Prologues – with hindsight

Browsing my favourite fiction authors, what do Helen Dunmore, Elena Ferrante, Zadie Smith, Margaret Forster and Kazuo Ishiguro (sometimes) do, that Margaret Atwood, Ian McKewan, Rose Tremain and Kazuo Ishiguro (sometimes) don’t?

1411219Clue: It was good enough for Chaucer and (sometimes) Shakespeare, but has a reputation as a turn-off in submissions to agents and publishers. At the Guardian Masterclass I attended, the invited agent said: “Never send me a submission with a prologue!” And here are two more, quoted on the Writer’s Digest:

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”

“Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

In the Facebook group Book Connectors the thread “Do you read the prologue?” has given me a blog theme for the second week running. It’s turned into something of a straw poll. It seems most people do read prologues, regarding them as part of the story. I’m in that camp – in a well-written story, every word and section is there for a reason. If you skip something, you’re receiving incomplete information. But one BC, Melvyn Fickling, responded he’d skip the lot rather than read a prologue:  If I’m checking the Look Inside feature on Amazon and see a prologue, it’s not just the prologue I don’t read… 

In the BC discussion there are also references to prefaces and introductions. Let’s clear up the difference. Here’s an easy definition, from American Dorrance Publishing:

ExposureThe primary reason to include a prologue is if there’s an important element of the story that took place prior to your book’s main plotline. A rule of thumb is that the prologue will explain important information that doesn’t necessarily follow the timeline of the rest of your book. (It follows that an epilogue covers events that take place after the main timeline. But I might alter “prior” to “outside” – I’ve found a number of prologues whose events occur midway or late in the stories they introduce. For example, in the prologue to Helen Dunmore’s Exposure – reviewed here – a protagonist is going home towards the end of the story.

An introduction might be by someone else, and discusses the background, style, genesis and authorship of the story, but isn’t part of the story itself. It gives insight, and may contain spoilers, which is why I usually read it at the end. Introductions overlap with prefaces: there’s a useful discussion here, too long to quote, of what a preface should contain – the main thing is, it’s also not part of the story and it may or may not be by the author. Fortunately the thread hasn’t mentioned forewords – yet. Don’t get me started on those!

There’s general agreement that prologues should be relatively short, and contain business that occurs outside the main story that the reader needs to know in order to follow it. There’s a fine line between relevance to the approaching story and an information dump, though! I found a sober pro prologue summary by Carol Benedict and  elsewhere Kristen Lamb identifies seven deadly prologue sins in colourful detail.

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A lazy plotting style?

Lamb’s sinful prologues can be summarised as superfluous, irrelevant, tautologous or too long. The information they give could either be left out, or easily  communicated at some other point in the story, for example in a flashback, through a character remembering or recounting events, or as some form of story-within-the-story. Fickling was vehement: Too many times it presages a lazy writing and/or plotting style. 

Let’s imagine a heroine, Lazy Author. (No relation to me personally, oh no.) Lazy Author gets to the end of her first draft, realises she’s making unreasonable assumptions of reader knowledge – how could her readers know all the details inside her excited authorial head? So she sticks the missing facts in a prologue before the story opens. Just so we all know where we are.

I can’t believe the Dunmores and Ishiguros bumble along like that. What’s their approach?

28921The Remains of the Day opens with 17 pages of prologue, set in 1956. Chapter 1 then harks back to 1922. I make that two of some people’s rules broken, but Ishiguro is such a master, it’s fine. Memory tells me the film version used the same structure, so director James Ivory must have agreed.

Exposure: only 2 pages, their chronology within the story unclear until the very end of the book. One rule broken, but a tale told with such élan is above rules.

My Brilliant Friend – 4 pages of prologue, with chapter 1 onwards a flashback. Not fancying a scrap with Elena Ferrante, I’ll turn a blind eye to this and her many other broken rules (repetition, internal monologue, ranting…) Her prose screams along the page and seems to demand fierce interruptions the better to rebuff them, insert a blank page, and return to the fray.

