“She felt very strange. She felt almost like forgiving her father, or kissing Jack, or learning to dance with the long-haired girls. In Boston she would never dance around a bonfire, but here on a Midsummer’s night in Blakenstone, a wild spirit roused within her. Perhaps the old woman’s words still had their dark, enchanting effect on her, or perhaps her long cry had induced a sort of fatigued, delirious state in her. But she thought it was the fire, the island, and her mother calling her to dance, to spin, and to feel warm in the firelight. Somehow she was holding Jack’s hand as they raced around the bonfire, twirling sparklers behind them, and Lena felt that maybe magic was real. Jack had a sister who riverdanced. Reid had apologized to her. Lena was dancing. In this rural, archaic festival of fire, the eyes around the wild dancers seemed to belong not to local parents and grandparents but to ancestors and gods. Boston was far away. Here on a Midsummer’s night in Blakenstone, the edges of the Otherworld seemed to brush against Lena’s cheek, to hold her hand.”
Nothing get writers more heated than the controversial topic of prologues. Many writers and editors are advocates for beginning in medias res, leaving worldbuilding and backstory to later chapters. There are merits to this argument, but it’s also true that a well-crafted prologue can also add to a story. Before we get into the pros and cons of prologues, let’s take a look at their purpose.
The Prologue’s Purpose
A prologue has two key purposes:
To provide background information on the story. This can be information about a character’s motivation (like their friend’s death or a past relationship), or information about the external conflict in general (like the rise of an evil queen or the first human contact with aliens).
To hook the reader. The first page of every book, whether it be a prologue or Chapter 1, should grab the reader’s attention, making them turn to the second page.
Pros of Prologues
Like every writing controversy, there’s no right or wrong answer. While some writers strictly forbid the prologue, believing it slows down the story, JK Rowling got away with a flashback first chapter and made a lot of money in the process. So here’s the good side of writing a prologue:
Prologues establish the story world early. By providing background information in the prologue, you make room for more action and less exposition in the initial chapters of your story.
Prologues introduce the major conflict early. It’s always good to hint at your major antagonist and the overall plot arc as soon as possible. An early introduction to the bigger conflict keeps the reader turning pages to see how the plot unfolds.
Cons of Prologues
So why do some writers and editors so vehemently oppose prologues? Well, they have their cons:
Prologues result in unnecessary infodumping. When establishing the story world, writers usually get carried away and overwhelm readers with unnecessary information. Sometimes the entire prologue is unnecessary scene-setting.
Prologues slow down and delay the conflict. Like I said earlier, the first few pages of any story should have some sort of action and conflict. A worldbuilding prologue might slow down the conflict, boring the reader into closing the book.
Tips for Writing Prologues
I believe it’s possible to write a successful prologue, but it’s equally possible to write a terrible one. Here are some tips to keep you on track as you write a prologue:
Be sure the prologue is necessary. If the information presented in the prologue can be weaved into the story elsewhere, and the action that takes place in the prologue can fit in Chapter 1, you don’t need a prologue.
Don’t use a prologue for infodumping. Prologues provide background information, but they shouldn’t be strictly devoted to worldbuilding. You might find your story world incredibly interesting, but readers are more interested in action. Click here to learn how to worldbuild without infodumping.
Keep it short. As an introduction to the rest of the story, the prologue shouldn’t be too long. It should be shorter than the first chapter, something a reader can skim through in a few minutes and still have the energy to continue to Chapter 1.
Raise more questions than answers. Don’t reveal all the necessary background information yet. Instead, present a critical scene without revealing why exactly it’s happening. A reader with questions will continue reading, while a reader who’s just suffered through a lengthy explanation will feel they’ve just watched an infomercial and need to turn the TV off.
Examples of Prologues
Dramas sometimes employ the prologue in the form of a chorus to introduce the story.
“Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life…” –Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Shakespeare uses a chorus prologue in his plays to introduce the main themes and setting of the story. Here, he tells the audience about the “ancient grudge” between two houses, as well as introducing the iconic phrase “star-crossed lovers.” However, his prologue doesn’t delve into the source of the grudge, and he keeps the chorus short, preferring to dive into Act One quickly.
“Parties to that settlement, including the distinguished scientific board of advisers, signed a nondisclosure agreement, and none will speak about what happened-but many of the principal figures in the “InGen incident” are not signatories, and were willing to discuss the remarkable events leading up to those final two days in August 1989 on a remote island off the west coast of Costa Rica.” –Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
Chrichton uses his prologue to establish the almost-formal, scientific tone of his novel. He also foreshadows the major conflict without answering all the readers’ questions about it; by saying only “the InGen incident” and “the remarkable events,” he allows readers to wonder about what events took place in August 1989.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” –Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, JK Rowling
While technically the first chapter of the book, “The Boy Who Lived” can be considered a prologue because it takes place years before the second chapter. Rowling uses her psuedo-prologue to introduce characters such as the Dursleys, Dumbledore, and McGonagall, as well as the overall conflict that has been apparently solved by the Boy Who Lived. However, by introducing magic without explanation and a mysterious scarred baby without much context, Rowling avoids infodumping, instead hooking the readers, making her audience want to discover more about this mysterious baby.
