Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Prologues and Spoilers

I dropped a comment on Cindy's very provocative Saturday post (see below) on Prologues and Epilogues, and another on Linnea's post for Monday, preceding this post.

I didn't mention that if you use a "prologue" you really should also need (because of the story structure) an "epilogue".

As a reviewer, I generally see "Prologue" and flip back to look for an "Epilogue" before deciding whether to read the prologue, and if there's an epilogue I read it first, then flip to the prologue to see if it matches correctly. If there is no epilogue, I don't read the prologue. Or if the epilogue is not a natural follow on from the prologue, I don't read the prologue.

When I come to a point in the story that needs the information in the prologue, I might consult the prologue -- or I might just set the book aside unfinished if it's too flawed to review.

You see, what generally goes into a prologue (especially one required by an editor who doesn't know how to "fix" your manuscript in time for publication) is what is usually labeled a "spoiler."

"Spoiler" is a term that cropped up at the beginnings of the Internet when fans began discussing books, film and TV across time zones. It turned out that a number of people feel it "spoils" a story to know what is going to happen.

Classic literature that uses the prologue/epilogue structure telegraphs to the reader that this character will or won't survive, that the events of the story are actually caused by or interfered with from someone else in some other place or time, or that sets up the reader to understand the characters before the story begins instead of unfolding their quirks one at a time during a smooth flowing narrative.

The prologue/ epilogue structure was invented because most people's story-enjoyment is enriched and enhanced by knowing what is going to happen before they've read the story.

If knowing the key shocker or twist event of a story "spoils" the effect of the story, then why do audiences flock to performances of Shakespeare's plays? Why do congregations read the same portions of the Bible over and over in a yearly cycle? Why did Star Trek and Star Wars fans fill movie theaters again and again, chanting the words with the characters?

Why do people, battered and bruised from a week's work, curl up with an old movie they've seen a dozen times? Why do people buy DVDs of films they've seen in the theater? Why do people buy the book before going to see the film? Why do theaters fill for classical ballet performances? Why does TV rerun series episodes? And why do people re-read novels?

Such human behavior telegraphs that repetition enriches the experience, that knowing before hand what is going to happen doesn't spoil it but actually increases the impact and thus the enjoyment.

Well-designed prologue/epilogue bookends tell you whether the writer knows what they're doing with the specific story-form, and thus whether the story between them is worth your precious time to read.

They tell you what that story is about, and what the major change is going to be. But they don't tell you how it happens or what it feels like to undergo that change. A good prologue/ epilogue pair sets the reader up to thoroughly enjoy the story and come back to read it again and again.

Finding a writer who can handle the prologue/epilogue pairing is like finding a great restaurant. The steak was great - let's have the stew next time. You come back again and again to the source, read the book over and over, savour that prologue and epilogue in depth and yearn for sequels.

People disparage the Romance field, the SF and Fantasy fields, and inexplicably the SFR or Alien Romance field as fluff, escapist, no-account waste of time garbage.

But the truth is, enduring classics in these fields, and most especially in SFR and Alien Romance, are not only possible, but currently hitting the market. This cross-genre field is building up to become a source of important classics for future generations to study.

The hallmark of a classic is that it is re-readable and speaks to the essentials of human nature even across generations. That even when you know exactly what's going to happen, you still get "in the mood" to reread that book, and you savour it more each time.

Now you can argue that the reason for this re-read - rerun phenomenon is that people want to relive that moment when they first hit the shocker of a twist without warning. And thus warning someone before hand "spoils" that moment, vitiates the impact, and therefore they will never re-read the work.

But if that were true, why would schools teach ABOUT King Lear before taking the class to see the play? Or examine the plot of SWAN LAKE before taking the class to see the ballet?

The only instance I can think of where knowing the twist or who dies or what the shocker moment is SPOILS the enjoyment of the film or book is when the film or book consists of nothing but the twist, shocker, or surprise ending.