The Twelfth Department, by William Ryan – who just before publication of it was running the very Masterclass on which his agent colleague banned prologues – has a 5 page prologue which establishes a setting and some characters, provides backstory for those who may not know his detective Korolev from previous books, and contains a violent, though not fatal, hook. Could that have been done in Chapter 1 instead? I was reading so fast I didn’t care.

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith has 40 pages (40 pages!!!) of prologue before what she calls not chapter but Book 1. It introduces the main character and the unusual theme. I read it a long time ago and the enormous prologue obviously didn’t stick in my mind as a fault.

Margaret Forster’s non-fiction Precious Lives has a 14 page prologue, setting out her reasons for writing her memoir, but in anecdotal, quite emotional style, which distinguishes it (in my mind anyway) from a non-fiction introduction.

These are all authors whose sales and reputations survive their prologues unscathed. On my shelves I did come across one rather pointless prologue, that simply repeated later themes, in a recent highly praised debut by a creative writing graduate. Despite its evocative setting, impressive cultural knowledge, some lovely writing and a poignant subject, it was so badly edited that a redundant prologue was (in retrospect!) not so unexpected. There were no acknowledgements in the edition I had, so we don’t know who was responsible, and at least it was only half a page.  And the one page prologue in Emma Healey’s touching, otherwise brilliant Elizabeth is Missing seems at first glance disconnected with the first chapter. Readers are frustrated if the prologue sets something up and then there’s no hint of it in the following chapter – maybe that’s why some claim to skip them.

18635113(I should add that for this post some of the books I’m glancing through were read long ago. It’s not always quick to rediscover where the prologue fits in! A sharper mind would have anticipated that difficulty, but hindsight’s a wonderful thing.)

Another BC dissenter said: I hate prologues. I even hated my own prologue the one time I wrote one. I just think I should be able to more eloquently tell the story than use a big, fat label like Prologue. I think if I feel I need a prologue maybe it is because I’m not starting my story correctly.

Fair point. But does it presuppose a linear narrative through a logical chronology (tautology? Ed.) Can a prologue save the situation when time, viewpoints and tenses are less traditional, or be something to refer back to during a complicated plot? I’m reminded of rewinding episodes of Inspector Morse and descendants to review the bit before the titles start.

In my first version of The Infinity Pool, I tried to increase the suspense gradually until a thing happened. A friend who teaches creative writing said: “You’ll lose your readers before they get there. Put the thing at the beginning, as a hook”. To all intents and purposes, the thing then became a prologue, but I didn’t call it that. Did I just confess to the lazy writing/plotting style lambasted above?

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I’m still learning my craft. My current WIP is done but for a decision on three possible beginnings. Should I introduce all the characters at once or one by one…nail down the theme or leave it to be discovered…frame the whole narrative with a prologue and corresponding epilogue? Clever Dunmore, in Birdcage Walk, calls her first 13 pages Prelude – even though they take place “now” and (in the book) precede a story set between 1789-1793. I must be hoping to bring off a similar trick as I’ve headed one of my possible first sections simply: Before.

Prologues, duh! This blog post is just the start of my problems…

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In praise of beautiful writing

Such an obvious thing and so easy to overlook: stories and books are composed of words so it’s the words that matter most. In these days of unreliable heroines, bodies eviscerated in infinitely revolting ways, and rush-to-the-finish plots, what a refreshing pleasure it is to be greeted by an author who won’t let you pass on by without stopping to admire her words. And having paused, you find yourself re-reading and reciting them to benefit fully from the careful cadences.

25064563This week I’ve been reading Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs. I haven’t finished it yet, I’m not even half way through. I’m on a walking tour through musical Irish prose and I’m in no hurry for it to end. The plot is important, she makes that quite clear, and so far it has included many different ideas as well as events, with first hints and then revelations of domestic betrayals and terrible, true war crimes. But I’ll consider the plot as a whole when I reach the end. For now I’m lingering in the language.

Note: I started writing this when I’d read about a hundred pages. I read some more this morning, and O’Brien has jolted me back into the plot with a twist more shocking than I’d anticipated. Interestingly, now I’m propelled by events, I’m not finding the language so engaging. Nonetheless for those hundred pages I was enraptured by words as mesmerising as waves breaking onto the shore. Since they’re what I set out to look at, they’re what I’ll continue with for now.

