Friday, March 19, 2010

Pest is (usually) prologue

If I ever run a competition for best prologue, I may have to specify best prologue from outside Northern Ireland. That's because Adrian McKinty's Fifty Grand has probably sewn up best-prologue honors for the foreseeable future, and Brian McGilloway's prologue to Bleed a River Deep is pretty damn good, too.

McKinty's is full of menace, deadpan wit and suspense. Here's how McGilloway's opens:
"The last time I saw Leon Bradley with a gun in his hand ... "
McGilloway wastes no time obeying Raymond Chandler's dictum, and it gets better. There's a nice twist and a violent climax, but the little story breaks off just before its dénouement, leaving matters to be resolved in the novel that follows.

Why mention these two fine examples? Because I'm usually wary of prologues, suspicious that they're lazy shortcuts for authors who don't know how to begin and so begin with the end. How do you feel about prologues? If you don't like them, why not? If you do, what makes a prologue effective? Feel free to cite some good ones.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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51 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I've never much thought about it before, but the prologue for Fifty Grand hit me like, well, a dip in a frozen lake. It's so shocking and chilling that it sticks to you.

March 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And don't forget the chilly humor:

`Listen to me, buddy, I can make you rich. I can get you money. A lot of money. Millions. Do you understand? Millions of dollars. Goddamnit! Why don't you understand, what's the matter with you? Millions of dollars? Do you speak English? Do you understand the goddamn English language?'

I do. It was my major.

March 19, 2010  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

I had a prologue in my first book. I called it Chapter 1.

March 19, 2010  
Blogger Maxine said...

Well, if a prologue was good enough for Shakespeare it should be good enough for anyone! I don't understand the connection you make between prologues and laziness. Some are good and some are not so good, just like books themselves.

March 19, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Pest is prologue? Old Willy will be turning in his grave at that one.

I'm currently reading The One From The Other by Philip Kerr. It starts with a 37 page prologue, all of it printed in italics in case the reader's too dumb to figure out it's a prologue. Under my zero tolerance policy for prologues I've skipped to Chapter 1 but I'll read the prologue when I'm done, just out of curiousity.

My preference is for a novel to read like a seamless whole, rather than a loosely jointed collection of different stories. Lehane's Mystic River has a lengthy opening which follows its protagonists as children. When it jumps to the present it feels like you're starting the book again from scratch. The two Kate Atkinson books I've read were even more disjointed, beginning with several different threads which she tried to resolve, not very convincingly, into one single thread.

The problem with these books for me was the lack of seamlessness, the stop-start nature of the story telling. Prologues almost inevitably involve that but it can happen even without prologues.

I like the pre-credit sequences in the Bond movies. They're prologues of a sort although usually self-contained and with no real bearing on what follows. I guess something like that can work in a book too.

My v-word: pighedis

March 19, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

I don't usually care for prologues that skip to the back of the story, though FIFTY GRAND is a notable exception. (Might have something to do with talent.)

To me, a successful prologue provides, in a single incident, some necessary information. Either the inciting incident of the book, or somethings valuable to know about a character, even if we don;t know who the character is at the time. It's probably better in principle to work this into the book, but sometimes the chronology makes it difficult; then a prologue may be called for.

March 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan, that's an eccentric moniker to bestow on a prologue, but you may be onto something. Prologues may get under some crime readers' skins because the Greek-derived word calls attention to itself. Call a prologue "Chapter 1" or even "November 21, 1963," and readers may be less apt to feel they are in for a literary experience.

March 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maxine, you give me too much credit to assume I was drawing any kind of a necessary connection. Yes, some are good, some are not so good, like the rest ot of the books that follow.

I suppose I feel about prologues something like how I feel about cliffhangers. A good one drives a story and constitutes its very fibre; a less-good one leaves me feeling not just that I've read a bit of mediocre prose, but that I've been used.

March 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, you pigheaded? Proof that v-words are purely random.

