November 18, 2018, 06:45:24 AM

Author Topic: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep  (Read 504 times)

Offline J.R. Darewood

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I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« on: November 08, 2018, 11:30:03 AM »
Maybe I'm having male PMS, but I read the latest SPFBO update and it sort of made me angry. I put it in spoiler tags because it's a little agro, and I'm not usually like that.  So open the tags at your own peril.

Spoiler for Hiden:
I was pretty agnostic about the books on the list, and the judges listed some perfectly good reasons for not liking the books, but the whole picking on prologues thing really irked me. Some story structures require a prologue.  Others don't.  They're not en vogue in publishing in general right now, but they are an especially common device in fantasy, especially epic fantasy.  And this is frigging *fantasy faction* so having prologue hate here seems akin to wearing a KKK outfit to a Black Panther rally.

LOTR: Prologues
WoT: Prologues
Harry Potter-- She called it Ch 1 but it was a frigging prologue.
Gentleman Bastards: Prologue
Almost every fantasy book I've ever liked: Prologue

If someone doesn't write well, they write a bad prologue.  That's not the prologue's fault. Maybe they're bad at exposition.  Maybe they're bad at plotting.  That's not going to go away if they take out the prologue.  So saying that prologues are "ambitious" or "tricky" really rubs me the wrong way.  If you just don't like prologues why are you reading fantasy in the first place???

It's like when people tell new writers not to use adverbs.  You can't outlaw an entire frigging part of speech. That's just officious. Why don't we write all our novels in 140 characters to satisfy modern attention spans.  Maybe we should just draw stick figures instead of using words. I'm going to go be a rebel and read tons of adverbs by Henry James while snickering angrily at modernity.

Ok, now I'm getting all worked up. Sorry for ranting but that was really bothering me. 
« Last Edit: November 08, 2018, 11:33:43 AM by J.R. Darewood »

Offline ScarletBea

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Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #1 on: November 08, 2018, 12:47:55 PM »
Hear hear :D
At home in the Fantasy Faction forum!

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Offline NedMarcus

Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #2 on: November 08, 2018, 02:18:20 PM »
I like prologues if they're well done.

Offline Eclipse

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Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #3 on: November 08, 2018, 02:40:31 PM »
I like mine medium rare.
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Offline Not Lu

Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #4 on: November 08, 2018, 05:16:15 PM »
Writing rules are made for the weak. They're like side bumpers in a bowling alley so your ball doesn't fall into the gutter. They might help your score, but they won't improve your skill. The greatest writers use all the tools available to them, but make sure to use the right tools for each sentence.

Feel free to prologue away... and, of course, epilogue too.

Offline cupiscent

Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #5 on: November 08, 2018, 08:28:07 PM »
On the one hand, heck yes, always break the rules, do your thing, unthinking "it must be this way" makes the world more boring for everyone.

On the other hand, I think "Prologues can make or break the book" is solid advice worth bearing in mind. Two of my favourite books of the past ten years - Rachel Hartmann's "Seraphina" and Dan Abraham's first Dagger and Coin book - I picked up multiple times and PUT DOWN AGAIN, because I bounced off the prologue, before I eventually plowed through and discovered that the main story was delightful. On the one hand, it's not the naming that matters: whether it's a prologue or just chapter 1, starting with something that is not your main story/character/tone means running the risk that the reader doesn't stick around to discover that actually, this book IS their thing. On the OTHER hand, it's a known thing that readers attach these negative experiences to the name "prologue", so you're giving yourself an uphill battle.

Best advice I ever heard on adverbs was: Don't use an adverb unless it tells us something we don't already know.

Offline Skip

Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #6 on: November 08, 2018, 11:50:24 PM »
I like mine medium rare.

And I rarely like my mediums. But "Medium, Rare" would be an excellent story title.


Offline J.R. Darewood

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Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #7 on: November 09, 2018, 09:23:09 AM »

This is an interesting article which tracks the history of adverb-hate. It's really brilliant. ( @cupiscent  I think you'd like this article. But I wish I could make the entire planet read this article I love it so much)

https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/06/abolish-the-adverb-you-seriously-must-be-joking.html

Some gems include:

Quote
Adverbs, then, curtail and refine—but in doing so they can pick out the unexpected resonances, the hidden valences in the words they modify.

Quote
Deployed skillfully, the adverb backstabs lovingly, subverts daintily, insurrects gallantly.... To demand of writing like this that it lose its “clutter” is to completely miss the richness offered in such a careful layering of meaning.

Quote
For one, haranguing against the adverb is a cheap, easy piece of advice, one that offers a mechanical solution to the abstract question of good writing. Adverb hatred attacks a symptom, rather than a cause. Creative writing teachers tell beginning writers to avoid adverbs because, on some level, bad imitations of Hemingway are easier to slog through than bad imitations of Proust.

