The Wheel Keeps on Spinning: Robert Jordan, Prologues and World-Building

I had forgotten that Wheel of Time was being made into a TV Series by Amazon. I assume it’s going to be lame and full of “epic” tropes, so I probably won’t watch it. If it’s as good as Witcher, I will count that success.

Long before I was disappointed in George R.R. Martin, I was disappointed in Robert Jordan. The Wheel of Time series could have been great, or at least satisfying, but the author became megalomaniacal in prioritizing world-building over plot. I commented so a few years ago when I discovered this was going to be a thing:

Robert Jordan was the American Tolkein before George R.R. Martin was so dubbed, and the Wheel of Time series starts with a bang. It’s a fully realized world with a sprawling backstory, and the idea that magic has two components: one male, one female, but the male half has been poisoned and unusable for millenia, is a neat hook to hang an apocalyptic battle on. The first book was great.

The second book was good.

The third book was… I don’t remember. Let’s say goodish?

The fourth book I remember better than the third book. It was kind of interesting.

I don’t remember the fifth book at all.

I don’t remember the sixth book at all.

I gave up partway through the seventh book.

There are fourteen books in the series.

The Wheel of Time Comes to Amazon,” Content Blues

This is a balance argument, not a deontological condemnation of world-building. You need world-building, but not at the expense of story. You need character arcs, but not at the expense of the plot moving at speed sufficient to keep readers engaged. If your audience starts saying to itself “is this ever going to go anywhere”, you done goofed.

I mention this because of a Tweet I spotted:

I said to the person who brought it into my timeline that I blamed Robert Jordan for it. Which, on reflection, is a little unfair, because what kept me reading Wheel of Time as long as I did was that prologue to the first book. It took place literally thousands of years before the main events of the story, but it set the stage of the world so wonderfully that you couldn’t help but be drawn in. All in all, it’s probably the best individual chapter in the series.

Which is a problem of its own, obviously, but as a world-building device, prologues can be good. Not necessary: Tolkein never used them (anyone who wants to chime in that The Hobbit is a prologue to Lord of the Rings: You’re a Nerd). But if they’re done right, they can provide action and a sense of stakes that will sustain the reader through the first-act stuff of your main plot. Of course, you need to give this prologue a real and tangible connection to the main plot. Wheel of Time does that, as the series protagonist is the reincarnation of the character we meet in the prologue. Raymond Feist’s SerpentWar Saga, on the other hand, doesn’t. That was another great prologue that has nothing to do with the main plot of the story until the third book, and then barely moves the needle on the story (it’s a shame, because those were great titles: Shadow of a Dark Queen, Shards of a Broken Crown. No one has ever disappointed me as much as Feist). But a good prologue is a benefit to the story.

Jordan’s problem with prologues was he kept doing it every book, throwing in stuff dubiously connected to the story. You’re not hooking readers at this point, you’re adding unnecessary scenes. You’ve got your plot going now, work it. I said I gave up on Wheel of Time in the seventh book (Path of Daggers? something like that), but really I gave up during the 100-page prologue (was it really that long? it felt that way), after my then-girlfriend told me that the entire plot of the book could be summed up in “Faile gets kidnapped.” As with everything else, Jordan overused prologues.

Hence, prologues are probably out of fashion right now. Abuse of devices brings distaste; distaste brings disuse. And so the wheels spins.