I don't want to get to talk too much about what prologues should do when I could be reading prologues, but we may share some of the same wariness of them. I was interested to note your mention of Bond movies. The one I've seen from beginning to end is the Daniel Craig Casino Royale, whose opening sequence I enjoyed immensely for its dark violence -- unexpected for a Bond story. I call it a prologue because it set the tone for the movie.

I like the strategy of jumping back to a prologue after having read the novel. That will generally resituate the prologue in chronological sequence and might thus let a reader judge the prologue on how well it suits what comes after. I wonder if authors ever expect readers to do this.

Another prologue I like is that to John Lawton's A Little White Death. His prose is crisp, sharp and vivid, he ends with memorable line, and he tells a story that is complete but leaves the reader wanting more. A good prologue, perhaps, requires everything a good short story does with the additional requirement that it prepare a reader for what is to come. A kicker plus a cliffhanger -- not an easy combination.

March 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, it has lots to do with talent. I realized only as the string has gone on that a good prologue is a like a good short story. There is no room for wasted words.

March 19, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I'm kind of with Declan. I dont really approve of prologues on the whole, but sometimes you just cant help yourself.

I also dont really approve of first person narration and I've done five of those.

Consistency is hobgoblin...as Raymond Chandler might have said had he been called Ralph.

March 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As he did, though he wasn't.

March 19, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, when that v-word came up my inclination was to make some self-deprecating remark but in a spirit of generosity and with the goal open I thought I'd leave the honours to you. Now that you've had your fun, all bets are off.

You've only seen one Bond movie from beginning to end? That's a very impressive achievement, Peter. I envy you.

Donald Westlake's Bad News was not one of his best but the hilarious first chapter functioned very much like a pre-credit sequence in a movie. I think Declan Burke is right. If your prologue is good enough, you can call it Chapter 1.

My f-word: fooku

March 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A skeptic would doubt that v-word, but even tell to you feck and away with it.

I never was a spy type of guy, but I'd heard the new Bonds were darker in mood, so I thought I'd take a look.

March 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I'll ry to remember to take a look at Bad News when I get home.

March 19, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

In the main I'm in accord with Declan; why not just call it Chapter 1? But I also agree with Dana that "a successful prologue provides, in a single incident, some necessary information." Peter, this was the case with Lawton's "A Little White Death." The prologue is necessary because the protagonist of ALWD is a series character and the prologue neatly contains info a reader who had not read the previous 2 novels will find useful to bring him/her au courant with the story that follows. So perhaps prologues might be more a propos for a series?

Even Chandler couldn't resist that tempting tidbit of a prologue that makes you want to keep going. This is the opening paragraph of "The Little Sister." It is separated from the 2nd paragraph by one line space.

"The pebbled glass door panel is lettered in flaked black paint: 'Philip Marlowe... Investigations.' It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization. The door is locked, but next to it is another door with the same legend which is not locked. Come on in - there is nobody in here but me and a big bluebottle. But not if you're from Manhattan, Kansas."

March 19, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Elisabeth, if that opening paragraph in The Little Sister is a prologue, it might make it into the Guinness Book of Records as the shortest prologue ever.

I love the exchange that follows shortly after that 'prologue':
The Little Sister: I don't think I'd care to employ a detective that uses liquor in any form. I don't even approve of tobacco.
Marlowe: Would it be all right if I peeled an orange?

March 19, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

solo, no it's not labeled as a prologue in the strict sense but nevertheless functions as one ("preface or introduction to a text...a preliminary discourse"). The final line and the subsequent line break make that clear. Are prologues of a prescribed length?

March 19, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Elisabeth, you're right, it is a prologue. But reading that opening chapter, I can't help feeling it wouldn't hurt any if you took out that opening paragraph. And that more than anything establishes it as a prologue.

March 19, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I know you've read some of the Bernie Gunther books but I don't know if Elisabeth has.

Philip Kerr's character seems very much like a Marlowe clone: a wisecracking tough guy with a heart of gold. Only in Kerr's case the humour often seems juvenile, the wisecracks fall flat, and he frequently gets the tone wrong (and despite all that he's quite entertaining).