Quote
A few years ago, Adam Haslett lamented that bans on parts of speech lead inevitably not to better writing, but to a uniformity in bad writing. “Too often the instruction to ‘omit needless words’ (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull,” he notes; “minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem.” Writers who militate against adverbs have given up on the pleasures of writing;

Quote
...in advice like this it’s easy to detect the extent to which a capitalist business ethos has infiltrated writing advice. As Mark Dery explains in an article for the Daily Beast: the golden rule, “omit needless words,” “complements the ‘less is more’ ethos of the Bauhaus school of design, another expression of Machine Age Modernism. Optimized for peak efficiency, Strunk’s is a prose for an age of standardized widgets and standardized workers, when the efficiency gospel of F.W. Taylor, father of ‘scientific management,’ was percolating out of the workplace, into the culture at large.”

Quote
what’s striking about adverbs is the way in which they resist a treatment of language that sees it as a bare conveyance of information. We’re in a data-driven age, and that data drives us to force language into its most easily assimilated form. New apps arrive seemingly every week with the promise of increasing one’s reading rate and comprehension. Sites like Medium render articles in terms of the minutes it will take to consume them and are calculated on a formula that treats every word as having the same temporal value. The presumption here, of course, is that no sentence need be re-read, no allusion need be looked up, no thought need be untangled.

The goal, it would seem, is to render language so transparent that its meaning can be absorbed directly and instantaneously. We want our language the way techies want their Soylent: bland packets of protein and nutrients, without taste or individuality.

Offline CameronJohnston

Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #8 on: November 09, 2018, 09:41:25 AM »
Prologues are tricky beasts. Sometimes I've started a book thinking "this is great" and then it turns out it's a prologue and that character disappears...replaced with somebody far duller doing something I don't care about.   Others are just dull world building. I am not inclined to read on in either case. But sometimes it sets everything up so nicely that the main character comes into a fleshed out world full of stakes, and some work very well in certain genre structures, like in a crime novel where we experience the crime before they begin investigating.

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Offline tebakutis

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Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #9 on: November 09, 2018, 05:39:00 PM »
Prologues are tricky. I can actually speak to my thoughts on them, since I did one book with a prologue (for good reasons) and another book without a prologue (also for good reasons).

Pro-Prologue:
My first fantasy novel, Glyphbinder, has a prologue. It didn't have one until the next to final draft. The prologue takes place 19 years before the main story starts, and was added for what I felt was a good reason.

My book originally began with Kara (my protagonist) finding a wounded man in the woods. She ends up taking him back to her magic academy, meets up with her friends, is attacked a few times (by who?) and then ends up trekking cross country, attempting to save her mother, getting attacked repeatedly by an unknown assailant for unknown reasons. *I* (the author) knew why these dark forces were hunting her, but Kara and her friends did not. In fact, not knowing was necessary for events to play out as they did, and Kara only found out the reason these jerks were after her about 2/3s into the book.

One of the most common comments I got from advance readers is that they liked the book, but didn't understand the stakes. Why is this person after Kara? Why do we care? It frustrated people that the reasons behind the attacker's actions weren't clear until so late. After trying to fit this explanation in during the narrative in multiple clunky ways that didn't work, I finally hit upon the perfect solution- the prologue!

As I said, my book's prologue takes place 19 years before the book starts (though it is labeled "Chapter 1" so as not to automatically turn off readers who knee jerk hate prologues). In that prologue, we learn that Kara's blood is uniquely powerful (my world using blood magic) and that she is the key to opening the gate to a demon realm. As a result, the Mavoureen (powerful demons) will hunt her relentlessly unless she is hidden, which is what happens in that first chapter - we learn that Kara has powerful blood, that demons will hunt her, and that her grandparents hid her from them in an attempt to throw the demons off the scent - but 19 years later, they find her.

Now, when Chapter 2 starts (the original start of the book) everything proceeds as it should. Kara still has no effing idea why these dark forces are after her, but THE READER does. In that case, I found adding the prologue was the best way to impart critical information that helped readers understand the book's stakes while still keeping the mystery (for Kara and her friends) intact. It didn't actually hurt the book to reveal that critical bit of stakes - it help readers understand it and become further invested, because THEY knew the stakes before Kara did, and weren't frustrated as a result.

No-Prologue:
Curiously, my first scifi novel, Supremacy's Shadow, originally had a prologue. I removed it. Like Glyphbinder, my prologue was set long before the start of the book (13 years) and sets up some book critical information - first, why Hayden (my protagonist) joined the Supremacy, and second, it sets up an assassination he carried out that informs the first third of the book. It was in the book until the second to last draft, but after much debate and going back and forth with advance readers, I removed it. Why?