A mystery is not spoiled by knowing who the killer is (you're supposed to figure it out before the detective does) -- unless that's ALL the enjoyment the story can deliver.

A mystery is about the psychological duel between perpetrator and detective, and it is the duel, the search for clues, and the personality of the detective (and perp) that makes it interesting.

An "open form" mystery like COLOMBO has a "prologue" where the murder takes place, then Colombo comes and solves it, but we don't usually see the "epilogue" of the court sentencing. We're supposed to imagine the epilogue to make room for commercials.

PERRY MASON showed the murder, then the solving, then the court battle (usually, not always in that order) because Mason was a defense lawyer, not the detective per se. It is the HOW the wrong person was charged, and how that person was exonerated that is interesting.

If the "how" was not the interesting part, why would reprints of Sherlock Holmes still be available? Why would that antiquated Detective Series be made into a TV series with Jeremy Brett starring as Sherlock Holmes? Why would "Murder She Wrote" reruns be on almost as much as "I Love Lucy?"

Lucy is funny even when you already know what the gag line will be at the end. How can that be if it's been "spoiled" by the fact that you know what will happen in advance.

Knowing the answer, the twist, the shocker, does not spoil the mystery, comedy, or drama -- and it does not spoil any story -- unless the story is essentially worthless to begin with.

To expect that if you know a plot twist your enjoyment will be spoiled is to reveal that you prefer to indulge in worthless literature, just as our detractors accuse us of doing when reading SFR or AR -- or SF or Fantasy.

A classic is never damaged by foreknowledge among the readers/viewers. That's the very definition of "classic" -- and in this day and age, there's no reason to spend your time reading anything that isn't of the classic caliber. There are more classics out there than you can read in a lifetime.

Thus the title of my review column is ReReadable Books -- I review books that have that "classic" profile, and that thus can not be "spoiled" by revealing the shocker, the twist, the who dies and who survives, elements of the plot.

So you will find "spoilers" in my column. If that distresses you, you can find the list of books to be reviewed in future months on the column's website and read the books before reading the reviews. In fact, the column is designed for people to get the most out of it by pre-reading the books I "re" view.

In my column, I discuss the invisible links between and among books, TV shows, films, and even non-fiction. The individual works discussed are not nearly as important as the light that each sheds upon the other. I generally don't discuss books in depth in my column if they weren't "classic" material that can't be "spoiled" by knowing some of the content before hand.

I do discuss a few proto-classics, books that are leading an entire field or sub-genre toward producing those treasured and timeless classics. These books, while not classics themselves, are of interest to writers who want to contribute to the shaping of a new classic field. And they aren't easy to "spoil" either.

I generally single out bits of content that might tell the reader whether they want to read that book, or not. And usually there's enough lead time between when the list of books to be discussed is posted online and when the column itself goes up that you can find the books at the library rather than buying them.

For me, the real enjoyment of fiction comes from savouring compositions formed of groups and lists of works. That's because I see the universe as a single unit, an indivisible whole, and I love finding the underlying unifying characteristics of what appear to be disparate, individual things.

If you like that, come look over my column (it's free).


Join the List from that page to be informed when new to-review lists are posted.

Use the left hand nav-bar to look back at columns to 1993. Just because the books are "old" doesn't necessarily mean they're "spoiled."

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Great stuff, Jacqueline! I saved it to file.

  2. C. S. Lewis says that any book truly worth reading is worth rereading -- and in AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM he states as an unmistakable mark of a non-reader that the person never willingly rereads anything. He also mentions somewhere that admiring a book for a quality of surprisingness doesn't mean that it can be enjoyed only once; anticipating the surprise is part of the pleasure of later readings. Hmm -- are there some books so well known by reputation that it's almost impossible to read them "for the first time" in a pure sense? Even when I first read DRACULA at the age of 12, for example, I knew what Jonathan Harker was getting into long before he did.