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On Framing a Story

Hotdish: On Writing and Everything Else
This essay accompanies Chapter 00: Preface.
A. Sherman Karlsson

Writing a story is a tricky thing, stringing events together into a sequence that becomes a narrative. There’s a magic to the process, the transformation of words and events into a conglomerate that conveys meaning beyond the ingredients.

Writing a novel is like trying to carve puzzle pieces, painting each in detail, while simultaneously figuring out what the whole picture should look like in the end. That image of the whole is a narrative, a way of understanding events and picking out what’s important with some logic as to why. It’s common in fantasy novel prologuesto use the space to add in events that the main perspective wouldn’t have access to know, background information that helps to contextualize other happenings across the rest of the story. In contrast, a shorter prelude like this one is more about signposting what readers should pay attention to moving through this book and beyond.

There are different tools for making something meaningful, of creating that certain academic-scented narrative coherence (PDF). At the most basic level, we can understand the world using the lens of time, one event happening after another chronologically. We also have biographical expectations, a sequence of milestones specific to a cultural context that we use to understand where we are in our lives. More abstractly, we can also pull out themes, interpreting a string of events to tell a story that can mean hardship or triumph. And lastly, we can look at what seems to motivate and explain future events, wrestling with the questions of whether correlation does indeed mean causation.

When writing, using these tools means thinking about what kind of story you’re trying to tell, what you want readers to see, and also what you want to hide. The strategic flash behind the opening curtains is a means to building curiosity, hopefully motivating a reader to step forward along the path that has been opened to them. It means making promises that readers will use as their own tool for interpretation, the points of expectation that let them know where they are on the path of the story. As a writer, I can surprise the audience by later revealing that the map was meant to be read sideways, but I cannot break that promise outright. A prologue is a sign, a compass, a north star, and the first poke of a needle pulling the thread of story through a novel, all in one.

In short, no pressure here.

Here are some links that have been on my mind:

Let’s Discuss

Please join us for conversation in the comments. How do you feel about prologues? Do you have a preference for the kind of prologue? Has a prologue ever reshaped your interpretation of the events of the story?