NVDT #68 – Bonanza, Polti and Tolkien


Prompt – Every story starts with a stranger in town or a journey. “Pa, we’re takin’ the wagon to Virginia City.” Every story ends with “Golly gee, Wally. I thought we were goners.” True or False?

Yes, and yes/no. Regardless of whether you write milieu, idea, character or event, even deep stream of consciousness or “slice of life” stories in any of Polti’s 36 plot forms, they all have an inciting incident. A person or an event wakes up, encounters someone or something else. Spending a moment in time with a character or an event is to cover (for lack of a proper pronoun) “its” journey.

The “Golly gee, Wally I thought we were goners” only applies as denouement. If the conflict is resolved without dusting up, then that line might read –

Alix dropped the pistol on Yannick’s body when she stepped over it and through the splintered door into the late summer night. (The Hollywood out of budget The End scene)

The Golly Gee version might go like this –

Alix dropped the pistol on Yannick’s body when she stepped over it and through the splintered door into the late summer night. She would take the next train to Paris, find the beautiful American woman and tell her the good news. Tell her how a passionate, blue-eyed French girl with impossible hair had begun to feel about her, see what she thought about that.

 The difference can be a denouement of several lines, or a chapter, a wedding invitation, or the hero listening to his new stereo after the insurance rebuilt his house. Resolution equals BAM. Golly gee equals BAM plus denouement.

Either way, the end of narrative “generally” involves a resolution, even if the “journey” (quest, procedural, civilization) is a failure.

Unless you’re writing a series, “cliffhangers” or unresolved narratives should be avoided. Standalone they are pretty much writerly suicide as they are frustrating as hell to readers. However, if you are a screenwriter who writes novels or films, you are allowed more unresolved sub plot holes than Swiss cheese as long as the main protagonist(s) commits some resolving action. Forget what happened to the white Cadillac, the Mafia boss’s son, the hooker, the Faro dealer and all the forensic evidence, security cameras and cell phone tower pings. Bang Bang. The cheating husband is dead. Wife and mistress are happy. Roll credits.

I keep saying this to everyone who thinks anyone has reinvented the literary wheel – check this link out. From Plotto to Plot Genie. (there was a you too can become a Dan Alatorre clone comment here, but it was sarcastic and inflammatory, so I deleted it)

Understanding that Bonanza is Star Trek. Beowulf is Dune is Lord of the Rings means the  best any of us can do with the stranger or the journey is to write engaging, well-edited and logical content regardless of chosen genre.

As always, there’s more – There are some interesting tips on Writer’s Digest (A book my father bought annually until his death) and this is one I want to share for first page/chapter construction, as explained (in edited form) by Orson Scott Card.

Tolkien does not begin with a prologue recounting all the history of Middle-earth … He begins, instead, by establishing Frodo’s domestic situation and then thrusting world events on him, explaining no more of the world than Frodo needs to know right at the beginning. We learn of the rest of the foregoing events bit by bit, only as the information is revealed to Frodo.

In other words, the viewpoint character, not the narrator, is our guide into the world situation. We start with the small part of the world that he knows and understands and see only as much of the disorder of the universe as he can. 

And here’s a bit on prologues that is longer than Elmore Leonard’s, but maybe blowing it up a little will help.

Too many writers of event stories, especially epic fantasies, don’t learn this lesson from Tolkien. Instead, they imagine that their poor reader won’t be able to understand what’s going on if they don’t begin with a prologue showing the “world situation.” Alas, these prologues always fail. Because we aren’t emotionally involved with any characters, because we don’t yet care, the prologues are meaningless. They are also usually confusing, as a half-dozen names are thrown at us all at once. I have learned as a book reviewer that it’s usually best to skip the prologue and begin with the story—as the author also should have done. I have never—not once—found that by skipping the prologue I missed some information I needed to have in order to read the story; and when I have read the prologue first, I have never—not once—found it interesting, helpful or even understandable.