Some of her language is poetic; these lines occur within just four pages:

“Clouds chased each other across the heavens that bright afternoon, when she drove into the hotel car park. It was much further south and the air was balmy. Yes, clouds on a great maraud, up there staging a tournament.”

“…she heard the lilts and hollers of children.”

“From the slant of the hall light she saw the spray of rain on his hair…”

Some is indirect speech, rhythms and phrases caught in the present tense like pinned butterflies:

“Sister Bonaventure is lost for words and also worried about the palpitations. She can hardly believe it. A surprise party and she thinking she was going to the chapel to say the rosary.”

Some is fierce: “As for the bodies, that was a matter for the engineers, hence the zillions of secret graves that litter our land.”

“He is all alone (…) with the frozen lostness of the abandoned.”

Such care taken: active  “clouds on a great maraud” where most would settle for “marauding clouds”; an “also” added to Sister Bonaventure’s worries, mirroring her speech and also echoing the sounds of the word “lost” that preceded it; “zillions” – I thought, is zillions a real number? Is it childhood slang for a massive uncountable amount beyond thinking and reason? Juxtapose “zillions” with engineering projects to create “secret graves” and you see how naivete and carelessness, attractive attributes in childhood, can lead adults to genocide. I’m still only a couple of pages further on, and the pickings are rich. Yes, words on a great maraud, staging a festival between the covers.

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See “Country Girl” for O’Brien’s own account of her writing and her life.

I don’t have the patience to take such care crafting my own prose. I didn’t start writing, like Edna O’Brien, in my late teens and I haven’t nearly reached my late eighties, and even if I’d had her time, it’s unlikely I’d have developed her skill. I do try to write well. I try to construct clear sentences, of varying length for interest, with one appropriate word instead of a blitz of six. I try to make them lead on from the one before, without unnecessary length or repetition or cliché. Unlike O’Brien, I haven’t spent a lifetime listening, adapting, honing and polishing, consorting with Marianne Faithful and Marlon Brando and undergoing therapy with R D Laing, interviewing terrorists and piling up literary prizes in the bulging trophy cupboard. Nonetheless, I – we all – can learn from her.

In this matter of cadence, what makes a beautiful sentence? For O’Brien, her Irish heritage provides a sound (in all senses of the word) foundation. “Lilting Irish” is a cliché, but clichés only come into being because they are true. So much Irish prose, poetry  and song does lilt – but lilting implies lulling and Irish writers inevitably go on to pack in a shock. Think of Yeats’ first lines: “Although I’d lie lapped up in linen”; “I think it better that in times like these”; “On the grey sand beside the shallow stream” – then look up what comes after. Think of Beckett, Molly Keane, Toibin, Boyne, Anne Enright…no, I’ll think of them for another post, on Irish writing, another time.

The Irish are front runners but often the language of a title signposts a book from elsewhere whose language will stop you in your tracks: “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” (Italo Calvino), (as beguiling in translation as in Italian); “After Leaving Mr MacKenzie” (Jean Rhys)“If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” (Jon McGregor); “By Grand Central Station I Sat  Down and Wept” (Elizabeth Smart). (Note how many of these titles start with what is now inflexibly labelled a “connective” in school English teaching.) Or the effect could be gained from something as small as a comma: “Cry, the Beloved Country” (Alan Paton). These elegiac titles precede lyrical prose, while economical, clean, precise writing may be heralded by a single powerful word: Persuasion (Jane Austen); Futility (William Gerhardie); Atonement (Ian McKewan).

 

Exposure (Helen Dunmore), which I reviewed here, also has a one-word title announcing gleaming prose. Dunmore is of course a poet as well as a novelist, her words as thoughtfully arranged, selected and refused as in her verse – test any page by reading a paragraph aloud. Another of my favourite writers, Julian Barnes, has written extensively of his debt to Gustave Flaubert. 10746542Nobody took more care with prose than Flaubert, who would spend weeks on a single sentence and coined the term “le mot juste” which ecompasses infinitely more meaning than the translation, “the right word”. In my review of The Noise of Time, I discuss how Barnes uses language to make the reader stop, and think.  Incidentally (but perhaps it’s not incidental) good prose can be more successfully re imagined in other media: the recent film of Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is concise, clear, meaningful, allowing the reader/viewer space for reflection, as are the successful film versions of McEwan’s novels.

