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I’m researching the openings of successful novels to learn how to write the all-important first chapter of my own book. This is the first part of a two-part look at prologues, starting with A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. Rather than try to set up the novel’s complex, interwoven narrative, the prologue steps outside that narrative to focus on a simple but ominous action scene. That action creates tension that looms over the entire story. And the prologue also lays out the themes of the story through action. So let’s open up the novel and learn the art of the prologue.
Summary of prologue
A Game of Thrones doesn’t begin with any of its now-famous characters. It also doesn’t weigh things down with the Tolkien approach of explaining everything with an encyclopedic preface. Don’t get me wrong: it has some of the indulgences Tolkien was famous for. There’s a map, a signal to the reader that this is a Real Fantasy Novel™. And like Tolkien’s work, the book ends with an appendix. It’s a history of the main families of the continent.
But Martin goes in a different direction than Tolkien, and the prologue announces that loudly. It zooms in on a group of soldiers out on a patrol. They find the remains of an enemy tribe they’ve been tracking. The aristocratic commander Waymar Royce berates the two soldiers under him — Will and Gared — for their apparent ineptitude. The three of them soon come across a group of, well, intelligent zombies. These are the Others. Until now, the Others were only legends. The soldiers don’t have time to investigate how these legends have become true. They’re attacked by the Others, brutally killed and turned into new Others. End of prologue.
Next is the first proper chapter of the story. One of the soldiers of the prologue escaped and ran to a castle called Winterfell. There, he explained his encounter with the Others. The lord of Winterfell doesn’t believe him. In fact, Lord Stark is convinced the soldier — who swore an oath to defend the kingdom — is using outlandish tales to cover the desertion of his post. The sentence for such desertion is death.
That’s our introduction to the larger world of Westeros, and to one of its major families: the Starks. We soon meet characters from other families. Then we’re immersed in the title’s “game of thrones,” the lethal struggle among those families for the throne of Westeros.
Setups versus instant gratification
So, against this sprawling “game of thrones,” what’s the point of the prologue? Well, just like the book’s Lannister family, most prologues play the long game. The goal is to set up a distant conflict and a huge payoff later in the novel — or, in Martin’s case, in several novels. As many writers would say, it’s important to set these stakes up early, to explain the basics so the story makes sense.
Thing is, no one wants to be presented a beautiful novel then told by the author, “Before you read this, I first need you to read this instruction manual. Trust me, it’ll all be worth it later.” But why do we have to wait for later for it to be good? Why isn’t the story good right now?
That’s why A Game of Thrones gives us instant gratification through mystery and action: patrol encounters trouble, fight with zombies, death or escape.
After the prologue, we’re immersed in a huge number of intersecting storylines. They all unfold slowly over many chapters, and take hundreds of pages to resolve. So, in contrast, the prologue almost works as a standalone piece with its own beginning, middle and end. There are only passing references to the historical, social, military, or magical characteristics we’ll eventually learn about. That’s because prologues aren’t for exposition or world-building; that information should be presented organically throughout the story.
Instead, the prologue is subtly foreshadowing the political struggle to come: a rough but sympathetic soldier is berated by his inexperienced, aristocratic commander. It’s an underdog story, which naturally draws us to the soldier’s side. We want him to prove the truth to Commander Jerk-Face. But even after he does, we see another theme in action: in Westeros, no one lives long enough to enjoy victory.
Dramatic irony and foreshadowing
The prologue also shows us something the rest of the characters don’t know: that the Others aren’t a fairy tale or a ghost story. They’re real.
That’s something prologues can do well: they give readers knowledge the main characters wouldn’t have access to — and then leave us with that dreadful knowledge for the entire story. The technical term for that knowledge is dramatic irony. It heightens the emotional impact of the story by making readers feel anxiety and anticipation.
In A Game of Thrones, our anxiety increases every time a character dismisses the signs of real trouble. We don’t know what the Others are doing or where they are. We just know they’re out there. That anxiety about the Others stays with us for hundreds of pages. We look forward to the moment when the characters catch up to us. When it ends — whether that’s in triumph or disaster — we get immense satisfaction from telling the characters, “I told you so!”
Building the novel’s theme
One of the recurring patterns in A Game of Thrones is a character’s idealism or naivety being shattered by harsh reality. The first time that harsh lesson is learned is right in the prologue, when the clueless commander comes face to face with an Other.
But beyond that, our knowledge of the Others means, from the prologue onward, we know more than the all main characters do. None of them have any idea of what’s really going on.
That dramatic irony further establishes the book’s characters as clueless and naive. It turns the prologue from a simple scene for a new reader into a fundamental building block for the book theme’s. That’s a much deeper level of world-building. It’s not telling us Westeros is made up of seven kingdoms. It’s showing us a land of naive people who aren’t prepared for what’s on the horizon.
The opening of A Game of Thrones isn’t the only approach to prologues. In the next part, I’ll look at a novel with a radically different approach to the art of the prologue: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Follow me to be notified as soon as that essay goes live. Leave a response or Applause, and drop by my YouTube channel to see this essay as a video.