one thing, prologues can easily end up "telling" the story versus "showing", because after all this is what you are doing - narrating what happened before your MC got to where they are now. If you're a decent enough writer, you will hopefully avoid this pitfall. I do acknowledge though, that prologues can make it more difficult.

I consider a prologue a good thing however, if it makes sense for the story as a whole. If you step back from your work and see that a prologue is necessary to make the work complete, then by all means add it in. There are contingencies with this though. You have to be extra careful not to get caught "telling". You need to maintain your author's voice throughout, so that the prologue is no different in voice from the rest of the work. The POV (something I'll touch on more in a moment) needs to stay consistent. The thread that weaves its way from beginning to end should remain unbroken throughout, so that you are not "pulling your reader out of the action", so to speak. If all of the above is in place and done well, then a prologue might work perfectly.

That's enough on prologues, so thanks Johanna for giving me something to ponder. Now let's talk about POV or point of view. This is an aspect of writing I hadn't given much thought to until other bloggers started pointing it out as significant. I then realized that my POV was all over the place, meandering around like a drunken bumblebee. So why is POV important? Well, if you're writing in 1st person, this is obvious. You can't tell the story from one person's perspective if you include other perspectives.

Telling a story from 2nd person POV is odd in my opinion. Basically it is where you tell the reader's story. It becomes more clear with an example, trust me. Writing in 2nd person would look something like this:

"You stood next to the swift river for some time, gazing into its depths. Without warning, you plunged in."

I honestly can't remember any book I've ever read that is written (entirely) in this fashion, so if anyone can enlighten me, that'd be great. I also cannot imagine writing an entire story from this POV, but I can see how much of a challenge it would be.

Writing in 3rd person POV is probably the most common (an assumption on my part, so feel free to correct me here) perspective used. It can be omniscient, where the narrator or storyteller knows everything about all characters. This particular POV is where you have to be careful, because you can get caught jumping from one character to the next, describing their feelings or whatever, and you may end up confusing your reader. You can also use 3rd person from the perspective of a certain character (I am unfamiliar with what the term is, so feel free to supply it, English majors). In this instance, only what that character actually knows, feels, sees, etc is related to the reader. For example, my MC wouldn't know exactly how a stranger on the street really feels inside, especially if their facial expressions or body language didn't provide clues.

The important thing here is to pick a POV and stick with it throughout. With 3rd person omniscient, it's very easy to get into head-hopping so be careful. Thorough editing and/or multiple drafts should help you get rid of any POV mistakes though.

Finally, as stated in the title I have a pronouncement. I have since the beginning of time proudly stated that I am a by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer. Fear not, I am not completely abandoning this practice. I still think there is value in discovering the story, but part I of Scott Bailey's post here got me thinking about my own writing processes. In my current WiPs, there are some questions I can't honestly answer that I should be able to. I should have at least some general idea of why my protag is in this story. I should have an idea of what it would take to resolve whatever the conflict is that is going on. Too many questions...too many questions...

I have therefore decided that I need a little more structure in my writing. I need to at least answer some of the basic questions from the outset - Who, What, Where, Why, and How. I can see how not answering at least 4 of these questions causes me to stumble midway through. I usually just plunge in and start writing, and I don't answer these questions. Then as I get farther down the road, I'm stuck wondering where the heck this train is headed. I already know I can't do a formal outline. Been there, tried that, it don't work. But a rough question/answer scribbling just might be what I need. Ta Da! Are you impressed? Yeah, I know it's very anti-climatic. It's been difficult for me to admit (or realize maybe) that my process just isn't working, but I don't expect everyone to hoop and holler in celebration.

What are your thoughts on prologues? Are there any POVs you absolutely would not write in (for me, its 2nd person)? Any grand pronouncements we should all be aware of (it can be just as silly as my own, with just as much fanfare)?


Jamie D. said...

Prologues don't bug me. They never have. I'm the person who will pick up a book, read the title page, all the acknowledgments, whatever else happens to be in the front of the book, then the prologue, the story, the epilogue, and any of the teasers & ads that happen to be in the back. Cover to cover is quite literal for me...so prologues & epilogues don't evoke any negative response when I'm reading.

I do think that if it's not set much earlier, or later, or written from a POV that won't be revisited until later in the story, then it should just be called "Chapter 1".