Reading him increases one's appreciation of Chandler, because Chandler is funnier, knows when to be funny and, more importantly, when not to be funny, and always seems to know which type of humour will work and which won't. Chandler almost never gets the tone wrong, and that's a rare attribute among that small number of crime writers who manage to inject humour into their work.

March 19, 2010  
Blogger adrian.mckinty said...

Women yes, but no man should go to his grave without having seen Goldfinger. Next you'll be telling me you havent seen The Great Escape...

March 19, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

solo, I couldn't agree more with your assessment of humor in Chandler's and Kerr's novels. In fact, your 3rd paragraph might well have been written by me! I'm a mild fan of Bernie Gunther; met him in the "Berlin Noir" trilogy.

March 19, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Adrian, re "Women yes, but no man should go to his grave without having seen Goldfinger." Heck, I'd much rather watch "Goldfinger" (and any non-Roger Moore, non-Daniel Craig Bond film) for the umpteenth time than "An Affair to Remember," "Sleepless in Seattle," etc. etc. more than once. Real dames like real movies.

And Peter, add "The Dirty Dozen" to that list of guy movies to see if you haven't already.

March 19, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, have you seen The Sound Of Music. The 'noir' element in it makes it essential viewing for any fan of DBB.

V-WORD: crustr

March 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I also agree with Dana that "a successful prologue provides, in a single incident, some necessary information." Peter, this was the case with Lawton's "A Little White Death." The prologue is necessary because the protagonist of ALWD is a series character and the prologue neatly contains info a reader who had not read the previous 2 novels will find useful to bring him/her au courant with the story that follows. So perhaps prologues might be more a propos for a series?

Elisabeth, you're a step ahead of me on the analysis. I enjoyed the prologue because of its colorful characters and its bang-up final sentence which, it retrospect, was a nice bit of thematic foreshadowing.

Even Chandler couldn't resist that tempting tidbit of a prologue that makes you want to keep going. This is the opening paragraph of "The Little Sister." It is separated from the 2nd paragraph by one line space.

That seems more closely integrated with the main action than I'd associate with a prologue. Maybe the difference is something like that between a prelude, which leads directly into an opera's main action, and an overture, in which there is a break, the music stops, the curtain rises, and so on.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Little Sister: I don't think I'd care to employ a detective that uses liquor in any form. I don't even approve of tobacco.
Marlowe: Would it be all right if I peeled an orange?


That prelude has me eyeing the orange on my desk dangerously.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Women yes, but no man should go to his grave without having seen Goldfinger. Next you'll be telling me you havent seen The Great Escape...

If I told you that, I'd be lying. I've seen it. Not only that, I've seen "Chicken Run" as well.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip Kerr's character seems very much like a Marlowe clone: a wisecracking tough guy with a heart of gold. Only in Kerr's case the humour often seems juvenile, the wisecracks fall flat, and he frequently gets the tone wrong (and despite all that he's quite entertaining).

Solo, I thought Kerr had the wisecracking down pretty well at the beginning of the first Bernie Gunther book. I thought it worked precisely because the context was so odd.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

... you're right, it is a prologue. But reading that opening chapter, I can't help feeling it wouldn't hurt any if you took out that opening paragraph. And that more than anything establishes it as a prologue.

Solo, I've never tried to define a prologue, but in re "it wouldn't hurt any if you took out that opening paragraph," I'm guessing you mean that omitting the paragraph would create no gaps in the action. But would it make a difference to the tone of the story?

I'm drawn back to the analogy with music, in which a prelude or overture might give samples of the main musical action to follow or maybe just suggest a mood. Can a prologue work that way? Do authors intend it to do so?

Damned if I know.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And Peter, add "The Dirty Dozen" to that list of guy movies to see if you haven't already.

