In drafting my recent post on prologue usages, my husband and I got into a discussion about the different executions of this common element of story-telling. We discovered that he and I have had some very different experiences with the same prologues. As a service to other potential authors, and in light of our surprising disagreements, I asked my husband to take a look at some of the storytelling elements from popular novels and give me some feedback. This will be a new series on my blog that investigates reactions to various story-telling elements from a pure reader’s perspective.
For context, my husband will be my initial subject–he is an epic fantasy fan who was very invested in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series as well as the older Dragonlance novels, and as a result the first few of these will be mostly within his genre. Not everyone will agree with these opinions, but hopefully it will give some visibility into an aspect of what works and what doesn’t for some readers.
This week I’m looking at a comparison between the Rage of Dragons prologue and the Game of Thrones prologue.
Rage of Dragons
My husband’s response to the Rage of Dragons prologue genuinely surprised me. I wasn’t completely pulled in by that prologue, but he hated it–and I mean that he hated it to the point where he was intending to do a read through of the entire book to prep for a compare/contrast on his opinions versus mine on the book as a whole and instead he refused to finish the book. His problems boil down to three specific items that broke his interest and left him confused and frustrated.
- Multiple POVs. This is a point where I agree. If your prologue is long and complex enough to need four different POVs, then you either have a first chapter or a separate short story (depending on how closely tied the content is to the main plot of the book). My opinion was that the Rage of Dragons prologue is a separate short story, which, while a bit confusing, was… well… fine. My husband was just really annoyed.
- Confusing words and/or confusing word usage. This didn’t bother me because I’m pretty accustomed to reading things, not knowing what it means, and waiting to learn later. It infuriated my husband. We had a twenty minute conversation about whether “Ingonyama” is a military rank, a name for people with a specific magic ability, or a name for people who are used in specific magic rituals without having magic themselves. And a similar discussion about “the Chosen”, “the Gifted”, etc. Having read further, I think I know what those words mean…
- Naming schemes. This complaint started with the character names. Everyone (or at least everyone portrayed as important in the prologue) had a name that started with a T, even the guy who probably didn’t pronounce the T in his name. This is just a general frustration with fantasy books. Exotic names are great, names which follow naming schemes are great, but if every name starts with the same letter, you’re likely to have readers struggle to keep names straight. After pointing this out to me, though, my husband flipped to the map. I barely even glanced at the map on my read-through, but there it was. Just a big peninsula with a country-border arc on the land side (turning the entire country into a big oval). Mountains in weird places. Names like “the north”, “the south”, “the center”, “the Curse”, “the Northern Mountain Range”, “the Southern Fortress”, “the Central Mountains”, “the Southern Mountain Range”, “the Fist”, “the Roar”, and “Citadel City”. None of these names are inherently bad, but the combination of all of them really broke world-immersion for my husband. Suddenly, instead of feeling like he was reading a book with an overly complex prologue that left him unsure of a lot of world elements, he felt like the complex prologue was trying to make up for lazy world-building. Now, I don’t think Evan Winter is lazy and I think Rage of Dragons is a good book. But it’s worth keeping in mind that a little extra care makes a huge difference to a lot of readers. The inhabitants of the world likely call those various elements something, and it’s pretty rare for an entire culture to name a mountain range “The Northern Mountain Range.” One such name he could have gotten away with. Eight was pushing it way too far.
Game of Thrones
When we compare the Rage of Dragons prologue to the Game of Thrones prologue, there are some interesting differences. The Game of Thrones prologue is both shorter and, in some ways, slower than the Rage of Dragons prologue, but I’d argue it actually does a lot more work for the book and the series. Here’s a few of the elements that worked particularly well in the Game of Throne prologue.
- The events of Game of Thrones prologue are directly relevant to events of the first chapter of the book and to the larger world as a whole. This doesn’t mean the characters from the Game of Thrones prologue are relevant. By the end of the first chapter all three of them are dead. But the events of the prologue are the reason for the admittedly quite sedate activity in chapter one of the book. The prologue also gives the reader knowledge about a scenario that most of the characters have little to no direct experience with. As a result, when Jon Snow heads north to join the Night’s Watch, we the reader know that there are some dangers he may face that even the other characters in the book don’t believe in. We haven’t been told about those dangers, we’ve seen them. That gives an extra level of weight and importance to Jon’s commitment and adds tension that the book and series would otherwise be lacking. In contrast, the Rage of Dragons prologue may be relevant to the entire series as a whole, but it isn’t relevant to the immediate opening of the book. It doesn’t give context to every decision and discussion the characters have. That’s not a deal-breaker, but it does mean the Game of Thrones prologue has a little bit less work to do in justifying its place in the book than the Rage of Dragon’s prologue.