POV - the trend right now seems to be 1st person narratives. It's changed the way I buy books - I used to buy from the cover copy, now I have to read a few pages. I really don't like reading or writing 1st person, and go out of my way to avoid it. I'm a strict 3rd person reader with the very, very rare exception, and I won't write 1st person either. That said, mixed 3rd/1st narratives don't bug me. I have no idea why.

My pronouncement is...wait, do I have one? Nope, guess not. :-)

Welcome to the "gray area" between pantsing & outlining! I think you'll like it here.

Lost Wanderer said...

Like Jamie, prologues don't bother me either. I also read EVERYTHING in a book, and enjoy doing so.

POV - I blogged about it before, but I like both 1st person and 3rd person. 2nd person I cannot stand, and will not read. Though 1st person stories definitely have to get the voice right as you are talking directly to the person.

I think it's good that you figured out your system doesn't work. It's the first step to finding a new method. I have been going through similar thing. I think most beginner writers do that - take a straight plunge and start writing. Obviously some experienced writers do that too, but at least they have learned it's what works for them. Trial and error...that's the key to success.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

Prologues: My first book has one. It’s essential to the story. The main action takes place 20 years after the prologue and is the remainder of the book…save the epilogue which brings the reader back to “present day” and the place from which they started. Not to blatant self promote, but, you can see how the prologue and first chapter work by visiting my web site, then click on Books, Hearts.

I wouldn’t do a prologue again as it proved troublesome when submitting…ie. Give me your first fifty pages..does that include the prologue or not. Sigh.

POV is another tough one. Book one is first person, chose it for immediacy and intimacy…it’s a love story. Book two is third person, as will be all future works. Way more flexible and fun to write.

Best Regards, Galen
Imagineering Fiction Blog

Jenna said...

I love prologues, if they're done well. If they drag or if they just aren't interesting (or if they do, in fact, seem like they're just the author's way of getting out of weaving backstory through the rest of the book), I don't like them. But mostly, I do.

Not a fan of writing in first, but I like reading it. And second person is bad any day, any time. Ugh.

I don't have any grand pronouncements, I don't think, but I'll keep you updated. Lol. ;)

Great post. :)

Johanna said...

The only second person POV books I've ever read are the Choose Your Own Adventure Series from elementary school...does that count? :)

Love this continued discussion on Prologues...thanks!

Keanan Brand said...

I hate 2nd person. I could use stronger words, but I won't. Otherwise, if an author can pick a POV and use it well, I'm game.

As for prologues, I don't know what the big fuss among agents and editors is all about. I write and read fantasy and science fiction, and Ta Da! Prologues all over the place.

Perhaps the "rule" against prologues has come about because of lazy writing, or just plain bad writing. However, most of the prologues I've read in published works have only added depth to the stories, not weakened them.

Eric said...

Jamie - I completely understand reading EVERYTHING. I sometimes find myself doing the same thing. And yes, I feel like I am definitely in a "gray area". Here's hoping the water is warm.

Lost Wanderer - I am slowly figuring out things that work and things that don't. It's a painful process and I feel like such a noob sometimes, but hopefully I'm improving.

Galen - See, now I have to go out and find your first book just because. Thanks for stopping by though :)

Jenna - I am also not a fan of first person, reading or writing. I guess my "grand pronouncement" is anything but grand, but that's okay. And I hope you do keep us updated; I for one always like hearing about your successes.

Johanna - I remember the CYOA series fondly, even if it was in 2nd person. Thanks for the inspiration for this post too.

Keenan - Feel free to use stronger words. Really. I am right there with you about 2nd person writing. It just feels...weird. I can see the argument about bad writing with regard to prologues, but oh well. Thanks for stopping by.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think prologues are fun, if they're used well. I dropped a body in mine...more of a teaser than a prologue. The editor didn't seem to mind, although I always seem to hear that they don't like them.

POV....I was going to use the "Choose Your Own Adventure" example of 2nd person. Loved those books when I was a kid. :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Rebecca Woodhead said...

Hello stranger!

Haven't done the blog rounds in a while and I had a few mins so I thought I'd pop over.