Seen it.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Almost any non-comic war movie is a guy movie, isn't it? Von Ryan's Express? Bridge on the River Kwai? One of my favorites: The Guns of Navarone, even though the scriptwriters added in a couple of extra characters MacLean felt no need of.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I don't have any problem with prologue if you know that's what it is in advance. Where I have a problem is when you're reading along and just settling in to the whole thing and bam! The scene ends and now you're twenty years later or whatever. It's very clever, but I never reimmerse myself in the story as fully after I feel an author has played a trick on me. A prologue is usually short enough that that doesn't happen, especially if it is signalled well. A date and location, such as "Dover, 1963" is one of the devices that usually gives you a clue that this may not be the only place you're going. But two fairly recent novels that I found did not do their job well in this regard despite considerable writerly virtues otherwise were Ian McEwan's Atonement and Zoe Heller's The Believers. I was very taken with the beginnings of both those novels and then proportionately disenchanted when I found we were going to leap ahead in time and never return to the original setting again. And that despite the fact the second half of both novels was strong enough that I probably would have liked it if I hadn't felt so jarred by the conceptual framework of the thing.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger adrian.mckinty said...

Linkmeister,

I hear Alastair MacLean knew quite a bit about WW2 Luftwaffe helicopters...er, no, lets not open that can of worms.

Peter

So many good set pieces in Goldfinger. The golf, the laser, the Hurt Locker stuff at the end...

And the dialogue:

"I'm Pussy Galore."

"Of course you are."

March 20, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Oh, and Solo? Yeah, keep working on this. I have a good feeling about it. Call me psychic, but I think it could maybe turn out to be a Broadway musical or something! It might even turn out to be one of my favorite things. After raindrops, and roses and, well, you know...

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, is The English Patient a war movie? A guy movie? (I haven't seen the movie, but I do remember clips from it with nice full-scale mock-ups of Piero della Francesca's frescoes of "The Legend of the True Cross" in Arezzo.)

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I wonder if prologuery is such a habit that some authors may not think about the ways in which it can put readers off, or at least get them wary.

But "jarred by the conceptual framework" -- maybe prologues in the hands of less than superbly skilled practitioners feel too writerly and self-conscious.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Well, it's possible that not everyone in the world is writing to please my sensibilities, I suppose. Not all readers are so finicky about this kind of stuff.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder where prologues fall in the grand tradition of self-conscious introductions such as overtures, direct addresses to the audience, and so on. What is the source of my unease with them?

So, you like the Broadway musical? I have the last bits of dialogue in the story. Now I just have to work my way back to a prologue

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Never saw The English Patient. I'll go you another one, though: is Johnny Got His Gun a war movie? I'd say yes, even though it's the most (and best, IMO) anti-war movie I've ever seen.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't seen the movie, but I have read large chunks of the book, filled with horror and pity almost every second. That's a war book, all right.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, here's the last scene of a little thing I've been working on called Trapped!:


His Alpine cap crumpled low over a heavy brow, its feather crushed at his feet. He'd lost a button on his lederhosen, the strap dragging behind him.

Maria grasped the corners of her dirndl around her milky white shoulders. "Georg! That sound ... it's beautiful ... it's--"

"It's music, baby. The stuff the hills are alive with."


FADE TO BLACK. END.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Sorry, solo, I thought you were the one who wrote Trapped! I don't know how I managed to respond to it before it was even posted, but such are the mysteries of Google.

One reason Adrian's prologue works is that it is actually a part of the main story, not something cut off in time and or space from the rest of the novel.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, yes, Trapped! is mine, and I conceived it as a story, not as a musical. But I could base a song on the following scene:
=========

"The new girl. She worries me."

A scraping sound, and the jug crashed to the barn floor. I liked Max, but the fever in his eyes when he hit the goat's milk hard gave me a foreboding even the clear mountain air couldn't dispel.

"Don't worry," he said, wiping his chin with the back of a ragged sleeve. "I know just how to handle a problem named Maria."

=========

Hmm, I just got an idea for a prologue to the story.

