Tuesday, March 31, 2009

To Prologue or Not To Prologue?

I am in the midst of a dilemma. The action in my fantasy novel is motivated by something that happened in the past, specifically, a civil war. Now, if I were to refer to the American Civil War, readers would instantly have a frame of reference. But because this takes place in a different world, they have no idea who fought whom or why, or who won.

I wrote the first chapter so that it jumps right into the story and I love the way it flows, but my test readers are begging to know more information about what happened before, and about the world and its people, so that they can put the current action into context.

So, the other day I inserted some expository material, but think it interrupts that lovely flow I used to have. So now I'm considering a brief prologue - or forward - or whatever you call it. Maybe just two paragraphs, like those words that scroll at the beginning of Star Wars.

But I’m also thinking, “Well, hey, maybe it’s a good thing that they want to know more. Maybe that will keep them reading.” As the book is now, the history from the past is explained mostly in some dialogue in Chapter Two, and also in other dribs and drabs throughout the story.

So, today I am putting up the opening, with and without the exposition, for my readers to comment on. Do you think the book needs some kind of prologue or introduction? Do you think it needs more exposition within Chapter One? Or should I just keep the opening as it is and make my readers continue to... well... read?

(Postscript: after doing a little quick research, I realized that what I am really considering is an Introduction, not a Prologue.)

(P.P.S. After all of the excellent comments, I posted yet another version here:

The Revised Revised Opening)

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The Golden Gryphon, Chapter One (Original Version)



In the cold crack of winter, the lions came down from the mountains. Nightstalkers, the farmers called them: huge, sleek, black prowlers that hunted at night. They carried off sheep, goats, chickens and, very occasionally, children. Before the War they had been a rare nuisance, a useful source of tales to keep youngsters in their beds at night and frighten them into good behavior. But the King’s brother Synedd, in his ceaseless grasping for the throne, had seen their potential in warfare and had trained them to hunt in packs. The females mainly hunted for food; this had always been the case. But Synedd bred males for his own use, created blood-lust in them and taught them to hunt for sport. He had used them to supplement his army of traitors, making up in beasts what he lacked in soldiers.

After Synedd’s defeat, the nightstalkers were scattered. Most had been killed in battle but a few survived, returning to their lone ways in the mountains. The Rangers and the unicorns hunted these. Unicorns were especially adept at lion-skewering; their horns were long and deadly. But unicorns were unpredictable, coming and going as shadows. In recent years they had became more scarce, returning to the deeper forests as the Hanorja rebuilt their farms and prospered in the post-war peace. The Rangers, however, diligently studied the lions’ habits; in the years following the War they became renowned for their prowess at tracking and killing the lions.

So it was Faldur Relazen’s task, as captain of the Ranger pack assigned to the Silverbark Vallen, to hunt down the nightstalker that had been plaguing the farms in the wardlands around Glenhym Castle. Lord Tarnbel, the King-appointed Lord Defender, or Delfenward, of Glenhym, had sent a message to the post at Burnwood which had reached Faldur on patrol. Lord Tarnbel had fought with Faldur’s father in the War; the Captain and his men were always sure of a warm welcome at Glenhym. So Faldur would have helped him out of friendship as well as duty, in any case.

It was not a duty he cherished, however, especially on Midwinter’s Eve. It was a hard thing to pass up the all-night celebration and go out into the snow in search of a wretched monster that would just as soon eat him as whatever livestock it was stalking. But, the sooner it was done the sooner he could join the dancing in the great hall. He only hoped it didn’t take all night...

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The Golden Gryphon, Chapter One (Revised Version)


In the cold crack of winter, the lions came down from the mountains. Night-stalkers, the farmers called them: huge, sleek, black prowlers that hunted at night. They carried off sheep, goats, chickens and, very occasionally, children. Before the War they had been a rare nuisance, a useful source of tales to keep youngsters in their beds at night and frighten them into good behavior. But the King’s brother Synedd, in his ceaseless grasping for the throne, had seen their potential in warfare and had trained them to hunt in packs. The females mainly hunted for food; this had always been the case. But Synedd bred males for his own use, created blood-lust in them and taught them to hunt for sport. He had used them to supplement his army of traitors, making up in beasts what he lacked in soldiers.

[Despite this lack, he had been successful in turning a third of the Delfenwards, or lord defenders, against the King. This was not the first time in Hanorjan history that one of the royal family had used his powers against his own people, but it was the first in many hundreds of years. The Hanorja were an unusual people: small of stature, keenly intelligent, and slow to make war - but deadly when their wrath was finally roused. They excelled at pottery, weaving, poetry and music. The long winters in Belhanor gave them time to hone these crafts, and their houses were brightly decorated both inside and out.

The common people possessed a small, practical kind of magic, which they used in small, practical ways. The line of the kings, however, possessed much greater powers which they used for the benefit of the kingdom. Some said that the Hanorja were distant relatives of men, some said of the elves, and others neither. They themselves only knew that they were Hanorja, and that their ancestors had come over the mountains in ages past.

When Synedd turned against his brother Elmeth and killed him, Elmeth’s sons, led by Elmoran, the eldest, drove Synedd and his followers into the mountains. Elmoran himself fought Synedd on the peak of Mount Cairfelen from which he fell, though his body was never recovered. Elmoran was then crowned King, and ordered all the traitors beheaded and their wardlands divided among those who had been loyal to him, in accordance with their service. The war was over; the kingdom restored. The Hanorja repaired their homes, replanted their fields and made songs to commemorate the dead, especially their beloved King.]

