pic by Celeste
It’s funny what you remember from primary school. One of my teachers opened a book to its colophon and solemnly declared to a room of 8-year-olds that ‘Every page in a book is designed to be read. If you weren’t meant to read it, the author would not have gone to all the trouble of writing it.”
Even at the time, I doubted this piece of advice was helpful. In the pre-internet days of 1986 this may have been advice to live by, but times have changed.
Last week I wrote that, when reading novels, I’m a plodder, not a skipper. I’m not like that with the internet.
My reading habits have evolved since I got connected. On screen, I skim and scan. I scroll down, linger on emboldened words, read only until the instant my attention waivers because THERE’S ALWAYS A MORE INTERESTING WEBSITE and it’s only a mouse-click away!
This was a necessary adaptation. If I didn’t approach webpages like this, I’d never find what I was looking for.
But when I apply an internet mindset to novel reading – and the skim-scan habit dies hard* – I take longer to settle into a story. I’m more impatient now than when I was 8 years old, reading my Famous Fives cover to cover, over and over again. (Why didn’t someone tell me there was more to children’s literature than Enid Blyton?)
I have grown into an impatient reader. I know. I’ll happily lay a book aside, knowing there’s probably a better one next on the reading pile. I’m not proud of it. Thing is, I don’t think I’m alone.
Confessions Of An Impatient Reader
- I have little time for great chunks of back story. Even when the back story is interesting – even when I’m reading a novel which is all back story, I am more at home when an author creates the illusion that I’m right there, watching events unfold as they happen. For me, back story must be interwoven into The Main Story (or whatever I have perceived that to be), and I have to be sort of wondering about a character before I’m even interested in knowing where they grew up. (And even then, I hope to be told as little as possible.)
- Anything that happens before Chapter One is a nuisance. My eyes travel more quickly over the page of a prologue, keen to get on with The Main Story. I’ll still read a prologue, because, as mentioned, I had teachers who told me at an impressionable age that Skipping is a Sin. But the prologue had better be an easy read. (Easier than The Main Story) and it had better be short. One author who does prologues well is Michael Crichton. He is a fascinating science writer, and I could read a whole book of Crichton prologues. I have less patience for prologues which serve up back story, which tell me about some mysterious unnamed character lurking behind a bush, and for prologues which set a scene, waxing lyrical about a sunset. Or something. In one ear, out the other.
- I don’t absorb quotations. I suspect writers look for appropriate quotations as a form of procrastination, when they’ve run out of juice, or as a warm up to the real writing work. (Guilty.) But quotations tend to have far more significance to the author than to their readers, especially because the readers have not yet been initiated into the significance of quotations until after the novel has been read and its themes processed. Quotations would be better posted at the ends of their novels, not at the beginnings. Unfortunately, that’s not the convention. Instead, it’s a lifetime of missing-the-quotey-point for moi.
Here’s what Elmore Leonard has to say about writing prologues:
Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”
And advice from Hilary Mantel:
Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
A guide from Nancy Kress, from her book Beginnings, Middles and Ends (p28-29):
The advantage of a prologue … is twofold. It can avoid what might otherwise be a jolting transition between two scenes widely separated in time or space; the reader more or less expects the story to start over again after a prologue. And if it is interesting enough, a prologue can whet the appetite for the main story… However, prologues also have disadvantages, the main one being that you must write two opening scenes, since the story actually starts twice. And even when each opening contains all the elements we’ve discussed, polished to a high gloss, a prologue doubles the reader’s opportunity to decide she’s not interested and put down your book. … Consider carefully whether you really gain more than you risk. If so, spend the same time and effort on both prologue and scene one that you’d give either if it stood alone.
From The Book Show – interview with John Mullan
Ramona Koval: John, let’s talk about the prologue. Sometimes you say that the novelist wants to tell us something about what we’re going to find in the rest of the book and that ‘the sacrifice of uncertainty purchases a sense of fatality.’ How does that operate?
John Mullan: Oh God, did I write that?
Ramona Koval: You wrote that. I like that one.
John Mullan: Right, okay. It sounds slightly pompous to me. Well, yes, one thing that novelists often do is let you know in advance about things which are going to happen. There are various ways of doing that, but one way is by having a prologue, a prologue which sometimes presents you with action which actually happens after the novel that you’re about to read is ended, if that makes sense.
There’s a very good example; a best-selling book in Britain and America, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History which has a first-person narrator which is one of the characters in the book. The narrator actually takes part in a murder, in effect, although he (and it’s a male narrator even though it’s a female author) doesn’t actually do it himself, and right at the beginning of the novel Donna Tartt gives you a prologue in the narrator’s voice in which you’re told in advance that there is going to be this killing.
You’re not told everything about it or exactly how it’s going to happen but you know that this terrible thing is going to happen. And then the prologue ends and then the novel starts and it’s all about these terribly intense student friendships on this campus university in America, but it’s shadowed all the time by this fatality, this sense that these friendships, which are very peculiar and full of rivalry as well as intimate, are going to turn very nasty. Donna Tartt very cleverly and manipulatively uses that and the prologue does the job of telling you in advance about the bad things that are going to happen.
* All is not lost. A week without internet allows me to slow back down. There is definitely a case to be made for a regular Internet Detox.