Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Chapterettes, Prologues, Introductions, and Other Spare Parts--What Purpose Can They Serve in a Book?

I happen to love small pieces of books:  prologues, introductions, forewords, even epilogues, and epigraphs (those quotes or small things planted before each chapter).  Such add-ons often get derided in writing classes, but they still serve a unique purpose. 

I fought one of my MFA advisers who hated the idea of a prologue in my young-adult novel, and won--it got published to good reviews.  
No one complained about the prologue, which ran two pages at most. 

So why so many warnings and controversies?  What do these small elements contribute to a book and why would a writer be wary of them? 



One editor for a small press gave me a clue.  Bookstore browsers (online too) check out the worth of a book before buying by looking at these items in this order:  front cover; back cover or inside flap (reviews, blurbs, and tag line or synopsis); any table of contents; and first few pages.  Since prologues aren't really the start of the story, they may get short shrift from browsers and the book gets set aside.  Same with introductions or forewords--they clutter the pathway to that all-important opening chapter. 

But I still love them.  And so might you.  So can you risk adding them to your manuscript?

A blog reader who had attended my week-long writing workshop/retreat on Madeline Island last summer wrote me about this conundrum.  She wondered specifically about those opening chapters where "a little nugget is posted, almost like the two-note pick-up before a song starts for real," and its connection to the larger story is not revealed for a long time.

"In my book," she writes, "a 1950s woman marries a man, not knowing how abusive he is."  This character wants to get away from home to escape abuse there, and she figures marriage will be better.
But the real triggering event in this author's book is the now-elderly woman's desire to get a letter to her son and son's father after her death, telling each of them the truth.  She wants to still include a chapterette about what drove the woman to near suicide because of her family background of abuse.  The writer wondered if it was too dramatic, too much.

Not to me.  I think it's a cool way to start up.  It reminds me a bit of the structure of the movie Titanic, where we get a scene of the shipwreck then flash forward to the elderly survivor telling the tale.

In this case, and in the book this author is working on, there are actually two storyboards to consider:  the backstory is dramatic enough in its own right to chart on the W structure (see video here to learn more about this), and the front story, or the one that's happening now.  The challenge is to make sure your backstory isn't the most dramatic.  If you lead with a chapterette on that (or a prologue), create the momentum for the reader to enter the front story with an equally strong inner story.  If the woman is desperate to confess all before she dies, that's pretty compelling.