Most of the nightstakers were killed in battle, but a few survived, returning to their lone ways in the mountains. The Rangers diligently studied the lions’ habits; in the score of years following the War they became renowned for their prowess at tracking and killing the lions.

So it was Faldur Relaszen’s task, as captain of the Ranger pack assigned to the Silverbark Vallen, to hunt down the nightstalker that had been plaguing the farms in the wardlands around Glenhym Castle. Lord Tarnbel, the Delfenward of Glenhym, had sent a message to the post at Burnwood which reached Faldur on patrol. Lord Tarnbel had fought with Faldur’s father in the War; the Captain and his men were always sure of a warm welcome at Glenhym. So Faldur would have helped him out of friendship as well as duty, in any case.

It was not a duty he cherished, however, especially on Midwinter’s Eve. It was a hard thing to pass up the all-night celebration and go out into the snow in search of a wretched monster that would just as soon eat him as whatever livestock it was stalking. But, the sooner it was done the sooner he could join the dancing in the Great Hall. He only hoped it didn’t take all night...

7 comments:

wonderer said...

Here from Nathan Bransford's blog - hello! *waves* You don't know me, but I'm an (unpublished) fantasy writer, so I was curious about your opening. Here are my two cents...

I would say you definitely don't need the extra info up front. As a fantasy reader, I'd be perfectly happy to find that out later, over the course of several chapters or even longer. Interactions between characters who were on opposite sides during the war; comments from one friend to another; distrust of outsiders - there are lots of ways you can hint at the backstory without stating it explicitly until much later. (I think you said on Nathan's blog that you were doing that, in which case, perfect.)

In fact, if you don't mind me going further, I would start the story with the last or second-last paragraph you posted. There's a character (Faldur), there's a conflict (it's his job to go hunt a lion, but he'd rather stay home), there's sensory information (it's cold outside) - it's the beginning of a scene. I'm a firm believer in starting with a scene, as concrete and immediate as possible, and with a character the reader can identify with.

For example, you could start with the message being delivered, or with Faldur suiting up to go outside and grumbling to a fellow Ranger about the lions. Either of those would let you leak a little (not too much!) of the info from the earlier paragraphs, while getting right into a scene and dumping the reader into the story.

I hope that helps. Best of luck with your novel!

Christine H said...

Thanks so much for dropping by! That actually helps quite a bit. That is the difference between talking to writers and non-writers. We see the story in very different ways.

Only I can't see the forest for the trees any more, I'm afraid! I've been in the woods too long.

wonderer said...

Glad I could help!

I'm in the middle of edits myself (roughly the third draft of an urban fantasy novel), so I know how you feel. Keep slogging - we can do it!

Melissa said...

Hello! Here from Nathan's blog as well. Agree with wonderer for the most part.

I definitely like the original version better. A lot of times, fantasy novels throw a bunch of names and backhistory at you and by the end of the page, your eyes have glazed over. Give me tantalizing tidbits that leave me wanting to read more.

Again, personal opinion, but I actually liked the description of how the nightstalkers came about. You learn not only a lot about them, but the land and its history at the same time and get a good sense of the danger the main character is about to face.

I'm already taking a liking to Faldur, because who doesn't want to be partying in a nice warm castle when it's freezing outside? Though the part about Lord Tarnbel made my eyes glaze over a little, because you get his name, then Delfenward, Glenhym, and Burnwood thrown at you all at once and it's a bit much. Whosit, whatsit, where?

Finally, I think you're a very good and engaging writer. Good luck!!

Christine H said...

"Whosit, whatsit, where?"

*deep sigh*

Typical reader reaction.

That's the main problem... I have this fully developed plot, society, even a language... and don't know how to convey it without making it sound like gobbledygook.

Thanks so much for your input, Melissa!

Melissa said...

Don't despair. I think people tend to be fascinated by new worlds, just introduce it to the reader slowly, bit by bit, which I think you're already doing. Just watch out for sentences where there's a string of foreign words.

For example: "So it was Faldur Relazen’s task, as captain of the Ranger pack assigned to the Silverbark Vallen, to hunt down the nightstalker that had been plaguing the farms in the wardlands around Glenhym Castle. Lord Tarnbel, the King-appointed Lord Defender, or Delfenward, of Glenhym, had sent a message to the post at Burnwood which had reached Faldur on patrol."

You could rewrite it as: "So it was Faldur Relazen’s task, as captain of the Ranger pack assigned to the Silverbark Vallen, to hunt down the nightstalker that had been plaguing the farms in the wardlands around Glenhym Castle. The Lord Defender of Glenhym had sent a message to Faldur on patrol.
The Defender, Lord Tarnbel..."

That's just an example, but you can maybe streamline the exposition, then in a later scene have the characters refer to Tarnbel as a 'Delfenward' or some other way to convey his title.

But really, I think this is very good. Part of the fun is discovering the new world as the reader follows the character on his/her adventures and it looks like you're doing that.

Mitch Wallace said...

Hey there! I came here from Nathan's blog, and from what little I've read of your story, it seems like it's going to be really cool. I'd read more and give you feedback, but it's late and my eyes are crossing, so I'll try to give you some thoughts tomorrow.

What's neat is that you and I are on roughly the same word count (52,000) in our novels. Although, mine is a YA supernatural adventure and it'll probably top off at around 55,000 words. This is my third draft and I can't wait to be done! What sucks, though, is that I've encountered some plot holes, and I have a prologue that I'm not so sure about keeping.