In other words, writers of event stories, (I say any stories) don’t write prologues (or overly busy or populated first chapters). Homer didn’t need to summarize the whole Trojan War for us; he began the Iliad with the particular, the private wrath of Achilles. Learn from Homer—and Tolkien, and all the other writers who have handled the event story well. Begin small, and only gradually expand our vision to include the whole world. If you don’t let us know and care about the hero first, we won’t be around for the saving of the world. There’s plenty of time for us to learn the big picture.


Published by

Phil Huston


22 thoughts on “NVDT #68 – Bonanza, Polti and Tolkien”

  1. I tried to read Lord of the Rings like a dozen times and The Hobbit even more times and kept being stopped by the prologue. My eyes would glaze over and I’d go to make a cup of tea and get back to the book a year later. Then the LOTR movies came out and after the first one, I read the entire series before the second movie. I think it was because I didn’t need to build a scene of the Shire in my head, so I skimmed the info dump and got on with the story. Same with The Hobbit. Tolkien was a GREAT writer, but he was still a professor when it came to story starts.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Truth told I never read any of it. I know people who lived and breathed Rivendell like they do Hogwarts. But then I never got past page one of Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco’s a genius, but talk about dense.


    2. I have also read The Hobbit a few times, Lela. It is a favourite of mine. I far prefer it to LOTR. I didn’t even remember there is a prologue. I’ve never read it so I agree with Phil’s point on prologues.


      1. Prologues can be useful. I do a quick one at the start of every Transformation Project book. It’s the observations of JT Delaney. It’s a mystery as to who this historian is — someone who lived through the events and is looking back on the events in the current book. But I keep it short and I avoid info dumping.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. The real point of posting that was it applies to first chapters as well. Kick start the story, forget the setup litanies. I had an editor turn my one prologue into a short chapter after whacking what was already short into very short. When I say short I’m Talking under a hundred words. “We’re going to find this out about them anyway. Kill it after the wishes.” But, but… nope. “Drop me in it. If you can’t tell a story without getting in the way, this is going to get expensive.”


      3. I had an editor smack me for the same thing. Her comment was along the lines of “That’s what first chapters are for. Why do we need to know what’s coming? Why should we even read the book? Start where it starts and tell the story.” Which I took to heart. All of that prologue stuff is for us, the writers. Readers “don’t need all that

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I understand where your editor was coming from, Phil, and I have heard this same advice several times in my short writing career [I only started writing and blogging consistently in August 2016]. The view does seem to be ‘make it the first chapter’. I don’t include prologues in my books but the inclusion of one wouldn’t stop me from reading a book.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I wouldn’t not read a book because it had a prologue. I’d have missed the how to write a book disguised as a prologue on the front end of a Steinbeck.


  2. I devoured Lord of the Rings as a teenager. I still have the same copies of the books. (that I ‘borrowed’ from my brother.) I don’t even remember there being a prologue!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m unsure there was a prologue in the originals. Maybe an afterthought? The few times I started it we were in the living room with the little guy. I did help wire up and played keys at a “contemporary Christian” (holy shit those people…) studio called, of all things, Rivendell. But I don’t recall a prologue. I do remember it taking a lot of time getting Frodo (?) off the stump. I think trilogies and long serials like Tolkien and the endless Puzo godfathers, the L’amour Sacketts, and the sci-fi equivalents were the binges back when people could read before there were video binges.


    1. I never managed the books or the movies. A friend of mine said go, just for the special FX. Nah. The same could be said of the alphabet soup spy folks books, or Potter. If you can get a story that moves like Disney’s Little Mermaid where there is no world building dystopia, no explanation, just dropped into a singing mermaid and a talking crab, I’ll take that every time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh dear…Lord of the Rings (yawn), I never did read that and probably never will. It’s true though, that readers hate cliffhangers. All characters’ problems have to be resolved, or the one star reviews appear.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My intent with the prologue bit was also a tip to declutter opening scenes/chapters. I’ve read too many lately where it’s like reading an Old Testament lineage litany. Too much information about people and things not yet present or backstory/descriptive bombs. Here’s a heaping helping of who and what’s to come instead of Howdy folks, and getting there in the course of things.

      Liked by 1 person

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