How do you feel about prologues? Have you ever written one? Share your opinion in the comments!
Whether your story takes place in a fantasy kingdom or the suburbs, every story needs three settings to correspond with plot points. Related to the Three Act Structure, these settings serve to balance character and plot, giving readers the familiar three-part story at the same time. Read on to learn about the three settings every story needs, including examples from popular stories.
1. The Ordinary World
A Hero’s home forms their fundamental beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses. Their Ordinary World reveals more about their characterization than any other setting in the story. Related to Act One of the Three Act Structure, the Ordinary World serves as an exposition, or backstory, for the rest of the Hero’s Journey. Characters and conflicts are introduced here, but the story doesn’t stay here. Soon, the Hero is called to cross the threshold, and the majority of the story takes place in the second setting. However, most stories end where they began: in the Ordinary World. Returning home ends the Hero’s Journey.
For example, in Harry Potter, Harry’s Ordinary World is his home with the Dursleys. In the first few chapters, readers learn that his aunt and uncle keep him in a closet under the stairs; we also learn more about Harry’s character. And after every adventurous year at Hogwarts, Harry returns to Privet Drive to complete his Hero’s Journey.
Another example of the Ordinary World occurs in The Lord of the Rings. Frodo lives in a hole in the ground, and he’s not eager to leave, even when Gandalf calls him to adventure. Unlike Harry’s Ordinary World, the Shire, the hobbit’s world, represents everything good, safe, and pure about Middle Earth. This makes Frodo’s decision to leave it all the more dangerous.
2. The Special World
Now that the Hero has left their comfortable home, they must cross the threshold and enter the Special World of Adventure (click here to read about Threshold Guardians). Most of the story takes place in the Special World as the Hero encounters trials throughout Act Two. The Special World is a place of conflict and danger, as well as character growth. With every new trial and enemy encounters, the protagonist is forced to adapt, slowly preparing for the eventual battle with the major antagonist. The Special World may have similarities to the Ordinary World, but this new setting is a darker reflection of the old; there’s more danger, more adventure, and more fear.
Hogwarts is the Special World in Harry Potter. Harry views Hogwarts as his true home, feeling safer there than in his Ordinary World with the Dursleys; however, Hogwarts also presents unprecedented danger for Harry. For Harry, Hogwarts is the gateway to the wizarding world, which includes Voldemort and other Dark wizards. The majority of the series takes place in this Special World.
In The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkein cleverly crafts darker and scarier settings the farther Frodo moves away from the Shire. The Special World consists of the rest of Middle Earth that Frodo has to cross to reach Mordor. Tolkein is, of course, the ultimate worldbuilder, famous for taking the time to invent languages for his fictional races, and his Special World is just as developed, with multiple battlefields and settings corresponding to several plot points across the trilogy.
3. The Arena
A part of the Special World, the Arena is the setting of the climax, corresponding to Act Three. The Arena is usually unfamiliar to the Hero until the final battle, and it’s the darkest, scariest setting yet. The Hero might have to cross another threshold, encountering another Guardian, the reach the Arena. Enemies lurk in the shadows, and the Hero must do battle to reach the center of the Arena, where the major antagonist waits for them. Finally, they have their final battle with the antagonist. Creating a separate setting to house your climax raises the stakes for the Hero, as they must quickly adapt to the rules and characteristics of this setting. Sometimes, the Arena corresponds to the Shadow’s Ordinary World, revealing more information about the enemy’s characterization.
Some examples of Arenas from the Harry Potter series are the underground chambers where Harry encounters Quirrell as Voldemort (The Sorcerer’s Stone), the graveyard where Cedric is killed (The Goblet of Fire), and the Department of Mysteries where the battle for the prophecy occurs (The Order of the Phoenix). Each of these settings has a few things in common: they’re dark (literally, the environment itself is dim and dark), they’re completely new to Harry, and they can only be reached if the Hero undergoes a series of trials first. From giant chess to the Triwizard Tournament, Harry must survive multiple dangerous trials to reach the final arena and face the major antagonist.