- Everything in the Game of Thrones prologue is simple, direct, and easy to understand. Three characters are riding through the woods. They are investigating a report of some dead bodies and are actively discussing their theories on that occurrence. There are no secondary plotlines going on in this scene. Nothing for the reader to focus on but the direct information, context, and atmosphere built by the actions and words of these three characters. As a result, it is very unlikely that any reader is going to be confused by the Game of Thrones prologue. They might not be immediately invested in it, but they aren’t going to be wondering what’s going on (at least, not more than the characters themselves are wondering that). This can be a bit of opinion (some people like more complex or more obscure openings), but there’s something to be said for a simple, clear opening that delivers specific information in context without dropping the info-dump bomb on the reader. As well, when we get to the portion of the Game of Thrones prologue which does have combat, the same simple, one-focus style is used. In that context, it suddenly serves to build tension, focus the reader on the specific POV character’s reactions, and keep the events clear and impactful. The larger, ongoing combat the permeates the Rage of Dragons prologue keeps the reader’s attention constantly split. Okay, we’re on a boat talking, but you said there’s a war going on? Wait, now we’re in the war…are we going to hear about the queen? And there’s how many things going on? And which of these characters have I met before? And what am I supposed to know about the context by now?
- Which brings me to the third point, and the one I think is probably the most important part of the Game of Thrones prologue. At no point during the events of the prologue does it feel like the characters are actively using information the reader does not have. This is a big, big deal in fantasy prologues and honestly a lot of fantasy writing in general. It’s the main reason why the most common main character in epic fantasy is some form of naïve “everyman” character who is being introduced to a new world for the first time. The Farmboy learning he’s the Chosen One. The modern realm-traveler stuck in a fantasy world. The guild apprentice on their first solo mission. The mundane child admitted to a school of magic. The examples are endless, and primarily it’s because one of the greatest challenges in fantasy writing is getting the right balance between telling the reader what an experienced character knows and not spending pages info-dumping the appropriate backstory. The Game of Thrones prologue is a masterclass in doing exactly this. We have three characters. One is fairly new to a particular organization and somewhat uncertain. Another has some experience and is a bit cocky. The third is a long-time veteran who is always looking for clues as to what is coming next. We never learn the specifics of that organization in the prologue, just that it is called “the Night’s Watch” and that these members are out looking for information. Their job is not to investigate dead bodies, but the veteran thinks they might learn something related to their actual goal by examining the bodies. The characters know plenty of other bits of information about the world, but they aren’t currently thinking about any of those pieces of information, so we don’t get told them. Every action the characters take is a logical reaction to the information we have already been given up to that point. In Rage of Dragons, however, our POV characters mention summoning dragons, being hunted by something called “the Cull”, and a dozen other very specific references that the characters obviously know much more about than the reader does. As a result, those references feel more like coy, author-hidden hints at things that will be cool later. We the reader are immediately distanced from the characters because the characters are hiding information from us when they shouldn’t know we’re there. It’s not the same as the GoT character not explaining the mission of the Night’s Watch, because none of the actions those characters take are direct results of information the reader doesn’t have.
- And finally, naming. A lot of complaints around names can come down to preference, and it’s certainly true that people from certain backgrounds will find the character names in Rage of Dragons more complicated and confusing than readers from other backgrounds. But regardless of that, the names in the Game of Thrones prologue are more varied. We don’t have Gerad and Grendo and Gavin, we have Gerad and Ser Waymar Royce and Will. It’s easier to keep track of people when the names aren’t similar. As well, beyond character names, very little is actually named in the prologue. We have the three characters, the organization they are a part of, and the general term “the Others” for the creatures which attack the characters. Anyone familiar with the series knows that “the Others” is not the name for the creatures which attack. It is, however, a simple phrase which readers can quickly identify as referring to something scary that the POV character doesn’t understand. When we are later given an actual name for those creatures, we have enough context from the descriptions and other discussions to know that the name refers to “the Others” from the prologue. None of the other names those characters know have any meaning in this context, and so they don’t come up. In Rage of Dragons we get names for everything from the mysterious inquisition-style enemy that’s hunting the queen’s people to the name of the queen’s old nanny from when she was a toddler. Some of those we know to ignore, but the very inclusion of those meaningless names speaks of an improper scope for the prologue. Especially when you turn the page to chapter one and realize that hundreds of years have passed and the events of the prologue are ancient history to the protagonist. Why did I get the prologue-queen’s nanny’s name, again?
I’m comparing Rage of Dragons to Game of Thrones partially because they’re the books my husband picked up, but mostly because they’re both good books. They have a lot of positives and, like all books, they both have some negatives. The interesting element of this comparison, though, is how the craft differed between the opening of each novel. And, to be fair, George R.R. Martin was a well-established author when he released A Game of Thrones while Evan Winter was releasing Rage of Dragons as his debut novel. That might be the entire difference between the books, since they both have obvious potential. However, the next time someone says they don’t like prologues, it’s worth discussing what they dislike about the prologue. If they dislike prologues like the one from Rage of Dragons, I understand. There are a lot of debatable craft choices in that prologue. And I do mean “debatable,” not “obviously bad but I’m trying to be nice.” Preferences vary and some people love that prologue. But in a lot of ways it’s a harder prologue to love than one that focuses on a more directed scope with a more straightforward approach and gives the reader the same information as the characters.