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:
- A prologue
- Some historical background to the story, and
- 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?
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.
Two things jumped into my mind reading your concerns about a prologue or no prologue. First is that you are waaaaay over-thinking it! Second is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution nor do rules tell you what’s the best way to proceed. You decide that for yourself.
Regarding the first thing, readers are intelligent beings who have seen prologues before. They know what prologues normally include and decide for themselves whether to read the prologue or not before jumping into the story. I, myself, have done both; Sometimes I’ve read it and other times I’ve ignored it until at some point in the story I wanted to know the background, at which time I went back and read the prologue. Your readers will also make such a choice for themselves. So feel free to include it if you wish without worrying about how important it is because your readers will figure that out for themselves.
As to the second thought, it sounds as if there’s a whole lot of background that you’d like your readers to learn. There are a couple of ways to do so and a prologue is only one of those ways and both involve putting that information in the book in such a way that it’s not an actual part of the story so they can choose to read it or not. (Again, readers are intelligent and prefer making such decisions for themselves, which they can’t do if it’s part of the action.)
A prologue shouldn’t be overly long so sometimes that’s not enough to get all the pertinent information to the reader, in which case you might want to also add the second way, which is a brief, usually italicized, few sentences or paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter to tell the reader what they might want to know in order to better understand that chapter.
Whatever way you use to impart the information — or none at all — is totally up to you.
Personally, I like either or both of the methods I mentioned because readers don’t like being bogged down in the story itself by so much information being presented that the story slows down. Too slow stories can be death!
Anyway, you decide which you want to do and then just do it and don’t look back and your readers will love you either way. Because they are nice people and they can choose what to read or skip or skim or not.
Hi Florence, thanks for your comment, it gave me lots to think about! You’re right, I have been worrying about it. hence the post. I really like your idea of a short intro to each chapter – I was planning on an epigraph for each chapter with some different information (that’s also pertinent) but I may need to have a rethink. I certainly hope my readers are nice!