Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Prologue: The Cage's Mentor:

Where to begin? That has to be one of the hardest choices a novelist faces. What makes the choice hard isn't a lack of possible starting points, but a surfeit of them. Hence the beauty of the prologue: it lets us have two beginnings instead of just one. Prologues may let us dip into our stories before they start, giving readers a kind of prequel to what follows. Or they can dip into some dramatic moment in the future—the heroine being escorted to the gallows—with the tale we read starting in Chapter 1 telling us how she got there.

The prologue above presents us with the spectacle of gladiatorial combat or something like it: a sport wherein people (in this case women) entertain audiences through deadly, hand-to-hand combat. Historically, gladiatorial games took place during the Roman Empire. Many gladiators were soldier-prisoners who volunteered for gladiatorial combat training as a way to regain the honor lost through their having surrendered or been captured. It's a colorful if gruesome sidebar in history, one exploited many times by novelists and filmmakers and therefor rife with cliché.

Whether the author of the given prologue is treating Roman or some other form of gladiatorial combat isn't clear. No dates or place names are given; the one specific concrete detail provided in the prologue is the professional combatant's name: Celestial Monte—an odd choice, Monte being short for either Montague (French in origin; not commonly used until the 19th century) or Montgomery, which dates back to the Gauls (N.B. the Romans began overtaking Celtic Gaul in 121 B.C.); while "Celestial," on the other hand, is strictly New Age, the name of a Tom Robbins character, or an herbal tea infusion.

Perhaps the prologue is set in some distant future in which gladiatorial combat has been revived; for all we know it may be set on another planet, in another universe (as suggested by the main character's cosmic name). In any case, this material demands much suspension of disbelief on the part of readers, meaning great confidence in the author—a confidence unfortunately not earned here.

One reason: the author's clumsy handling of grammar and syntax ("It was only then, at her last battle, did I never clap again"), due either to carelessness or to the fact that English may not be the author's first language—in which case I have to admire his or her bravery and audaciousness. Editors, publishers, and agents are likely to take a much dimmer view.

Apart from being grammatically challenged, however, there are problems with this prologue. For one thing it fails to do what prologues do best: claim the reader's attention by way of a dramatic scene that provides a context for the main story to follow.

Though the raw materials are dramatic and even sensational, what's on the page here isn't dramatic. A fiction writer's main job is to create experience; here, no experience is directly offered. Instead of "seeing" Celestia Monte in action (through the eyes of the narrator, an eyewitness), we are told things about her. "She was the strongest, most vigilant fighter." So says the narrator, who piles on more adjectives ("she was strong", "she showed no mercy" "she was neither tired nor injured"). But adjectives are opinions, not facts; and we treat them as we treat all opinions, with at least a measure of skepticism. The great advantage of showing versus telling is that it lets readers form their own opinions based on concrete evidence. Here, rather than reaping the benefits of the narrator's eyes, ears, and other sensory perceptions, we get only his editorial verdicts.

Since nothing is shown and everything is told, nothing is convincing. And considering the sensational nature of the material, unless the author manages to suspend disbelief through convincing detail, the slightest skepticism on the reader's part will likely result in his closing the book, or worse, flinging it across the room.

There is a place for exposition—for "telling" rather than "showing." There are times when our narrators need to summarize events, and even editorialize on them. But the time to do those things probably isn't in the midst of a spectacle. And certainly in a story about gladiators (or the equivalent) readers can't be blamed for wanting spectacle.

In the sample given the crowd grows aggravated; they want blood. I suspect that readers of this prologue will be similarly frustrated. And the blood they demand may be that of the author who has failed to provide the visceral spectacle promised by his subject matter.

No comments:

Post a Comment