"Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, wore white on the day he was to kill a king."
So begins the prologue to Brandon Sanderson's yet to be released book, The Way of Kings. As soon as I read it, I knew I had no reason to be worried about what is coming in August. The Stormlight Archive will be as awesome as the Mistborn Trilogy, if not better.
I can't wait.
Fangirl gushing aside, getting my hands on the paperback edition of Warbreaker, Sanderson's second standalone fantasy novel, changed my plans for this blog post. The prologue is a staple of epic fantasy, setting the central themes of a series, especially the prologue to the first book.
The Stormlight Archive will deliver more exciting magic battles and intricately designed politics like those that drove the plot of the Mistborn books. The only complaint that could be made is an overuse of capitals to emphasize new terminology, but I am a C.S. Lewis lover, so they make me happy more than exasperated. Most important to note, I felt involved in Mr. Sanderson's new world from that first line.
This is the job of a good prologue.
The proper balance of world building, characterization, and action in a prologue is a hard thing to achieve. The transition from prologue to first chapter also has to be considered in depth-it can make or break a reader's willingness to continue with your story. Some choose an action packed prologue followed by a first chapter that focuses on characterization, others choose a more historical bent to their beginning.
The prologue to The Eye of the World, the first book of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, is a quick snapshot of the big conflict behind his whole story. This is not apparent upon first reading, but come back and read it again after finishing the book. The battle between Lews Therin Telamon and Ishmael is intense; huge amounts of magic are thrown around, and the system of checks and balances Jordan developed to keep suspension of disbelief is used in a way that can't be forgotten. When the first chapter starts with the mundane tasks of a small town boy, we keep reading to see how he could have anything to do with the power displayed in the prologue.
Balls to the wall action is not the only way to go. Many authors, including Papa Tolkien, achieve similar success by outlining the history of their important races. The prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring is all about hobbits, and that foreshadows the most important plot mover in the book, Frodo. David Eddings introduces his race of Alorns in the prologue to Pawn of Prophesy, though he does it in the form of a religious story as opposed to the historical style that Tolkien uses.
Eddings's prologue is successful because the first chapter in Pawn of Prophesy presents us Garion, an ignorant country boy. Whatever could he have to do with the deep religious history of the Alorns? We read onward to find out, just as we do in The Eye of the World. The first chapter is there as follow up, and the tag team punch of both is what grabs a reader with an epic conflict and believable characters to keep them reading your wonderful setting and awesome magic system.
The prologue is rather a lost art in mainstream fiction and other genre writing, but think of the importance of a good setup in sweeping historical tales and galaxy spanning science fiction. A prologue can help any story, if it is well written and followed by a first chapter that turns to the central characters.