Month: March 2018

Pacing, Part 15: Prologues (with Agatha Christie)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Do you need a prologue?  Are you allowed to have one?

Beginning writers are often advised to avoid prologues.  In fact, they’re often advised to avoid a lot of things that annoy editors and agents when handled badly.

But if you’re studying pacing…you’re probably no longer a beginner.  You can throw that advice out.  More on that later.

So can you get away with a prologue or not?

Two issues here:

  • Prologues slow down pacing, a lot more than it might seem at first glance.
  • Prologues require their own internal structure.

A story with a prologue implies that there is going to be a lot more plot than a story without a prologue.  This will be no straightforward story in which the protagonist encounters a problem, comes up with the perfect plan to solve the problem, makes one big push to resolve the problem, and voila! Problem solved.

If there is a prologue, this implies that there are at least two plots–the plot the main character thinks they’re addressing, and something else (a murder, a crime, a twist).

The Cask of Amontillado can’t have a prologue.  The structure of the story is just too simple to support it.

Pride and Prejudice doesn’t need a prologue.  The story starts with the rich dude moving into the neighborhood.  No further past details need to be explained in order for the reader to be entertained.  And no other plot is needed, either.


IT was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed. The women and children were being lined up awaiting their turn. Some still clung desperately to husbands and fathers; others clutched their children closely to their breasts. One girl stood alone, slightly apart from the rest. She was quite young, not more than eighteen. She did not seem afraid, and her grave, steadfast eyes looked straight ahead.

“I beg your pardon.”

A man’s voice beside her made her start and turn. She had noticed the speaker more than once amongst the first-class passengers. There had been a hint of mystery about him which had appealed to her imagination. He spoke to no one. If anyone spoke to him he was quick to rebuff the overture. Also he had a nervous way of looking over his shoulder with a swift, suspicious glance.

She noticed now that he was greatly agitated. There were beads of perspiration on his brow. He was evidently in a state of overmastering fear. And yet he did not strike her as the kind of man who would be afraid to meet death!

“Yes?” Her grave eyes met his inquiringly.

He stood looking at her with a kind of desperate irresolution.

“It must be!” he muttered to himself. “Yes—it is the only way.” Then aloud he said abruptly: “You are an American?”


“A patriotic one?”

The girl flushed.

“I guess you’ve no right to ask such a thing! Of course I am!”

“Don’t be offended. You wouldn’t be if you knew how much there was at stake. But I’ve got to trust some one—and it must be a woman.”


“Because of ‘women and children first.’” He looked round and lowered his voice. “I’m carrying papers—vitally important papers. They may make all the difference to the Allies in the war. You understand? These papers have got to be saved! They’ve more chance with you than with me. Will you take them?”

The girl held out her hand.

“Wait—I must warn you. There may be a risk—if I’ve been followed. I don’t think I have, but one never knows. If so, there will be danger. Have you the nerve to go through with it?”

The girl smiled.

“I’ll go through with it all right. And I’m real proud to be chosen! What am I to do with them afterwards?”

“Watch the newspapers! I’ll advertise in the personal column of the Times, beginning ‘Shipmate.’ At the end of three days if there’s nothing—well, you’ll know I’m down and out. Then take the packet to the American Embassy, and deliver it into the Ambassador’s own hands. Is that clear?”

“Quite clear.”

“Then be ready—I’m going to say good-bye.” He took her hand in his. “Good-bye. Good luck to you,” he said in a louder tone.

Her hand closed on the oilskin packet that had lain in his palm.

The Lusitania settled with a more decided list to starboard. In answer to a quick command, the girl went forward to take her place in the boat.

This is the prologue to Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary.  Chapter 1 starts with two completely different characters, in a different time frame, with a completely different tone.

“Aha,” we say, “eventually the events in the prologue will become relevant.”  There is an open browser tab of the mind, as it were, that is continuously watching for the main plot to catch up to the prologue.

The prologue has a beginning, a demonstration that emphasizes the beginning (as in “The Cask of Amontillado”), a climax, and an ending/wrapup that points its way out of the prologue and toward the main body of the book.  It makes us care enough to keep reading…but not enough to throw the book against the wall, in knowing that one of the characters, at least, is about to die.

If your prologue exists mere to tell the reader that the bad guys are going to do something nasty, well, you’ve wasted the reader’s time.  That’s what bad guys do.  You have to imply something unexpected will happen, and it must happen.  It’s kind of like a prophecy in a high fantasy novel.  It has to happen, it can’t be something that you already expected to happen, and it has to happen in a way you didn’t expect (but still in line with expectations).

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Pacing, Part 14: Beginnings (with Oscar Wilde)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Beginnings don’t have to start with summary; they can start with demonstration.  The demonstration should involve the setting more than it does anything else.  You might pull off extremely minor actions or dialogue, but try just using setting first.  It’s easier.

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.

This is the opening of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It’s rich with detail, but doesn’t have as much of an attitude as Pride & Prejudice.  This isn’t a book about gently laughing at one’s neighbors and one’s self, but a book about image versus reality, and the contusions that living a false image can force upon oneself.

Note the longer sentences, longer paragraphs, more complex sentence structure, and the veneer of polysyllabic words.

This is going to be an involved kind of story with a lot of atmosphere, ripe with self-destruction.  Just look at the words:

  • smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes
  • hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs
  • sullen murmur of bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass
  • circling with monotonous insistence
  • the stillness more oppressive

One of the tricks of pacing is that you can, by matching up form and content, foreshadow the events to come.  If you lay down the same pattern in the beginning that you do in the end, the reader will get a hint of the structure to come–even if you use elements with a different content.  The ostensible content of this beginning is about a garden, but the pacing shows a pattern of decay and oppression.

The content and form at the end are openly about decay and oppression, and the reader feels like it “must” be that way, because they have been observing the same pattern throughout the work.

Not every work uses foreshadowing, but a lot of masterpieces do.  Go back to the Pride and Prejudice example.  In the end, the main character gets married to a wealthy single man.  The pattern of the ending is set up in the beginning, in an even more obvious fashion than it is here.

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Pacing, Part 13: Beginnings (with Jane Austen)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

In the beginning of every story is a beginning.

This seems obvious, but it’s one of the hallmarks of an early writer to leave it off entirely and to start in what the writer thinks is in media res, or “in the middle.”

Without a proper beginning, the reader doesn’t have a chance to care about the story.  It’s still possible that they’ll enjoy and read the story–but only if the cover and plot description promise exactly what they want, or because they owe the writer a favor that makes them read past the beginning.

A beginning gives the reader whatever information they need in order to care about the story.

The most usual type of beginning involves a character in a setting with a situation they must deal with.  These three elements must be either summarized in an interesting fashion, or demonstrated in an interesting fashion.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

This is the opening of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.  It begins with a short summary, well pervaded with snark.

Change the attitude even slightly, and the opening becomes that of a completely different book:

Everyone knows that rich single men are prey.  Too bad for them.  Every rich man has a woman’s name all over him, but hidden, as if it were under the silver scratch-off paint on a lottery ticket.

Please note the way the change in attitude (similar but not identical) is reflected in the change in pacing, on the paragraph, sentence, and word levels.

More on how to demonstrate, rather than summarize, in a bit.

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