The Pre-Book Milieu [OR Prologue Syndrome]


August 7, 2012 by jcfarnham

The topics of prologues have been done to death, so in my quest to provide you with hopefully something new to think about let’s talk about the pre-book milieu. (Plus I couldn’t really leave my post on epilogue “unbook-ended”)

It was Orson Scott Card who drew my attention to the word Milieu as used to describe an integral part of creating a work of fiction. The “Cardian Milieu” doesn’t simply include setting, but everything (minus the plot) that makes your story, yours. Setting, characters, cultures, what people eat at three in the morning when the moon in the highest heavens…

When it comes to pre-book milieu, the stuff-that-was before the plot kicks in, Card touches upon it once or twice in his books on the craft, but I’d like to emphasise the point. Your setting, your created cultures, your magical swords, your whatsits and dodads, even the kitchen sink. They don’t exist merely to serve the plot. Well, they shouldn’t any way. They came from somewhere and we readers need to get a sense of this in your narrative, a sense of “between-the-lines-ness”.

Once you realise that your book is merely a snapshot in time, a particularly interesting snap shot for your characters with a bit of luck, the task of crafting a proper prologue becomes infinitely easier (assuming you’ve decided you need one. They aren’t always, or even usually that necessary, but I digress…)

Think of it like this: The thing that changes your characters happens within the plot. Shouldn’t something happen to your milieu to support those ripples your characters are feeling? To me a good prologue takes the pre-book mileu and throws it off balance. The Game of Thrones prologue does this. Something is wrong in the north. Winter is coming. Etc.

The good prologue is a sense of “this is how it is, but something is off, but enough about that here’s your regular programming”. A good prologue DOESN’T relay the entire world history you’ve been building for twelve years plus. That needs to come through in the book.

If you’ve read my post of epilogues (if not, why not!) you’ll probably know that I personally feel that this pre-book mileu, this between-the-lines stuff, should always be said within the book. This doesn’t mean I hate -logues of all kinds. I’ll draw your attention back to the Game of Thrones prologue or the one Brandon Sanderson gives us at the beginning of the Mistborn saga. Those worked for me.

If you think you need a prologue, I suggest you read those books and figure out why they work in context. Can you pick out anything useful to think about in your writing?

The bottom line[s]: In my opinion, everything is better left said in the main narrative between the lines. From there we get a sense of the wider world, but it doesn’t have to derail an otherwise good plot.

If your story has no hint of being a snap shot in time then you’re missing something important. Your characters, your premise and your conflict have all come from somewhere, and will [usually] go some where after the book has finished. Nothing should spring into existence for the plot then disappear never to be spoke of again.

Prologues… well they need to follow the pre-book milieu idea. If you ever find yourself in doubt, do what George Martin did with his. Don’t fall into the trap of info dumping your setting’s rich history, the lineage of your characters, or kings, or the story whatever other dead person you “think” is important (they’re probably not, by the way). And conversely, don’t fall into the trap of making it too tangential. Just don’t forget to work in the pay off before too many books go passed and I think we’ll do just fine.


One thought on “The Pre-Book Milieu [OR Prologue Syndrome]

  1. I couldn't agree more with your statement: "A good prologue DOESN'T relay the entire world history you've been building for twelve years plus. That needs to come through in the book."

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