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Created to Compel: The Use of Prologue in "Water for Elephants"
Janet Burroway's classic "Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft"

There are as many cons as pros to the use of prologue, and telling a story's end at its beginning often works best in clever detective shows. Yet, Water for Elephants author Sara Gruen deftly manages both. How? Gruen uses prologue:

  • As a framing device
  • To raise key questions in the reader's mind
  • To ground the story through the use of detail

Gruen uses prologue to set up the story and as a framing device for the end, where it acts as a window, rather than a funhouse mirror, to reflect what really happened to the story's main characters.

 The author also uses the prologue to raise key questions in the reader's mind that require reading the story through to understand. (You could skip to the end, but you'd miss Gruen's technique of grounding the tale in the biblical account of Jacob in the Old Testament, and her wonderful storytelling.)

Gruen also uses details as advocated by Janet Burroway in the classic Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft. Choose detail well, Burroway recommends, and the result is a memorable sum of parts that yields a greater whole. The key is to start well-which Gruen does with this not-to-be-skipped prologue-and continue consistently to the end. The primary principles of detail that compels, Burroway notes, are two: "the writer must deal in sense detail" and "these must be details that matter."

Starting with the prologue, Gruen selects sensory details-the lingering smell of grease in paragraph one and the music, "Stars and Stripes Forever," aka, the Disaster March. These are details that matter because they set the stage for the life of narrator Jacob Jankowski.

Through the use of period-appropriate sensory details that matter, Gruen both reveals character and advances plot, crafting a story with a compelling narrative pull.