As it turned out, the information in the prologue was critical to understanding Hayden's story - but it wasn't critical you know it YET. In fact, the book takes a bit to get to where the info meant anything, and I had issues where advance readers had already forgotten about the character I introduced in that 13 years ago scene by the time he came up again. In addition, my "present" opening was already very strong (my prologue was strong too, for different reasons) but having the time skip of 13 years with no explanation just didn't make sense to readers. Once I realized I could get that information in, but later, I ended up shifting the entire prologue into a dream Hayden has (a memory, really) after he's been beaten within an inch of his life, at a point in the book DIRECTLY BEFORE the information becomes important.

So, I still got to use the awesome former prologue and still imparted the information I needed to impart, but did so without a time skip, right when it was needed, and right when I could immediately pay it off. The book works MUCH better without the former prologue followed by a 13 year time skip.


So to sum up, it seems to me that prologues are perfectly valid book devices (IMO, Glyphbinder wouldn't work nearly as well without one) providing the reasons for adding them are solid - prologues should provide critical information about the story without which readers will either be frustrated by the book, or enjoy it less. If a prologue adds nothing and is completely disconnected from anything in the book until very late, it probably doesn't need to be there, and that same info can be imparted in a different manner closer to when it's important to the reader.
« Last Edit: November 09, 2018, 05:41:58 PM by tebakutis »

Offline J.R. Darewood

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Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #10 on: November 09, 2018, 11:15:08 PM »

I really think it's wrong to say "prologues are tricky" because it leads people to prejudge prologues. It's like saying "prepositions are tricky" and suddenly people who don't know any better have a preposition phobia.

Prologues just are. Writing is tricky.

If the word "and" fits in your sentence.  Use it.  If the prologue has a function for your structure, then use it. If it doesn't, don't.  There's nothing tricky about that.  There's no reason to admonish the use of prologues or the word "and".  If you put "and" in a sentence incorrectly, it's got nothing to do with the value of the word "and" or "and" somehow being "tricky"

Do you have clumsy exposition in your prologue? That happens a lot. But those same writers go on to infodump in the next chapters too. Is there an issue with continuity and momentum between your prologue and chapter 1?  Then work out the actual problem-- Don't blame the prologue!!! Blaming the prologue is just... structural discrimination. Prologues aren't tricky, exposition is tricky.  Deciding whether single-minded readers that need a single protagonists should be abandoned or courted in your multi-protagonist work is tricky.  Connecting disparate plot threads is tricky.  Prologues are not tricky.

Offline Not Lu

Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #11 on: November 10, 2018, 05:17:58 PM »

I really think it's wrong to say "prologues are tricky" because it leads people to prejudge prologues. It's like saying "prepositions are tricky" and suddenly people who don't know any better have a preposition phobia.

Prologues just are. Writing is tricky.

If the word "and" fits in your sentence.  Use it.  If the prologue has a function for your structure, then use it. If it doesn't, don't.  There's nothing tricky about that.  There's no reason to admonish the use of prologues or the word "and".  If you put "and" in a sentence incorrectly, it's got nothing to do with the value of the word "and" or "and" somehow being "tricky"

Do you have clumsy exposition in your prologue? That happens a lot. But those same writers go on to infodump in the next chapters too. Is there an issue with continuity and momentum between your prologue and chapter 1?  Then work out the actual problem-- Don't blame the prologue!!! Blaming the prologue is just... structural discrimination. Prologues aren't tricky, exposition is tricky.  Deciding whether single-minded readers that need a single protagonists should be abandoned or courted in your multi-protagonist work is tricky.  Connecting disparate plot threads is tricky.  Prologues are not tricky.

Yes. Structural discrimination, I say! Let's start a movement to stop the discrimination and hateful rhetoric against prologues. #ProtectThePrologue

Seriously though, JR's point about who you're trying to court should be what guides your decisions. You can't please everyone. A reader who doesn't like prologues probably doesn't like multiple points of view or scenes from vastly different regions on the map either. So, do you cut all of your povs? Do you keep the action to one place on the map? No. What you do is write the story with whatever it needs to satisfy your target reader.



Offline cupiscent

Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #12 on: November 10, 2018, 11:32:52 PM »
Seriously though, JR's point about who you're trying to court should be what guides your decisions. You can't please everyone. A reader who doesn't like prologues probably doesn't like multiple points of view or scenes from vastly different regions on the map either. So, do you cut all of your povs? Do you keep the action to one place on the map? No. What you do is write the story with whatever it needs to satisfy your target reader.

On the one hand: yes. Do your thing, do it for other people who like your thing. (Just be aware of the challenges you're setting up for yourself. That advice goes for many things, not just prologues.)