In The Lord of the Rings, Mordor serves as the Arena. To reach it, Frodo must first cross the Dead Marshes, defeat a giant spider, and climb (or be carried by Samwise) up the mountain. Once in the heart of the fiery mountain, he faces the ultimate challenge of defeating Sauron and destroying the ring. The exact opposite of the Shire, this Arena is characterized by darkness and fire, rather than sunshine and green growth. Tolkein was never subtle about the whole good versus evil, darkness versus light thing.
Many successful books share the same foundation: ancient mythology. In Harry Potter, JK Rowling bases fantastic beasts on Greek mythological monsters; Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles retells the Trojan War in a unique, original tale. Rick Riordan has profited from young readers’ love of mythology in no less that 5 book series based on Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian mythology. So how can you follow their example and incorporate mythology into your story?
Whether your fantasy story is based on Greek mythology or merely includes a religion of your own design, every fantasy has some elements of the golden age of heroes. When worldbuilding, it’s important to remember the religious aspect of the story world. Much of mythology is universal; there are similarities across myths that span centuries and regions. By becoming familiar with mythological archetypes, you’ll be able to effectively include these familiar figures in your own story. So without further introduction:
The Sky King
Wreathed in clouds, armed with lightning, the King of the Gods is associated with strength, power, and divine justice. Usually married to a less popular queen, the Father God enjoys the company of many (sometimes unwilling) consorts, fathering a large, usually incestuous family. This god can be found in the heavens, sometimes doubling as a Sun God.
The Earth Mother
Wife of the King, the Earth Mother is the maternal figure in the pantheon of gods. Sometimes she’s depicted as silly and jealous (Hera) while others she is the all-powerful Mother Earth (Gaia). She’s associated with fertility, motherhood, and marriage.
The Sea God
Seafaring was an important part of many ancient civilizations, and they all typically prayed to some Sea God for a safe journey. A Sea God is characterized as moody and stormy, capable of sinking ships at a moment’s notice. Today sailors remain superstitious about Sea Gods.
Manannan mac Lir
The Warrior Prince
Usually the star in myths, this young god or hero is the favorite child of the Sky King, as well as a favorite to the ancients. He’s a mighty, good-looking hero, usually carrying a signature weapon. He can be found adventuring with mortals, inciting wars and charming women.
The First Man
The first to emerge out of the chaos of the universe, this Cosmic Man of Jungian theory begins the human race. While not always hailed as a god, the First Man is significant in myths because he represents the first order in a universe of disorder. The First Man archetype can also come in the form of the first couple (Adam and Eve) that together create the human race.
Adam and Eve
Ask and Embla
Mythology is riddled with divine twins, usually warriors gifted with complementary powers. Twins represent the duality of nature (night and day, earth and sky), and they’re usually eternally intertwined.
Famous in modern times because of Tom Hiddlestone’s portrayal of Loki, the Trickster God provides the humor in the pantheon. The Trickster tests the limits, always putting one toe over the line, and the adventures that follow serve to teach lessons on restraint and wisdom.
The Resurrection Deity
Killed by forces beyond their control, this god becomes symbolic of earth’s seasons by entering a cycle of death and resurrection. Their death symbolizes the beginning of winter, while spring represents their resurrection.
The God of the Dead
Associated with darkness, death, and all things underground, the God of the Dead isn’t necessarily evil to his worshipers. He may be associated with the harvest or bounty of the earth, or the comforting idea of an afterlife. However, he is generally the dark counterpart to the Sky God, rarely mentioned in myths and worshiped with great reverence.
The Ferryman of the Dead
Less powerful than the God of the Dead, this psychopomp still inspires fear as he represents the last face you’ll see before entering the afterlife. This archetypal figure guides souls to their final resting place, and sometimes they may extract a price from the dead. They may also herald the death of a person, acting as an omen rather than a guide.
The Triple Goddess
The Triple Goddess is found across cultures. Sometimes appearing in the form of stages of life (the maiden, the mother, and the crone), this goddess is ancient and extremely powerful. The Trinity is still a relevant concept in Christianity.
Should I continue Mythology Monday? Let me know by leaving a like! Thanks for reading!
For a description of the WIP this snippet came from, click here.
“You’re telling me you put whiskey in your coffee?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Can you think of a better way to wake somebody up?” He slid the mug across the table to her. “Try it.”
She hesitated. “I’m only seventeen.”
“I’m seventeen, too. It’s just a coffee, for God’s sake.” He shook his head, reaching from the mug again. “Americans,” he muttered under his breath.
Irritated, she pulled the mug away from him and lifted it to her lips. The drink burned her tongue, and she felt the whiskey slide down her throat, warming her from the inside out. It felt like sunshine. It was sweeter and creamier than she’d expected; her tongue felt like it was wrapped in sugary velvet. She licked the foam from her lips and set the mug down. “That was really good,” she said.