Note: The purpose of the craft notes is to pull back the curtain and show what I am trying to accomplish as an author, and why I make the choices I do. There are spoilers here, so you probably want to have read the chapter before reading the craft notes.
The Problem with Prologs
Literary agents and publishers don’t like prologs. Attend a writers conference and ask some of the agents or publishers there about prologs, and they’ll tell you, “Get rid of it. Novels are almost always better without them. People don’t read prologs anyway.” This last complaint might be true for some genres, I don’t really know. But I’m pretty sure it’s not true for science fiction. In SF, the prolog is an expected element. This is just as true today as it was in the past. SF readers are not going to skip the prolog.
Having said that, it’s important to know what the prolog is for and what it is not for. Use the prolog to set a larger context in which the story belongs. Do NOT use it for backstory or info dumps. They are boring. You don’t want to bore your reader in the first few pages. The persistent use of prologs for backstory and info dumps probably explains why agents and publishers don’t like them.
How I Used the Prolog
The prolog to The Eye of Crasis accomplishes several things. First, it identifies the genre of the book. As an author, I have a responsibility to tell the reader what kind of book he is getting into, and as early as possible. The first sentence here is:
Finl woke to the familiar sounds of the star ship.
Nobody is going to confuse this with a police procedural or a cozy mystery or a romance novel. It is science fiction. Possibly space opera. If you don’t like science fiction, you should put this book back on the shelf and look for something else.
The prolog also identifies two characters who will play an important part later on in the story. By introducing them here, I have avoided the need to explain who they are when I bring them back on stage at the beginning of Act 2, where we find (assuming I don’t change it by the time I get there):
Absol of Krael sat cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the brightly lit room. He was intimately familiar with his prison, having lived within its confines for forty-two Greevarian days.
The reader will think, “Oh yeah. I wondered what happened to them.” It would be painful (for the reader) to have to slow down at this point in the story to explain who Absol is and how he got there.
Finally, the prolog and the epilog will function as bookends to set the story in a larger context. The prolog notifies the reader that this is a first contact story and that there is an interstellar war going on out there. The epilog will notify the reader that Earth is about to get caught up in that war. Hmm … is there a sequel in the works?
Writing Techniques I Used
First, I dropped the reader into an action scene in media res (in the middle of things) to hook the reader; that is, to grab the reader by the collar and yank him into the story.
Second, I used dialog and description to introduce the characters and to differentiate them from each other so that they each became their own person.
Third, I used point of view (Finl’s in the first scene, Absol’s in the second) to draw the reader into the character’s heads, to let the reader experience the scenes from that character’s point of view. This reduces the distance between the reader and the characters.
Fourth, I let their (very human) concerns and frailties show. This generates empathy for them in the reader’s mind.
Fifth, I put them in danger early in the first scene, and then ratcheted up the danger through the rest of the first scene and into the second scene. Notice that this would not have been effective unless I had first created sympathy for them in the reader’s mind. There’s no point in putting a character in danger if the reader doesn’t care about him.
Sixth, I ended the prolog with a cliff hanger. If I have made them sympathetic characters and created empathy for them in the reader’s mind, the reader will want to know what happens to them. Unfortunately, the reader will have to wait for ten or so chapters to find out. Ain’t that just wicked?
How did I come up with the aliens? I don’t know. They just popped into my head pretty much fully formed. Then I started writing and let them fill themselves out for me. I especially liked the three eyes on eye stalks, because it let me put a little bit of humor into the scene.
I did make one technical decision beforehand. I decided to make them humanoid. I did that because I didn’t want them to be so different from us that the reader could not relate to them at all.
Some authors put a lot of time into world-building up front. I don’t. I just start writing and let the universe reveal itself to me. In general, I am more a pantser than a plotter. The prolog provides a minimal sketch of the universe in which the story takes place. For example:
Planets were common; planets capable of supporting life were not, and planets supporting intelligent life were exceedingly rare.
It was only a frigate, but it had more than enough fire power to destroy the Zbing Nautry, which was neither armed nor armored. They were explorers, not warriors.
Absol had been on alien planets before, so he didn’t expect it to look anything like Krael. It didn’t. Nor did it look like any other of the several worlds he had visited.
Later, I will fill in a little more detail, but not all that much. The story takes place almost entirely on Earth, so I don’t need much world-building.
Science and Technology
Other than trying not to blatantly violate known science, I don’t worry much about explaining the science behind things; I’m not writing hard SF. For example,
… the Zbing Nautry had transitioned back into normal space.
That’s all I’m going to say about faster-than-light travel. Avid readers of SF (or fans of Star Trek, for that matter) will recognize that there is some kind of inter- or trans-dimensional technology going on behind the scenes, and that I’m not ignoring Einstein. Casual readers won’t care anyway. They just want to get on with the story.