POV-wise, 1st person is getting more and more popular but I just don't like it much. I'm fond of 3rd person - both writing and reading. I find 1st person can either become hard work, boring or unconvincing as it's a bit TOO authoritative. If it's 3rd person then you can take issue with the writer and assume your own reading of events but if it's 1st person then it's harder to do that. You have to 'become' the character on that character's terms to get into the book. I like to write and read characters that people take issue with. I like to read a book and be absolutely on a characters side and then see a flaw in their personality and know they're about to come a cropper and wince when they do. There's more layers of subtle meaning in well crafted 3rd person narrative in my humble opinion.

The one thing I don't necessarily agree with most people on is diff POVs within one text. I think they're a pain in the rear if handled badly but I adore a well crafted change of camera angle. It is a risky choice but if you can do it... wow! Multiple narrative threads can be a literary joy.

Eric - FYI... I have some articles going up next week and the following week for a v important book organisation involved with lots of famous literary prizes so a few comments over this period might be seen by influencial eyes. Spreading the word to my bestest.

It's great PR for me but I don't see why it shouldn't also be great PR for my buds. One of us could get lucky publisher-wise and if it's not me then why not you? ;) Am aware I've been a bit of a twitter tart of late (for those who don't know, I'm Ms Twitter UK and have been a naughty, bad blogger because of it) but my Blogger chums are the ones who got me into all this online writerly gubbins and I've no intention of turning my back on you now the National/International PR engines are spluttering into action.


Michelle McLean said...

Hey there :) I have a little award for you over on my blog ;-D Happy Weekend!

Lazy Writer said...

2nd person would be odd! I don't mind prologues, but I don't always read them, especially if they're long. When I don't, I usually find that I still understand the story. To me, that would indicate they really aren't necessary. And by the way, I fly by the seat of my pants, too!

Icy Roses said...

Third person limited is the term you're looking for.

I love prologues! I guess the only kind of prologue I don't read is the kind in a nonfiction book, which is more of a preface. Prologues are interesting to me because often they're in a different point of view, or they can just be one quick burst of a scene that gets you intrigued for the rest of the story. Sometimes, they're in media res, so it's a cool little mystery to wait for when it ties in with the real plot.

Third person limited happens to be my favorite point of view. Sadly, my novels are all in first person, just...because that's the way they turned out.

Robyn Campbell said...

Eric, the only books I can think of, off the top of my head in 2nd person would be the Winnie the Pooh books. I loved them as a child, but I would NEVER write in 2nd person. It would be too hard for me to stay in it and I'd have to go through and change it. :)

I don't know how you feel about awards, but there is one for you over at my blog. :)

Michelle H. said...

Hey Eric, I have a 2nd person POV novel for you.

"A Prayer for the Dying" by Stewart O'Nan.

I never read it myself. Someone else months back was discussing POV on their blog. I left a comment about never hearing an entire novel written in such a way. She directed me to this one.

I don't mind prologues if they don't bog me down. I find them useful more often in fantasy novels when the cast of characters is so huge that I need those extra explanations on who is who.

Getting back to POV, I've written in both 1st and 3rd and can switch an entire novel from one to the other if I feel it needs such a change. Personally, I find that writing in 1st person is easier. I work faster and I'm more intimate with my writing than in 3rd where I am merely a spectator jotting down the scenes - a proverbial fly on the wall.

jessjordan said...

1) I have a love-hate relationship with prologues: I loved them until everyone told me I should hate them, and now I have a hard time getting into them. I know that's unfair to the prologue, but it's similar to what happened with adverbs--I had nothing against the little fellows, until I was advised that they were bad for me. Geez, now I just sound like a sheep, following the cool crowd toward the super crystally spring water ...

2) 2nd person weirds me out. "Hey, creep. What do you *mean* I was showering while singing along with Elvis? And how do you know that I'm afraid of the Blue Man Group? It's restraining order time, Bucko!" Third person omniscient really creeps me out. I feel like I'm getting tossed around in the dryer, bouncing from one side to the other. Third person in general has always been a little hard for me, b/c I'm immediately distrustful of these all-knowing narrator ... Who is this kid, and why does he/she know so much?

3) Congrats on completing the who/what/where/why/how questionnaire prior to storytelling! We all get so anxious to get the story started that we can't help ourselves, but I've found, over time, that some sort of guideline is necessary. Otherwise, you'll build your train track to the edge of a cliff, and you may be out of ... the little railroad pieces (whatever they're called) before you get to where you need to be. *If* you get to where you need to be.