And The Buntings Flew, My writing, Reading and Books, Writing

Begin at The Beginning -Does My Novel Need a Prologue?

I’ve been thinking about beginnings a lot, since, well, the beginning of this new year.  I’m currently reviewing my manuscript for And The Buntings Flew, having put it away for a few months; that distance allowed me to clean up what I’ve written to date, and forge on with the story. I’ve now got 35,000 words that have been through a couple of rigorous self-edits, and a further 15,000 words of raw dialogue and plot points to revise; that’s more than half of the planned novel length!

But one major issue remained unresolved –  how the novel would open. I’ve written three blocks of text that I couldn’t choose between, and they sat untethered to the main story at the start of the manuscript:

  1. A prologue
  2. Some historical background to the story, and
  3. The start of the action.

It seems obvious now that the story should start at the latest point in the action where the story proper begins, but I had such a lot of good historical background info that pertained to the current story; I had to get it in somewhere, and I also wanted to set the scene with a tableau from the story; where to start?

The Prologue

There’s lots of advice out there about prologues, but the only consensus is “proceed with caution”. When deciding whether to start with my prologue, I considered the following:

  • My prologue wasn’t overly long (about 500 words)
  • The prologue was from the POV of the main character and narrator
  • The prologue featured a vignette from the story, but wasn’t something that I couldn’t include in the main story; it did however set the scene.
  • The prologue wasn’t the scene of a violent or tumultuous event
  • I wasn’t using it as an information dump
  • I wasn’t trying to cram in relevant historical information.  I resisted the temptation to drop a lot of context in the prologue; it was simply the main character and a vignette from her day.

So was the prologue necessary? Was it boring? It was quite short (about three paragraphs and not much happens in it, although it gives a few clues to some other main character motivations and points of view.) Would this turn off readers before they even got to Chapter One, or would they just skip the prologue altogether?

The prologue was pertinent to the story that followed;  it was the perspective of the main character, but was it setting the scene for the main character’s arc? I wasn’t sure about that.  It wasn’t throwing the reader into the middle of any battles, betrayals, plot twists etc, which would be confusing. But, could I incorporate the details contained in the prologue into the main story?

Another point I considered was a quote from The Writer’s Digest’s Brian Klems:  When To Use a Prologue

“A prologue is used when material that you want to include in the opening is out of time sequence with the rest of the story.

On reflection I decided that the scene and its implications in the prologue could be revealed organically through the action; the events were close to the start of the novels’ opening, they weren’t out of time sequence, and would naturally fit after the first main action scene.  So I deleted the prologue from the main manuscript (although I saved it in another file, just in case!), and turned my attention to the next chunk of text that was jostling for pole position in my novel:

(Historical) Background Information

If I’m not including a prologue, how will I share key historical background information with the reader fairly soon into the main story? And The Buntings Flew is set in Belfast during the mid-1970s when The Troubles were in full, devastating swing.

After living here for forty years, I’m still astonished at how few people on the British mainland understand the intricacies of The Troubles; many people assumed my father, with his broad “Norn Iron” accent, was from the Republic of Ireland, or was automatically a Nationalist supporter;  he was frequently asked if he supported the IRA.

With this in mind, I want to include a potted history of the Troubles and the sociopolitical history behind them fairly early on, as an understanding of the Troubles will help the reader follow the story and its themes. To do so, however, you could end up summarising events back to the 1600s!

The Northern Irish are a people with a long memory, and events such as the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, the 1912 Ulster Covenant, the Home Rule Movement and Act of 1914, the 1921 Partition of Ireland and the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960’s are part of the political landscape still, with events such as the annual 12th July parades celebrating the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II.

Obviously, I don’t need to cover all of these events in detail, but it’s important to have a passing understanding of the historical events that led to the Troubles,  which are the background to my story. Although some events are fictionalized, my story is based on real events, so I want the novel to reflect as accurately as possible the landscape of 1970s’ Belfast.

But I also don’t want to scare off readers with huge chunks of historical text; originally, my plan was to incorporate some history via the narrator, as part of the first chapter, but that slowed the action down. If I just had a footnote to add, it might be fine, but as noted above, there’s quite a lot of historical context to understand the situation in 1970s (and current) Northern Ireland, and some readers may have little knowledge of the history behind the events that are central to my story.

The background history I wanted to include was a good two to three pages, a mix of family history intertwined with the history of NI. I thought of having a prologue dealing with the history, via family members, but  when I dropped the prologue,  I toyed with starting chapter one with a rundown on key events; I decided this was too much of an ask for the reader, who at that point would have no idea how long the history lesson would be, with no framework of the main story  visible yet.

In the end, I decided to jump straight into the action with the catalyst event at the start of chapter one,  and introduce most of the main characters and their situations.  Having given the reader a glimpse of the characters, I felt more comfortable dropping some history in chapter two, before resuming the main plot.

I now feel that the manuscript flows; it gets to the story immediately and introduces key characters, leaving a detailed look at the family (and province’s) history to the next chapter. As chapter one has some fairly high stakes events, a page or two of history gives the reader time to absorb what’s just happened before continuing with the story. It feels like a more cohesive read; the vignette from the prologue will be worked into the main story, so nothing is left, and much gained, by streamlining the start of the story.

I’d be interested to hear your views on using prologues and whether your story was well served by including one?

Postscript: A couple of people have asked me about the building in the header image above; it’s the Garrick Bar in Chichester Street, Belfast.

Poem of the Month, Poetry

Poem of The Month – Naming of Parts, by Henry Reed

This month’s poem of the month came to me during a work meeting recently; it was a somewhat attenuated review of some annual targets, and the use of jargon and corporate buzz words led my gaze to fall from the screen and out of the window to the street below. Students from the nearby university were strolling along the road; it was a bright but cold day, and the trees had just the merest suggestion of buds, but still, I could feel Spring; if not in the air, at least on the way.

The corporate terminology continued; lots of standardized acronyms and phrases you would hear in similar-sized organizations.  The students laughed, and moped, and headed for the pub and the express supermarket. The sun shone and the wind whipped the tree branches. My memory presented a poem I had studied for my “O” level English exam; Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts”, an ode to the mechanical and regimented horrors of wars endured by the flower of often-conscripted young men.

I was fifteen and attending a Catholic secondary school when I first read the poem. I surreptitiously googled it and had a re-read, while the presenter of the financial performance presentation flipped onto slide seventeen.

And it was a revelation! I remembered being taught that Reed’s poem contrasted the regimented, dead language and efficiency of the military with the living, reaching beauty of nature in Springtime, but I hadn’t realised how sex-filled the poem was! But that makes sense – Henry Reed was conscripted when he was 27, and wrote the poem the next year; he was still a young man, and many of his peers would be in their teens, or barely out of them;  young men becoming proficient killing and destruction machines, when they should, like the birds, bees and flowers, be busy fulfilling their natural destiny; making love in fact, not war! This was a side of the poem not taught to me by my Catholic teachers, and it was a beautiful surprise, like a bonus poem hidden behind the one I already knew.

Reading the words that narrator used  – the swiveling, easing, glistening, using the finger and strong thumbing, and rapid backwards and forwards – it was clear that this particular soldier, like many of his peers, rejected the philosophy of dealing death on the orders of old men, and chose life and its beautiful, natural and erotic perpetuation.

NAMING OF PARTS

BY HENRY REED (1942)

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have the naming of parts.