On the other hand: this is not true. Know what your challenges actually are, and don't conflate things that don't necessarily go together. What I don't like about prologues is that they are typically divorced in time/tone/character significantly from the rest of the story - that's the whole point with separating it out into a prologue and not just calling it chapter 1. I love multiple points of view and stories spread across geography (though I can be ambivalent about stories spread across time; I like the threads to have cross-significance, and that's a tricky thing to manage across time without time-travel). I just don't want to get invested in one thing only to have to switch to something completely different. (And I, personally, really dislike that "traditional" fantasy prologue that shows the threat or enemy of the overarching story, before the story starts in the hero's pastoral beginnings. It usually involves starting with the nastiest / least fun stuff, and I bounce off hard; if I do make it through, I often get bored in the actual start, because there's no drive or threat.)

Offline Jake Baelish

Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #13 on: November 11, 2018, 11:14:11 AM »

This is an interesting article which tracks the history of adverb-hate. It's really brilliant. ( @cupiscent  I think you'd like this article. But I wish I could make the entire planet read this article I love it so much)

https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/06/abolish-the-adverb-you-seriously-must-be-joking.html

Some gems include:

Quote
Adverbs, then, curtail and refine—but in doing so they can pick out the unexpected resonances, the hidden valences in the words they modify.

Quote
Deployed skillfully, the adverb backstabs lovingly, subverts daintily, insurrects gallantly.... To demand of writing like this that it lose its “clutter” is to completely miss the richness offered in such a careful layering of meaning.

Quote
For one, haranguing against the adverb is a cheap, easy piece of advice, one that offers a mechanical solution to the abstract question of good writing. Adverb hatred attacks a symptom, rather than a cause. Creative writing teachers tell beginning writers to avoid adverbs because, on some level, bad imitations of Hemingway are easier to slog through than bad imitations of Proust.

Quote
A few years ago, Adam Haslett lamented that bans on parts of speech lead inevitably not to better writing, but to a uniformity in bad writing. “Too often the instruction to ‘omit needless words’ (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull,” he notes; “minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem.” Writers who militate against adverbs have given up on the pleasures of writing;

Quote
...in advice like this it’s easy to detect the extent to which a capitalist business ethos has infiltrated writing advice. As Mark Dery explains in an article for the Daily Beast: the golden rule, “omit needless words,” “complements the ‘less is more’ ethos of the Bauhaus school of design, another expression of Machine Age Modernism. Optimized for peak efficiency, Strunk’s is a prose for an age of standardized widgets and standardized workers, when the efficiency gospel of F.W. Taylor, father of ‘scientific management,’ was percolating out of the workplace, into the culture at large.”

Quote
what’s striking about adverbs is the way in which they resist a treatment of language that sees it as a bare conveyance of information. We’re in a data-driven age, and that data drives us to force language into its most easily assimilated form. New apps arrive seemingly every week with the promise of increasing one’s reading rate and comprehension. Sites like Medium render articles in terms of the minutes it will take to consume them and are calculated on a formula that treats every word as having the same temporal value. The presumption here, of course, is that no sentence need be re-read, no allusion need be looked up, no thought need be untangled.

The goal, it would seem, is to render language so transparent that its meaning can be absorbed directly and instantaneously. We want our language the way techies want their Soylent: bland packets of protein and nutrients, without taste or individuality.

I get the adverb love.

One of my favourite authors of the Gothic era is Poe, and his writing is littered with them to the point of poetry. I love it. And I agree with the article that, done well, they can add huge amounts of character and suspense.

The whole cliched advice of adverbs destroying writing is a heavy-handed bash at those who use them way too often and for all the wrong reasons. I kid you not, I bought a couple of self-published books from an author I found on Youtube and his books were littered with phrases like "he quickly ran" and "a seriously menacing look." The author seemed to love adding adverbs at the end of nearly every spoken thing from his characters too.

No adverbs is better than doing the above  :o

But yeah, done well, they are a wonderful thing  :)
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Offline JMack

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Re: I'm irritated. Prologues, adverbs and other literary black sheep
« Reply #14 on: November 11, 2018, 12:35:45 PM »
I’d missed JR’s post, and enjoyed the re-post very much.

I was listening recently to a “Great Courses” course on writing, and came across the term “under-dramatized” to describe many beginning writers’ work. I’d love to recall and quote the lecturer’s examples, but I don’t remember them well enough. But it got me thinking about all my monthly contest stories here and the 1,500 word limit. Unlike many here, I’ve rarely written anything longer than the 1,500 words over the last 4 (!) years I’ve been here. To fit in the limit, I’ve cut adverbs ruthlessly and Stunk&Whited my prose religiously. In short, and this isn’t only about adverbs, I’ve under-dramatized my writing.

Like any other muscle, I think I’ll only strengthen this through exercising assiduously.
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