This was a small reflection on words. I could go on, but I’d like to hear examples that you have found beautiful, and we can take a moment to share them. Perhaps as well as the words themselves, space, and silence – the spaces between words, the sounds between the notes – are what make these works so special. I think I’ll look at that next time.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Review of “Exposure” by Helen Dunmore

Exposure
I’ve admired Helen Dunmore for a long time, for the lucidity and fluency of her writing. Her deceptively simple style can be read so easily that the story seeps effortlessly into your mind and you gather detail about the characters and settings almost incidentally. Then a particularly beautiful sentence stops you in your tracks and you begin to appreciate the poetry of what you are reading as well. “Each time the wind slams against the glass, her nerves crisp, but she works on calmly.” We’ve all experienced wind slamming and our nerves crisping at a sudden noise, but few of us can express it so economically. Only once in the whole book does she(or her editor) go wrong and the reason this jars so much is because of the overall perfection: “Julian Clowde’s eyes were like lizard’s.”
This story resonated for me because I am the age of the youngest child in the story; I too grew up in North London; my friends were the children of Jewish refugees, and the Cold War hung threatening in the background. We played English vs Germans in the school playground; my parents had been on CND marches; there was talk on the news and in the fiction I read later of spies, references that I didn’t understand (and still usually don’t) and that at the time were menacing and sinister. As the years pass those stories have become cartoonish, but in the 1960s spy activity represented the interface between civilisation and the Eastern Bloc, with nuclear annihilation the penalty if the delicate balance were to be disturbed.
Helen Dunmore writes of spies and suspicion, but without bringing in too much minutiae. The document and photographs to which the characters’ fate is hooked are not described in detail. Their bearing on world events, if any, is not clarified at all. That fits too, with my general incomprehension of espionage. What is clear is the effect on ordinary lives when they happen to become caught up: domesticity, not the world stage, is under threat here: home comforts, personal security, well being. Any child of the 60s can relate to inadequate heating in a Victorian villa and then a seaside cottage, a temperamental coal boiler and single glazing that rattles. More positively, any teacher (as I now am and as Lily is in the book) can dream with nostalgia of paperwork which went no further than a pile of marking, and of a time when junior school children walked home from school in sole charge of their younger siblings. This book abounds with such details that pinpoint an era as definitively as any set of dates.
Exposure is a clever title, for the exposure here gives another clear glimpse of the period, a time when homosexuality was as disgraceful, or more so, than betraying your country. Youthful sexual experiment that can now shrugged off even by top politicians, was then a criminal offence, individuals, households, governments could be brought down by the scandal. My parents had gay friends who lived openly together: it took many years for me to understand how brave that was. Helen Dunmore and her characters quote Oscar Wilde to haunting effect, before some of them are exposed in a different sense, on the freezing North Kent coast, scrabbling for sea coal at low tide. Throughout the book, objects, feelings, and facts are buried, consciously or subconsciously, for mistaken or sensible reasons, and the fear is that they will be exposed like the roll of film on the crucial Minox camera. None of this would be so necessary in a different society or a different story.
Dunmore references “The Railway Children” too, in an unlikely literary juxtaposition that works brilliantly. This time the children know a little more, the country dwelling and the train are not so friendly, the mother seen as more vulnerable and not always right. But the repeated reminder of a children’s book (in fact two because Dunmore also refers to another classic that I loved as a child, “The Children who lived in a Barn” by Eleanor Graham) is comforting for the reader: children’s stories involve passing through trials to a happy ending, so maybe everything will turn out fine for the Callington family too. After all, “No one will come at this hour, and those are only shadows under the lamp posts.”
It’s for the reader to judge the happiness, actual, potential, fragile or disguised of the ending, or whether a sequel would spell doom. This is real life in the way that only a cleverly constructed fiction can present it, and the consequences of hidden events may not be so simple as they were for the original Railway Children.

copyright Jessica Norrie 2016