March 20, 2010  
Blogger adrian.mckinty said...

Peter

I have to say that I found Johnny Got His Gun unintentionally hilarious. Talk about beating your point to death in the clunkiest way possible. I always felt that Dalton Trumbo was a poor man's Bud Schulberg.

Ever see The Diving Bell and The Buttefly? Very similar concept and based on a true and quite gripping story but oh man I hated that film. Pretentious cat's piss was my take. The great Sean Young was quite right to heckle Julian Schnabel at the DGA awards but what happened? They dragged Sean Young off to some desert rehab centre and praised Schnabel for his genius.

March 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You don't think Trumbo was the subtlest of storytellers, do you? You think he could have got the message if he'd deprived his man of not quite so many body parts, I suppose.

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before, but Robert Hughes, an Australian critic of great breadth and wit who has never, to my knowledge, been wrong about helicopters, called "Basquiat" a film by our worst living artist about our worst dead one.

March 21, 2010  
Blogger adrian.mckinty said...

Peter

Ha! I hadn't heard that before. True.

For one reason and another I've ended up seeing all of Schnabel's films. Grim stuff.

March 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There's no middle ground with you, is there? Everything is Ellroy/Ballard or else Schnabel/Cameron.

March 21, 2010  
Blogger adrian.mckinty said...

Peter

In art, like life, there's the ninety nine percent thats incompetent, corrupt, lazy, vulgar and idiotic and then there's that soul redeeming one percent that has disdain for everything except the integrity of its own vision.

I dont think this age is anymore degenerate than any other age, although I'd happily trade every novel written since WW2 for that last lost novel of Bruno Schulz.

March 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Harvey Pekar comes to mind. Also Job.

March 21, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

“…is The English Patient a war movie?” The film version of TEP is a form of slow torture, just like its source. Re it and other titles mentioned I suppose one could say that they are novels about X “with a wartime setting.” As “Gone with the Wind” is not a war novel or war movie but has a wartime setting.

Adrian, thanks for saying what I didn’t dare say myself: “I have to say that I found Johnny Got His Gun unintentionally hilarious. Talk about beating your point to death in the clunkiest way possible.” It's not the number of body parts but the incessant hammering home of a message the audience "got" very early on. As though the screen had little arrows pointing at it with the word "message" inscribed on each one.

But on the topic of “best” (what an awkward adjective for the subject matter) war movies… Two of my votes go to adaptations of Erich Maria Remarque novels: “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) and “Three Comrades” (1938). The former for war’s effect on people during the fighting of it and the latter for the effect of war on those who came home. “Three Comrades” was also F. Scott Fitzgerald’s only screenplay credit.

Perhaps I feel committed to the notion that the first paragraph of “The Little Sister” is a prologue because Manhattan, Kansas, is where the novel ends.

Re prologues and music… There is a term (which escapes me) for the introduction to a show tune before the main song begins. These were common in songs in Broadway musicals and motion picture musicals of the “Showboat” (1927) and post-Showboat era through the 1940s. They function a bit like prologues yet are routinely left out in contemporary revivals/performances of the shows’/films’ songs.

March 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's not the number of body parts but the incessant hammering home of a message the audience "got" very early on. As though the screen had little arrows pointing at it with the word "message" inscribed on each one.

I admit flippnig through the book looking for its version of dirty parts -- the graphic descriptions of injuries.

Perhaps I feel committed to the notion that the first paragraph of “The Little Sister” is a prologue because Manhattan, Kansas, is where the novel ends.

Linda Richards’ novel Death Was the Other Woman contains what I regard as a tribute to The Little Sister in the form of a little brother .

Re prologues and music… There is a term (which escapes me) for the introduction to a show tune before the main song begins.

Oddly enough, I've forgotten that term, too. Cole Porter wrote some good ones, such as the one Ella Fitzgerald includes on one of her recordings of "Love for Sale." There's a also a whimsically self-referential one on her recording of "You're the Top."

March 22, 2010  

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