After reading Prologues and Epilogues — Is There a Point to Them? (Helena Fairfax, A Writer’s Path), which I reblogged in the previous post (here), once again I am forced to revisit my writing process from many years ago, between 2006 and 2010, the early days when I was writing Beyond the Precipice.
Originally, the story had a prologue. But I was not yet a seasoned industry writer in those years, and expert advice from the world of publishing had been that using a prologue was “bad” and frowned upon in the industry, especially for a new author with a debut novel. The result was that the prologue was removed long before beta readers, critiquers, and editors ever saw the manuscript.
The alternative was to use embedded flashbacks, which are meant to flow seamlessly with the narrative, a worthy technique that I made work with Beyond the Precipice.
Ironically, I think if I had used a prologue for this particular book, I would have set the stage for intensity and mood, rendering the gravity of the protagonist’s situation for the readers early on, saving them what some have since described as a “slow start” where they were unsure of the conflict (which comes up several times in the first chapter, actually, but it’s subtle) or how the story was going to unfold. The intense parts came later, but a prologue would have put the premise of the book front and centre at the get-go.
Helena Fairfax writes:
“I intended to drop the backstory into the book gradually, because I’d had it drummed into me that prologues were a BAD THING by lots of writing experts. I read this passage aloud at my writers’ group and it didn’t go down well. It wasn’t obvious what was going on…
“So, after trying my best to avoid a prologue because ‘experts’ told me it was wrong, I tried writing a prologue to ‘establish context and give background details,’ as it says in Wikipedia. In the opening prologue to A Way from Heart to Heart as it has now been published, I describe how five years before the actual story begins the heroine’s husband dies in Afghanistan. In the prologue, she is brought the news by the hero.
“The reader immediately has sympathy for them both through this prologue (at least I hope so!), it’s full of action, and it sets up the entire premise of the novel – that the heroine is terrified of further loss for her son.”
Helena Fairfax’s story of her novel sounds eerily familiar.
Had I used a prologue in Beyond the Precipice, the reader would have known at once that the themes of the book were death, grief, guilt, and oppression from a life-altering incident that had occurred six years earlier, in Bret Killeen’s childhood. The external and internal conflicts that resulted, pitting Bret against his brother, Drake, and Bret against himself, would have been clear and palpable at the outset, drawing the reader into the heart of the story. Through this high-action prologue, the traits of the characters would have been defined early, and the premise for the novel set and underscored for the rest of the book.
The inciting incident for Beyond the Precipice is when Bret meets the cello player, Nicole, in chapter one. Her sudden presence in his life, along with his crossing of the threshold into adulthood, drive the story to its double climax. Bret’s past pushes its way to the forefront of his life, pressuring him to resolve the events and choices of six years ago.
I am left to wonder if–after careful consideration, of course–had I listened to my instincts and released the book with a prologue, it would have elicited more interest from the average reader.
As it is now, Beyond the Precipice is a deceptively smooth read with too light-hearted a beginning. Only readers with life experience, or who have witnessed death (and the effect of unresolved grief), oppression, or family abuse, are fully aware of the gravity of Bret’s situation as it steadily unfolds.
The idea to rewrite the novel by giving it back its prologue is so intriguing, in fact, that I am tempted–at some point in the very distant future–to try it. I strongly suspect the initial impact on readers would be stronger.